July 17, 2000
Volume XXXIII, No. 28



Therapeutic Touch—An Alternative Nursing Intervention 


Touch—simple human contact—is universally recognized as comforting and soothing. A mother nuzzles her baby to sleep, and friends hold each other to express happiness and sorrow. Massage has many acknowledged benefits as well. Many Americans are also familiar with the religious concept of "laying on of hands." 

In contrast, therapeutic touch (TT) does not involve actual touching. It is an ancient therapy that has been used for centuries throughout the non-Western world to aid in healing. Since the 1970s, as with many other alternative therapies, it has become more accepted in the United States. 

Dr. Donna Taliaferro, assistant professor in the Department of Acute Nursing Care, is a practitioner and teacher of TT. "Therapeutic touch is based on the principle of a universal source of energy that can be called upon to help or heal," she explains. Every living thing is made of energy. When a person is sick or in pain, the energy flow is blocked or interrupted. It's the practitioner's task to restore the normal flow. Like other energy modalities used in alternative therapies, TT is based on a principle that the body, mind and spirit are integrally related. 

Dr. Taliaferro uses the example of so-called phantom pain after an amputation, when the patient feels pain in the limb that is now physically gone. "Phantom pain after an amputation is real. Even though the body part is gone, a sense of its presence and energy remains, and we need to restore the perception of wholeness to the body," she said. A practitioner will concentrate on directing positive energy through the patient to the site that needs healing. "Being centered on the patient is critical. You must remain focused and be attuned to the person's cues during the session," she said. 

Dr. Taliaferro and patient.

Over the course of several sessions, which can last anywhere from about five to 30 minutes each, a practitioner will assess and identify patient needs. Then, the therapist will use techniques to enhance the patient's well-being. 

Studies show that TT helps ease pain and anxiety and promotes a sense of well-being. A 1998 study by Gordon, et al, published in the Journal of Family Practice, measured the effects of TT on patients with osteoarthritis of the knee. In-depth interviews of the patients in the group treated with TT and patients in the control group showed that those in the TT group indicated a significantly reduced perception of pain and improved function. 

Similarly, researchers at the University of Alabama found reductions in pain and anxiety in patients hospitalized with severe burns. Patients experienced greater pain relief following TT, as an adjunct to narcotic analgesia, than patients who did not receive TT, as measured by the McGill Pain Questionnaire. The TT group also showed greater reductions in anxiety as measured by the Visual Analogue Scale for Anxiety. The study was published in 1998 in the Journal of Advanced Nursing

Most recently, a group of investigators evaluated the effects of TT on biochemical and mood indicators in women. Results indicated that mood disturbances were significantly reduced in the group receiving TT as compared with the group that received no treatment. The researchers documented reductions in tension, confusion and anxiety. The biochemical data showed that women treated with TT had markedly decreased nitric oxide levels. This finding might have application in alleviating the distress of cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine published the findings in 1999. 

Dr. Taliaferro has used TT with success in AIDS patients and with premature infants in neonatal intensive care units. 

TT is taught in 80 nursing schools in the United States and abroad. Dr. Taliaferro became interested in TT through a friend and colleague who practiced it. She admits to being skeptical at first. Coming from a highly scientific, critical care background, she had trouble adapting to something so abstract. However, after several months of practicing TT she noticed profound relaxation in her patients. 

"Even if you just get them to relax or sleep, you're allowing the body's own healing process to work," she said. TT works for the majority of the people who use it, although Dr. Taliaferro estimates that 30 percent will feel no benefits. 

"Anyone can learn TT," Dr. Taliaferro says. "You need to have a sense of well-being, compassion, and a desire to help or heal."