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Hands and healing have long been linked. The laying on of hands is practiced in a range of religious and spiritual traditions; massage is a common gateway to pain relief; and in contemporary medicine, a surgeon’s hands are her foundational instruments.

In the energy-healing practice called Healing Touch, the practitioner’s hands simply hover over the body of the patient. Yet the reduction in both pain and stress can be startlingly powerful. What’s going on here?

Helping Hands

Many people first encounter Healing Touch in a hospital. Thanks to its solid reputation for providing pain relief without drugs, this energy-healing modality is typically used to complement medical interventions ­involving stress or pain, such as cancer treatment, surgery recovery, or acute injury. It’s often administered by trained nurses or certified volunteers.

Despite the name, Healing Touch is nothing like massage. During a session, you typically recline or lie down, and the practitioner quietly moves their hands a few inches above your body. They may or may not touch a few specific points. A session lasts anywhere from five minutes to a full hour, and patients often fall asleep.

Because Healing Touch treatments work with energy rather than with tissues, it can be hard to grasp how or why they help. But patients consistently report measurable reductions in stress and pain — often after trying and failing to treat those conditions by other means, including pharmaceuticals. This has led researchers to wonder whether these treatments intervene at a level that drugs cannot.

The Biofield

Healing Touch was developed in the 1980s by a Colorado nurse named Janet Mentgen. She worked in emergency rooms and home healthcare, and she saw how effective touch and energy work could be in relieving her patients’ pain. She began teaching her method to other nurses, and in 1996 she founded Healing Beyond Borders, a nonprofit that offers certification to nurses, healthcare providers, and caregivers.

Today, Healing Touch is offered at many major medical centers, including the Mayo Clinic, and in the Veterans Health Administration hospital system. One 2020 study reported that a group of combat veterans receiving Healing Touch for PTSD experienced “clinically significant” reductions in their symptom severity, and other studies have shown measurable pain and stress reduction for cancer patients.

Researchers also found that Therapeutic Touch (a practice similar to Healing Touch) helped regulate the vital signs of infants in a neonatal intensive-care unit (NICU).

“These therapies are based on the idea that the body has a biofield system, not unlike the circulatory, nervous, and lymphatic systems,” explains Mimi Guarneri, MD, a San Diego–based integrative cardiologist and president of the Academy of ­Integrative Health and Medicine. In this view, Healing Touch produces results by restoring good circulation in the body’s energy field.

That the body is surrounded by an energy field, or biofield, is less esoteric than it sounds. The no-contact thermometers we used during the COVID-19 pandemic measured body temperature at a distance of several inches; EEGs and EKGs measure the body’s electrical signals using electrodes.

The hands also emit energy, and healing practitioners are trained to direct energy through their hands. One 2008 study found that bone cells in a petri dish that received treatments from trained practitioners grew faster and stronger than cells receiving sham treatments or none at all.

Many scientists continue to insist that the positive outcomes of Healing Touch are the result of the placebo effect.

And yet this noninvasive complementary approach has provided relief to many, including those who might be unable to question its powers, such as infants in the NICU. There’s little question that receiving positive nurturing attention has a healing power of its own.

So if you’re inclined to receive a helping hand from Healing Touch, there seems little reason to refuse.

 Natural Healing

Energy medicine has a long history across many cultures. Today, we also have research to confirm the value of these subtle modalities for health and well-being. Explore other articles in our Natural Healing department to learn how you can embrace these modalities in your own life.

Courtney Helgoe

Courtney Helgoe is the Experience Life features editor.

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