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  October 28, 2002

Health Center Receives NIH Funding
To Explore How Touch Can Heal
By Jane Shaskan

Are there benefits to therapeutic touch or is it just 'snake oil'?

That's what researchers at the University of Connecticut Health Center want to find out at the Exploratory Center for Frontier Medicine. The newly established center recently received $1.8 million in funding over three years from the Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes of Health. The Health Center and the University of Arizona, both focusing on touch therapies, are the nation's only two recipients of grants from the NIH center to study frontier medicine.

Image: Karen Prestwood and Libbe Clarke
Karen Prestwood, reclining, principal investigator of the new Exploratory Center for Frontier Medicine, receives treatment from Libbe Clarke, a Reiki Master Teacher. The Center will investigate the healing power of touch.

Photo by Peter Morenus

"In spite of the extensive use of complementary and alternative medicine worldwide and for hundreds - if not thousands - of years, we nevertheless know little about its safety and effectiveness, how it works, or its long-term effects," says Dr. Karen Prestwood, assistant clinical professor at the UConn Center on Aging and principal investigator for the Exploratory Center for Frontier


According to the NIH, there were 250 million more visits to alternative medicine practitioners than there were to primary care physicians in 1997. Energy medicine, homeopathic medicine, the use of electrical or magnetic fields in healing, and distance health and prayer healing are included in NIH's "frontier medicine" initiative.

"Our studies will focus on energy medicine - therapeutic touch, healing touch, and reiki," says Prestwood. "They are all commonly used for conditions ranging from headache to cancer, yet our understanding of the human energy field, and how it may be used in healing, is limited.

"We're going to apply rigorous scientific standards to the study of energy medicine," she adds.

The research projects include:

  • The effect of therapeutic touch on bone metabolism in postmenopausal women after wrist fracture. Principal investigator: Dr. Prestwood; co-investigators: Dr. Anne Kenny, assistant professor of medicine; and Dr. Mary Lynn Newport, assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery;

  • The effect of therapeutic touch on bone formation. Principal investigator: Gloria Gronowicz, associate professor of orthopaedic surgery;

  • The effect of therapeutic touch on the healing of wounds. Principal investigator: Theresa Smith, assistant professor of medicine.

The center will also provide new opportunities for research and educational training. Administration of the Exploratory Center in Frontier Medicine will be under the direction of Prestwood and a scientific advisory board. They will provide the scientific and educational infrastructure for the research team at the Health Center, as well as for Dr. Susan Lutgendorf at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, whose research will focus on healing touch in advanced cervical cancer and in the immune system.

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