At the hospital where I used to work, there was a Healing Touch (HT) program, which sometimes reserved free spots for employees. Always curious, I went to check it out. What could it hurt?
I did not expect to be impressed by the way it made me feel — deeply peaceful, as well as physically comfortable. In fact, I was so impressed that I went on to attend some weekend workshops to learn the technique.
In an HT session, the practitioner gently places their hands on or above the body, moving their hands over the patient to sense and shift the patient’s energy field. There may not actually be any “touch” at all, as we usually think of it.
As a physician trained in traditional allopathic medicine, I am skeptical of the purported mechanisms of HT, which involve terms like “astral projection.” At the same time, I also believe that just because I don’t understand why something works, it can still be effective. It just might take a while for the scientific research to catch up with it.
I was also struck by the similarity between HT and an idiosyncratic technique adapted from Northern Indian healers, called Jhar-Phoonk, which I learned about in a lecture on the history of Western hypnosis. Dr. James Esdaile was a Scottish surgeon who worked in India for 20 years during the first half of the 19th century. Working in the service of the British East India Company, he used this type of “energy medicine” as the sole form of anesthesia when he performed surgeries (of highly questionable ethics) primarily on prison inmates and poor local men.
Here is his description of this kind of technique, done with both the patient and the practitioner naked to the waist:
. . . [The patient’s] head is brought to one end of the bed, and [the operator] seats himself so as to be able to breathe upon the head, and extend his hands readily to the pit of the stomach. He then begins making passes from the back of the head down to the pit of the stomach, breathing gently on the head and eyes also. The fingers are held loosely in the shape of claws, and are carried slowly over the parts, at the distance of an inch from the surface, dwelling longer over the eyes, nose, mouth, and sides of the neck; and on reaching the pit of the stomach, the hands are suspended there some minutes. Having continued this process for a quarter or half an hour, the passes may be advantageously ended by pressing both hands lightly on the pit of the stomach for some minutes.†
In HT, both patient and provider are fully clothed, and I am not aware of any practices of breathing on the head and eyes. Otherwise, there are definitely similarities between this Jhar-Phoonk practice and HT.
Ever since, I have wondered about the overlap between HT and hypnosis. However, I did not feel the need to combine the two techniques until just recently when a patient had trouble relaxing enough to engage in a formal hypnosis session, and I offered HT to get her started.
What a success! Within a few minutes, she was feeling deeply peaceful — just as I have during HT — and we could proceed with the hypnosis. We’ve now used that combined approach on three occasions, and as of this week, her symptoms of physical discomfort have resolved.
Would it be found effective in a randomized, placebo-controlled trial? I don’t know. Did it work in my office? Yes! And as an entirely safe treatment method, I anticipate using this merger of HT and hypnosis with many more patients.
†Esdaile, J. The Introduction of Mesmerism as an Anaesthetic and Curative Agent into the Hospitals of India. Perth, Dewar & Son, 1852. As cited in <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Esdaile>, accessed Jan 6, 2023.
Rebecca Cherry, MD, MPH, treats digestive disorders, chronic pain, and anxiety-related conditions. Her approach is informed by her medical training and years of experience as both a pediatric gastroenterologist and as a clinical hypnotist. Dr. Cherry has combined her training at Harvard, Vanderbilt, and USC with an integrative treatment style. She sees patients in person in the Philadelphia area, and via telemedicine in California and Maine.