'Healing hands' put to scientific test

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The ancient art of healing through touch will be subjected to scientific scrutiny for the first time in Britain. The mysterious effects of "therapeutic touch" - a modern version of spiritual healing - will be compared with those of orthodox modern medicine.

The ancient art of healing through touch will be subjected to scientific scrutiny for the first time in Britain. The mysterious effects of "therapeutic touch" - a modern version of spiritual healing - will be compared with those of orthodox modern medicine.

Eighty patients with severe cases of the skin condition psoriasis at the Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle are to be given treatments such as anti-inflammatory creams and ultra-violet light therapy. At the same time, half the group will also be treated with therapeutic touch or "TT".

Healers help their patients into a state of deep relaxation before laying hands on them. Scientists have little clue why this might make people better, and healers differ in their definitions of what is happening. Some say God is working through them, while others claim to be unblocking energy channels so that the body can heal itself.

Professor Stephen Wright, who is involved in the Carlisle trial, teaches a form of therapeutic touch that has been used by 4,000 nurses and up to 700 doctors in the UK in the past 10 years. He believes the psoriasis trial may show a significant therapeutic effect.

"Scientific studies have already shown that TT produces a strong relaxation response," he said. "Stress is known to make psoriasis worse, so TT may reduce flare-ups and the subsequent need for hospital visits. I believe it may also promote well-being - but it may have no effect at all. This is why we're doing the trial."

The author and former member of the Royal College of Nursing Council said therapies such as his have so far defied scientific understanding. "We're just the facilitators," he said. "We don't really know what's going on in the healing process."

Claims for healing through touch can be found in the religious and magic practices of many cultures, going back to Sumeria, the world's oldest civilisation, in 3,500 BC. Those who combine it with prayer in the modern Western church range from American evangelists who claim believers can be healed by touching their television screens to English priests who practise a quieter, far less manipulative, more formalised laying-on of hands at the communion rail.

There are something like 10,000 lay people outside the church who claim to possess the "healing gift", such as Eileen Drewery, whose association with the England football team helped to bring down its former coach, Glenn Hoddle. An increasing number of healthcare professionals see spiritual healing in all forms as a complement to more orthodox treatments.

Professor Wright revealed the plans for the new trial to the Guild of Health Writers in London last week after discussing the case of Harry, a middle-aged alcoholic man with multiple mental health problems. After six months of therapeutic touch treatment, he was able to stop his medication and stop drinking - and hailed the professor as "a great healer".

Professor Wright said that is nonsense. "I was there every week, for 45 to 60 minutes, but beyond that I didn't do much. He did the work, not me. Most of the time I spent with him was in silence - as is usually the case with TT. It allows the patient to switch on a healing response by going deep within themselves to re-harmonise."

Anyone can be a healer, he said. "All we can do is 'hold the space' in which the patients heal themselves."

Many healers describe their work as the restoration of health by non-physical means. They move their hands around the body, sometimes stroking it, to assess any changes or blockages in the "energy field".

This is the theory behind the Energy Bank, a new therapy centre that opened last week in Spitalfields, east London. It claims to be able to help the stressed, unmotivated and loveless as well as those who are "injured, ill, depressed, terminal".

The centre is the new British outpost of a university in New Zealand whose ideas are based on feng shui and other Oriental philosophies. Clients are encouraged to attend lifestyle training sessions as often as possible. Some drop in every day - paying from £11 for a group lesson to £1,600 for an hour with the founder and Grand Master, Aiping Fulepp.

The idea is to learn to relax and let the energy in the universe heal your body, and those who find it hard to let go can pay £288 for a therapeutic massage given by five masseurs simultaneously. As well as relaxing the body they claim to channel energy to the client and clear blockages.

A brochure for the centre says 95 per cent of those who have been treated for illnesses as varied as Crohns disease, stomach ulcers, and ME were healed within six months.

A spokeswoman for the centre says a woman suffering from severe psoriasis found her condition 80 per cent healed after a year of treatment. "We don't really understand how this works, it is bigger than all of us," she said. "Energy heals though. No doubt about that."

However, Professor Wright said he is "very wary" of the use of the word energy among healers. "There are only four forms of energy recognised by physics: strong and weak nuclear forces; electromagnetic and gravitational. I know of no evidence that healing is energy-related. Use of the word is just an attempt to conceptualise healing which will alienate the scientific community and discourage rational debate."

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