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The Power Of Touch In Medicine

March 16, 2018


Through the power of touch in medicine, we can make Americans happier and healthier overall, reduce reliance on pharmaceutical pills, and help folks save money. As medicine has made more technological advancements we have become more reliant on fancy lab work, X Ray, CT scans, MRIs, and even telemedicine at the expense of the sacred doctor-patient relationship. With more sophistication in medicine, the power of the human hand to diagnosis and to heal is often overlooked. Upon examining the research we discover that the human touch can help revolutionize medical care.

Humans are social creatures. Human touch is crucial for physical and emotional wellbeing. In fact, babies not given adequate touch fail to thrive and eventually die, even with adequate food and water.  Decades of research has revealed the healing power of human touch when used in the appropriate context. While we as a people go through our everyday lives giving handshakes, hugs and other forms of touch we see as mundane, these actions are more important to our health and development than we realize. Imagine if there was human touch that had the power to diagnosis and treat many different acute and chronic ailments? Furthermore, imagine we could use some of these therapeutic touch-based modalities for preventative care and health maintenance? The good news is we have some of these modalities, and yet not all insurance companies see the merit in routinely covering touch-based procedures that research shows are helpful such as massage therapy and osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT). These modalities should be covered not only for acute ailments but for routine preventative health maintenance.

There are different ways of using touch to heal. Professional modalities include: rolfing, a form of deep tissue massage, acupuncture, which strategically places thin needles on areas of the body, massage therapy, which involves mobilizing the muscles, fascia, lymphatics, stretching with various levels of pressure, reiki, a spiritual way of relieving stress, and osteopathic manipulation treatment (OMT), a way of moving and mobilizing a patient’s fascia, joints, lymphatics, cranial rhythm and muscles through techniques involving stretching, gentle pressure, and resistance to address certain ailments. However, in this blog I will focus on osteopathic medicine.

Every form of touch releases endorphins, whether it’s a deep tissue massage or a hug. When people embrace one another for a hug, neurotransmitters such as endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin are released to make one feel happier and more relaxed. These endorphins activate opioid receptors in the brain, acting as natural painkillers. For anyone suffering through common conditions such as stress, depression, or back pain, touch is a simple and effective way to help bring relief.

In our personal lives, we incorporate touch by giving hugs to our family, professional handshakes to people we meet for the first time or employers, or pats on the back to our sports teammates, playful wrestling with friends, petting our companion animals, etc. Tell me, don’t you feel good when you give your loved ones a hug? These are just a few ways that touch has the power to heal. Doctors can revolutionize modern medicine by bringing this ancient healing practice back to the bedside during patient encounters.

Touch can significantly reduce stress, induce feelings of ease and wellbeing, and reduce pain. Though these benefits are incredible in themselves, they are nothing compared to when touch has the potential to save lives. This happened with the famous “Rescuing Hug” that shocked the world. On October 17, 1995, a pair of twins were born 12 weeks premature. They were placed in separate incubators to reduce their risk of cross-infection. One twin, Kyrie, was gaining weight and was making good progress, but the other had breathing and heart-rate problems. The smaller and weaker twin, Brielle, went into critical condition. Thinking quickly, a nurse moved her into her healthy sister’s incubator and watched as Brielle snuggled up to Kyrie. The iconic photo of Kyrie wrapping her arm around her sister Brielle is at the top of this blog. With this famous hug, the healing magic started. Brielle’s blood-oxygen readings improved almost instantaneously, her heart rate stabilized and her temperature returned to normal. And eventually, both twins went home, safe and sound. When we are denied touch, our health is negatively impacted. In a study led by Charles Nelson, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, the developmental progress of children in poorly managed Romanian orphanages was analyzed. It was discovered that these children hadn’t been held for years, resulting in physical problems and stunted growth despite being given proper nutrition. We know that touch is important for children but it is equally important for adults as this next story illustrates.

Another famous story is told by Stanford Professor and Bestselling author Abraham Verghese, MD. One of his colleagues had breast cancer and went to one of the best cancer treatment centers in America. At this great institution she had the best MRI scans, oncologist, and chemotherapeutic drugs. They mapped out her breast cancer at the genetic level and knew her tumor inside and out. However, there was one problem. She fired her renowned oncologist and went back to her local community oncologist for care. Dr. Verghese asked her, "Why did you come back and get your care here?" She said, "The cancer center was wonderful. It had a beautiful facility, giant atrium, valet parking, a piano that played itself, a concierge that took you around from here to there. “But," she said, "They did not touch my breasts."  Dr. Verghese goes on to state, “The most important innovation to come in medicine in the next ten years is the power of the human hand to touch, to comfort, to diagnose, and to bring about treatment.”

I would like to share a case I had when I was a General Medical Officer in the Navy. Osteopathic physicians have the ability to help save healthcare dollars by providing diagnosis and treatment with our hands. There was a 29 year old sailor on a Navy War ship that developed acute chest pain and shortness of breath. The independent duty corpsman on the ship was concerned for a heart attack or a pulmonary embolism, so he arranged to medevac the patient to shore to be evaluated at the nearest hospital. After a major work up in the hospital, there was no diagnosis given to the sailor. The sailor was flown back to Mayport Naval Base where I evaluated her for the first time. As I reviewed her normal labs, imaging, and diagnostic test performed by cardiologists and pulmonologists, I realized the US Navy had just spent millions of dollars on this evaluation.

I looked up and asked the patient, “Do you still have chest pain and shortness of breath?”

She said, “Yes, but it only happens when I try to take a deep breath and I cannot take a full breath.”

I then performed a brief osteopathic structural exam and discovered a somatic dysfunction in the thoracic vertebrae, in her mid back. Then I performed myofascial release and high velocity low amplitude (HVLA) to the thoracic spine and this procedure took just a few minutes to perform. Immediately after the procedure the patient could take a full complete deep breath and did not have any chest pain. The word spread on how I cured this patient with my hands, and my Senior Medical Officer was so impressed that she sent me all the patients with musculoskeletal ailments and I became the clinic “guru.”

Doctors of Osteopathic medicine (D.O.) are fully licensed and specialize in any area of medicine. Osteopathic physicians can prescribe medication, perform surgeries, and deliver babies. D.O.s can perform full spectrum care, and they deliver it with a unique philosophy based on four osteopathic principles. Furthermore, osteopathic physicians can use their hands to diagnosis and treat. Ultimately, the osteopathic physician is searching for the root cause of disease, diagnosis and treating with hands on therapy with OMT, and assisting the body in self-healing. Hands on therapy does not only promote wellness, but it can also help alleviate the burden of exorbitant healthcare costs.

Since touch is necessary for health and wellbeing, it is curious that health insurance companies don’t cover massage therapy and other professional modalities of touch. If insurance included massage therapy once per month in preventative care benefits, it would cost less than $1,200 each year. Compare this to the prescription drug costs, doctor’s visits, ER visits, hospitalizations, and thousands of dollars for MRIs and other diagnostic studies. Clearly, if health insurance company focused on prevention and routinely covering massage therapy and osteopathic manipulation, it would save thousands of dollars. Furthermore, there would be less reliance on prescribing opioids for acute and chronic pain. Instead providers could safely prescribe osteopathic manipulation and massage therapy to help address the opioid crisis.

The Opioid crisis in America is a public health emergency. Thousands of people die each year from opioid overdoses, and in recent years the deaths of Michael Jackson and Prince have brought a spotlight to the problem. However, even though deaths from celebrities brought the opioid crisis to the mainstream media, according to the CDC opioid overdoses increased by 30% from 2016 to 2017. We have research showing that through osteopathic manipulative treatment for back pain, we can diminish the reliance on pharmaceutical prescriptions. This classic study in the NEJM shows that those who sought conventional treatment for back pain required more pain medication than those who received OMT.

Humans are social creatures, and touch is paramount not only to human development but also physical and emotional wellbeing as adults. Armed with decades of data showing the powerful healing effects of human touch, we should hug our family and friends more often. Furthermore, health insurance companies should cover massage therapy and osteopathic medicine for acute ailments, but also for preventative health maintenance. If Americans had routine coverage of these evidence based touch-based modalities it would help make Americans healthier and happier, help combat the opioid crisis, and reduce healthcare cost.

There are Five Ancient Universal Principles that children live every day and allow every day to be filled with peace, joy, and contentment. I have created a mnemonic device that will help you remember the 5 Principles for inner and outer transformation: L.O.V.E.S. The Answer. These principles have been around for thousands of years and can be practiced with any religion.

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About Me

Orestes Gutierrez, D.O. Board Certified in Family Medicine and Integrative Holistic Medicine. Author and All American Masters Runner.

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