Waving your hands around is not analgesic! Who’d have thought…

Really, who’d have thought it was worth testing.

I have a lot of respect for several of the authors of this trial, but I can’t for the life of me understand why they did this study. Celeste Johnston, Marsha Campbell-Yeo, Francoise Filion and I have been co-authors on a couple of studies together, and they have all done good things improving pain control in the NICU.

But this study should never have been done, and should never have received a penny of grant money. They were testing the idea that ‘therapeutic touch’  (which they start to describe as follows:

Therapeutic Touch does not involve direct tactile stimulation, but is based on a trained therapist working with energy fields)

might be analgesic in preterm babies. At that point, they should have been laughed out of town, and the grant application thrown in the waste basket. In order to be ethically valid there has to be a valid scientific rationale for doing a study. There has to be some prior plausibility to the intervention. Manipulating non-existent ‘energy fields’ is not plausibly effective at anything, no matter what kind of training the therapist has!

The intervention is described in more detail as follows:

For the Therapeutic Touch intervention, the therapist used her hands to assess and rebalance the energy field of the patient using the following steps: (1) centering her state of awareness; (2) assessing the energy field of the patient; and (3) modulating the energy field. The average time for this was 5 minutes. Both therapists were nurses and had several years of experience in Therapeutic Touch.

How on earth could the authors write that paragraph without laughing themselves silly, like I did when I read it!

Why on earth would a good journal publish such drivel? How on earth could you convince an ethics committee to allow this nonsense, and why would anyone give grant money to a team who proposed wasting it on this inanity?

The only reason I can think of for doing this, (as I said I know several of the authors, and I know they have the best interests of their patients, and of promoting good research and good patient care at heart: I hope they will still consider me a friend and colleague after my critical remarks) is that some misguided individuals are already doing such stuff, and they wanted to prove that it was ineffective, and that you should use real pain control when doing painful things to babies.

My response to that would be that anyone who is prepared to modulate a babies energy field is unlikely to be convinced with an actual scientific study. They should just be told to stop it, or go work in another environment, perhaps in a homeopathic Emergency Room.

(BTW not surprisingly, modulating the energy field, even after centering the state of awareness, didn’t do squat).

About Keith Barrington

I am a neonatologist and clinical researcher at Sainte Justine University Health Center in Montréal
This entry was posted in Neonatal Research and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Waving your hands around is not analgesic! Who’d have thought…

  1. Petra says:

    Hmm, this seems rather rude if I may say so. Would you be quite so condescending had the study been looking at prayer and its effects on pain?
    I find your attitude narrow-minded. Have you heard of quantum physics,quantum field theory, dark matter, dark energy, and the like? Would you not concede that there are vast amounts of information about our universe, including energy fields and quantum interactions, that we have yet to understand?
    Granted, they may not be best understood through neonatology, and perhaps therapeutic touch has not solved these answers yet either. But I would refrain from the attitude that you KNOW things that are actually unknown – how do you prove that energy-fields are non-existent, sir?
    I would be surprised if these colleagues of yours do, in fact, still consider you a friend after such degrading and insulting remarks.

    • Yes, I would have been just as rude if the study had been about prayer and its effects on pain! Don’t start wittering on about quantum effects, I can be absolutely sure that you haven’t the slightest idea what you are talking about, just like Deepak Chopra, who uses the word frequently, but doesn’t understand what it means. There are experimental ways to prove that therapeutic touch practitioners cannot detect ‘energy fields’ (Rosa L, Rosa E, Sarner L, Barrett S: A close look at therapeutic touch. Jama 1998, 279(13):1005-1010.)

      • Petra says:

        “Wittering on” and “you haven’t the slightest idea.” Incredible. Unprofessional, paternalistic, presumptuous.
        What valid points you may have to make get lost in your arrogance.

    • thurgood says:

      Energy-fields are very existent, and they are indeed used for many things – including medicine.


      But that’s not what you’re talking about. You’re talking about “magic”, but you label it something else to avoid ridicule. Obviously, it didn’t work.

  2. N. Ambalavanan MD says:

    I would have to agree with Keith on this one. Science is about testing hypotheses and finding evidence to support (or not) practices. Faith is belief despite the lack of supporting evidence. While “therapeutic touch” and prayer may indeed have placebo (or nocebo) effects in an adult patient or practitioner, neonates who are essentially unaware of these interventions will not demonstrate responses to caregivers masked to the intervention. On the other hand, actual skin-to-skin contact is likely to lead to effects via multiple mechanisms.

  3. Toni Starr says:

    The effect of prayer would be to cause a change in the patient, and the change would be testable. As to whether it was prayer that caused the change – that’s a whole different matter and to be honest I don’t think it’s a useful question to ask. Why not just leave prayer out of it. As to the rest of this stuff, I agree with Keith as well.

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