Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Healing Through the Human Energy Field

The following blog is an excerpt from The Spiritual Journey of Family Caregiving.

In the July/August 1998 edition of the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease a very interesting article was published on the use of a new approach for increasing the quality of life for both patients and caregivers. The article described in great detail the results of a study conducted at the Alzheimer’s Resource Center of Connecticut in 1996 and 97. Using this approach, staff at this 120 bed skilled nursing facility discovered that a profound state of relaxation could be induced in a patient within 5-10 minutes without the use of drugs or any invasive techniques. Even fairly agitated patients who were rocking or calling out from their beds could be calmed in a reliable and rapid way. Fewer medications needed to be used, and positive feelings between patients, staff and family members increased. What was this new treatment? An old one—”laying on of hands”—in a new guise called Therapeutic Touch.

It may seem unbelievable or like religious hocus pocus but evidence is mounting that ancient healing arts which focus on the human energy field like acupuncture, chi gung, tai chi and energy healing, have positive and demonstrable benefit. I’ll be focusing on two forms of energy healing in this article that appear to have particular benefits for dementia patients and their caregivers, Reiki and Therapeutic Touch.

Therapeutic Touch

In Therapeutic Touch the practitioner does not actually touch the patient. The practitioner holds their hands a few inches away from the patient’s body and consciously directs a flow of energy into and around the patient while in a calm meditative state. Sometimes, visualization is used by both the patient and practitioner to intensify the focus of healing but that is not necessary. A patient does not have to be cognitively aware of what Therapeutic Touch can do for it to be effective. In fact, some of the most successful treatments have been performed on babies and people in comas. This makes it particularly useful for dementia patients, especially those who don’t like to be touched.

Therapeutic Touch was developed by Delores Krieger, a professor of nursing with a special interest in neurophysiology. She documented her research on the use of this method so well that Therapeutic Touch classes have been added to the nursing curriculums of 80 colleges and universities in the United States and abroad including major university medical centers such as Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. Therapeutic Touch has been used to reduce pain, accelerate healing, relieve anxiety, and help terminally ill people face death. The Connecticut study mentioned above, however, was the first extensive study on the use of this approach with Alzheimer patients.

Therapeutic Touch is based on the idea that there is a universal life energy that supports all living things and through which all matter and consciousness are interconnected. This core belief is the foundation of most eastern therapeutic systems. This energy is known as “chi” in China, “ki” in Japan, and “prana” in India. Practices such as yoga, pranayama, chi gung, and tai chi as well as therapeutic approaches such acupuncture and acupressure all work with the theory that illness is caused by an imbalance or disruption of this energy flow and that balancing life-energy flow throughout the body is the key to good health and long life. The practitioner of Therapeutic Touch learns to sense energy imbalances in the energy field that surrounds a person’s body and uses stroking motions and visualization to smooth the energy out. It takes practice to learn and an intensive training program.


Reiki is a form of energy healing from Japan with roots that some people say stem from ancient Tibet. While it has been practiced for far longer than Therapeutic Touch, Western research on its effectiveness has only just begun. Preliminary studies, however, have produced similar results.

Reiki is interesting to me professionally because it is extremely easy to learn and easier to do than Therapeutic Touch. It is also easier to use on oneself than Therapeutic Touch so it can be taught as an effective tool for self-care. The practitioner’s hands are placed gently on the body or an inch or two away. There are twelve basic hand positions that are done in sequence which cover all major areas of the body. Practitioners do not need to feel the energy imbalances for Reiki to work; they simply hold each position for a specific period of time. The practice does not require a meditative state or extensive visualization. In fact, it can even be used by a caregiver in a highly stressed state of mind. I learned Reiki five years ago and use it most often for self-care on those days when my emotions need soothing. It has a comforting quality that never fails to leave me more relaxed, centered and calm.

What makes Reiki unusual from a Western perspective is that the practice is passed on through an ancient healing ritual in which the participant is spiritually attuned to the power of the practice. My intellectual mind couldn’t make sense of this but I found it an interesting cultural experience that added to my enjoyment of the class. Even though Reiki is considered spiritual in origin it is not part of any particular religion and does not require one to adopt new religious practices or beliefs. However, for those who grew up without spiritual beliefs or for those that were taught that only Christ could (or should) heal, this practice would challenge some very basic long held beliefs.

I use Reiki to release tension on those nights when I can’t sleep. It has been effective in my life for headaches, minor aches and pains and other stress-related symptoms. Reiki practitioners report that it can decrease the need for medical intervention, decrease or eliminate side effects with medicines, reduce a patient’s recovery time from an invasive procedure, or strengthen a patient’s immune system. Two hospitals in the community where I live have arranged to have Reiki practitioners work with both patients and staff.

Follow-up Commentary:
Not long after I wrote the above article I convinced my agency to let me offer an introductory Reiki workshop for family caregivers. It was a great success! Only 5 people participated, ranging in age from 45 to 90, but they all succeeded in learning the techniques and three of them reported later that they were using Reiki with themselves and their patients (the other two didn’t report back except to say that they really enjoyed the experience of learning it). One even calmed her husband in the middle of the night during a highly agitated period when he was terrified and threatening to hurt her. She used the hand positions recommended in the class and in less than 10 minutes he let out a sigh of relief and settled back down.

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