Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Redefining Western medicine

St. Luke’s offers energy-field massage to promote healing

Ketchum resident Lynn Flickinger, right, practices healing touch at a class offered earlier this month at St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center. Photo by Tony Evans

Part 1 of a two-part series.

Lisa Thompson stands behind a woman sitting in a chair and slides one hand over the left side of her head as if running her fingers through the woman's hair. But Thompson keeps a distance of an inch or two, never touching the woman.

Thompson brings her other hand up and does the same thing, pulling it down in a smooth, gentle motion, her fingers extended and spread like the teeth of a comb. She repeats the gesture over and over with both hands.

"Just work that congested area away," Thompson says to 17 other people doing similar motions over pained areas of the person in front of them.

Shoulders, knees and hands receive most of the attention. And after a 30-second treatment, many of those sitting in the chairs with their eyes closed, like Mary Ann Crowdson, express a feeling of the pain draining away.

"Floating, tingling, hot, cold. Sometimes the pain bursts out of you," Crowdson says.

It's called healing touch, which most of the time involves no touching at all, just an interaction with the energy fields that the therapy's practitioners say surround a person to promote healing by way of restoring harmony.

It's not what most would call traditional Western medicine, but St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center introduced it in August as part of its Integrative Therapies program, which was introduced in May. Other treatments in the program include acupuncture, meditation and access to the C.A.R.E. Channel, a closed-circuit pair of TV channels that promote healing by reducing stress. The channels slowly roll through clips of nature scenes, like a duck on a stream or a cascading waterfall, while soothing instrumental music plays in the background.

"It's a restful alternative to daytime television, with 'Price Is Right' or soaps," said Integrative Therapies Coordinator Mary Kay Foley.

Foley emphasizes that the hospital is not offering alternative medicine, because alternative means that it's "replacing" what's currently offered.

"We want the best of Western medicine integrated with others," she said. "What we're trying to do here is bring things together."

Foley said the hospital offers free healing touch only to hospital inpatients, and it's given at no charge because volunteers who took the 16-hour class taught by Thompson are giving the treatment. Those who volunteer pay a reduced rate for the class.

And many of the volunteers are already health-care professionals in traditional fields, as is their instructor Thompson, who's a nurse.

Crowdson, who took the class, has been an outpatient-surgery nurse for 33 years. Another person in the class was Kristin Biggins, a rehabilitation clinic occupational therapist specializing in hand injuries. Biggins said she wants to give healing touch to her patients.

Biggins admits that it's easy to be skeptical, but said healing touch isn't much different than what she already does with physical therapy.

"It's all about touch, right?" she said.

Practitioners say healing touch often involves just laying one's hands on a person and concentrating on their energy.

Still, evidence of the effects is hard to come by because how healing touch works is beyond the realm of science. Still, St. Luke's has tried to track the effects.

Foley said the hospital gave a survey to patients opting for healing touch, and found that pain levels had dropped from an average of 5.1 before healing touch treatment to 2.8 after. The standard pain scale runs from 0 to 10, with 0 being pain-free and 10 being totally non-functional. Patients also reported tension levels decreasing from an average of 6.1 to 2.

The federal government is also researching the effects of healing touch and other complementary medicines, spending $243.8 million in fiscal year 2008 on it.


The National Institutes of Health, the primary government agency responsible for biomedical and health-related research, created the Office of Alternative Medicine in 1991 and re-established it as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 1998. The center funds research of techniques such as healing touch and acupuncture, and disseminates the information to the public and professionals.

For example, the center reported 36 percent of adults using some kind of complementary or alternative medicine in 2002 and 38.3 percent in 2007.

The center is one of 27 institutes under the NIH umbrella, and receives only 0.41 percent of NIH's total funds, far less than 1/27, or 3.7 percent. But the center's funding has almost doubled under its nine-year life span, receiving $68 million in the fiscal year 2000 and $122.2 million in 2008.

The National Cancer Institute also has a branch called the Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine that does the same thing regarding cancer. Since its inception in 1998, its funding has quadrupled from $28.2 million the first year to $121.5 million in the 2008 fiscal year.

Dr. Tom Archie, medical director of St. Luke's Integrative Therapies program and acupuncturist, said many hospitals started introducing complementary medicine at about the same time these institutes came about. He said treatments like healing touch are the first to be implemented because there's no risk of injury.

"The core of physicians' training is cause no harm," Archie said. "And it's hard to imagine how healing touch can be risky."

He said treatments such as administering Chinese herbs are more complex and take more time to be implemented.

Even with the hundreds of millions of dollars in NIH spending, concrete evidence in support of healing touch is hard to come by. Institute research has shown that patients of healing touch do often recover quicker and experience decreased pain levels, but why they do remains a mystery.

Healing touch practitioner Jeri Waxenberg described the experience as non-intellectual, something learned by experience.

Even though she's treated more than 100 people and has reached the fourth level of healing-touch expertise out of five, she still doesn't claim to completely understand it. But, she said, it is explainable.

"If someone touches you with the intention of love, you feel better," she said. "Everyone has experienced that."

It's why people hug.

"Have you ever had a boo-boo when you were a kid, and your mother put her hand on it?" Waxenberg said. "You feel better, but do you try to explain it? No."

Healing touch isn't much more than that.

"I don't think we're really teaching anyone anything new," she said. "We're reminding them to be human."

Healing touch is just the intention of well-being projected onto another, and Waxenberg said it does have to do with energy.

"People measure energy every day," she said. "You feel it when you sense somebody behind you, or can tell someone's angry."

She said healing touch is an attempt to bring that energy back to a balance, back to healthy.

"Picture a tree with polluted air around it," she said. "It's not going to die, but it takes a lot more energy to grow."

Clear away that pollution and the tree won't need to exert so much effort. Waxenberg said it's the same with people and their energy. And healing touch clears the field.

Patients might not buy that. But, Waxenberg said, they don't need to for healing touch to work.

"If nothing else, you're happier," she said.

Editor's note: Part 2 of this series will be published next Wednesday, Nov. 25. It will report on meditation and acupuncture services offered through the hospital's Integrative Therapies program.

Trevon Milliard:

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