The Healing Power Of Touch

I’m a fan of systems, or at least systems thinking. Organizing ideas into a cohesive structure makes the application of the ideas more targeted and appropriate, especially when exercise and health are the goal. Having said that, I think that we’re a long way off from a total understanding of the nuances of anatomy, physiology, neuromuscular physiology, etc. to be able to determine the “best” system (though evidence points us in the right direction).

I often demonstrate this notion by stating that the only undefeated team in the history of the NFL used the Nautilus system of training, ergo Nautilus is the best training system for football teams that want to win. This isn’t true necessarily but it demonstrates how much such declarative statements are at least inaccurate.

An extension of any training program is the regenerative components of the program. At EE Westlake, I use a sufficient volume of soft tissue work, the Med-X Super Stretch, and the Back Revolution to help clients feel their best. I’ve found good success with this but I’m not convinced it is because of any “magic” in my system; rather I think it’s just the fact that I am paying attention to these at all.

Example: Dr. Craig Bueller, founding of Advanced Muscle Integration Techniques, claims that during his tenure at the Utah Jazz, his teams had “lowest ‘Player Missed Games due to Injury Rate’ of any team in the NBA for 25 years.” Juxtapose that with Gray Cook, PT who is one of the developers of the Functional Movement Screen. The Atlanta Falcons claim that their reduced injury rate has been a direct result of using the Functional Movement Screen to assess the body before an injury can occur.

So if one system is better than the other, why do both produce a result of reduced injuries? It could be the luck of the draw: some seasons have less injuries no matter the system. However, I think it is the fact that there is someone paying attention to trying to heal you as a human.

A great article out of Wired magazine discusses this phenomena. Titled “Dr. Feelgood” in the mag but “Forget the Placebo Effect: It’s the ‘Care Effect’ That Matters” on the internet, Nathanael Johnson discusses a sham acupuncture treatment creating results:

We’ve known for decades that when sick people are given a treatment, even if it’s just a sugar pill, their condition often improves. But that can’t be the whole story, if only because the size of the effect varies wildly from one study to the next. One clue to a better answer is found in research led by Ted Kaptchuk at Harvard Medical School: Patients with irritable bowel syndrome were told they’d be participating in a study of the benefits of acupuncture — and one group, which received the treatment from a warm, friendly researcher who asked detailed questions about their lives, did report a marked reduction in symptoms, equivalent to what might result from any drug on the market. Unbeknownst to them, the researchers used trick needles that didn’t pierce the skin.

Now here’s the interesting part: The same sham treatment was given to another group of subjects — but performed brusquely, without conversation. The benefits largely disappeared. It was the empathetic exchange between practitioner and patient, Kaptchuk concluded, that made the difference.

What Kaptchuk demonstrated is what some medical thinkers have begun to call the “care effect” — the idea that the opportunity for patients to feel heard and cared for can improve their health.

Clients who don’t have a doctor ask me if I know any good ones. I know of one or two but none locally who are primary care. I tell them, “Find a DO; at least they’re good at touching and figuring out what is wrong.” This healing touch of the physician, the laying of the hands, is a lost art. There are far more sophisticated tests, but the touch was only part of the diagnosis; it was a reminder that someone was there for you, caring for you.  Dr. Abraham Verghese of Stanford University agrees, which is why he’s trying to bring back the lost art of the physical:

He came to know many of his patients and their families. He visited their homes, attended their deaths and their funerals. One patient, near death, awoke when Dr. Verghese arrived, and opened his shirt to be examined one last time.

“It was like an offering,” Dr. Verghese said, with tears in his eyes. “To preside over the bed of a dying man in his last few hours. I listen, I thump, I don’t even know what I’m listening for. But doing it says: ‘I will never leave you. I will not let you die in pain or alone.’ There’s not a test you can offer that does that.

So my point is this: care is part of treatment, not only in medicine, but in exercise, health, and longevity. Some call it the placebo effect, but we’re fantastically adaptable creatures…maybe the fact that someone is caring (and not doing something that can hurt you in the process) is enough to help supercharge healing and recovery. Readers, it would behoove you to take advantage of this whenever you’re in need.