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Healing Touch with Guided Imagery Shown to Relieve Combat PTSD


By Julie Erickson, NAMI Education Program Coordinator

According to a recent study, the alternative medical techniques of healing touch and guided imagery can be effective in relieving symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in returning active duty military personnel, when combined with regular PTSD treatment.

Healing touch therapy employs gentle touch to restore the body’s energy balance and is meant to promote healing, relieve pain and reduce anxiety. Guided imagery uses visualization by the patient in an effort to send a message to the emotional control center of the brain, which then affects the endocrine, immune and autonomic nervous systems. These systems influence vital bodily functions, such as heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure

The study included 123 marines, 55 of whom received regular treatment and 68 whose treatment plan also included healing touch and guided imagery. All participants in this study had been experiencing at least one symptom of PTSD before the trial began.

By the third week and the completion of six healing touch and guided imagery sessions, the group whose treatment included these complementary medical techniques showed significantly greater improvement from their PTSD symptoms, when compared to the group who only received regular treatment during that same period.

“Scores for PTSD symptoms decreased substantially, about 14 points and below the clinical cutoffs for PTSD,” said principal investigator Dr. Mimi Guarneri in a news release. “This indicates that the intervention was not just statistically significant, but actually decreased symptoms below the threshold for PTSD diagnosis. It made a larger difference in reducing PTSD symptoms.”

Although the research on healing touch has been minimal up until now, the few studies that have been conducted on this technique show it to be effective in post-surgery recovery, anxiety reduction during radiation treatments and pain management for migraines.  Guided imagery has been shown in studies to reduce side effects from cancer treatments, pre-surgery anxiety, frequency of migraines and general stress.

Wayne B. Jonas, M.D., president and chief executive officer of Samueli Institutes, explains that “Service members are seeking out non-drug complementary and integrative medicine as part of their overall care and approach to wellness.” Healing touch and guided imagery techniques offer patients an opportunity to include alternative medicine as part of their overall treatment plan, without the added risk and side effects that can come along with many modern medicines.

A recent survey of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) specialized posttraumatic stress disorder treatment programs found that 96 percent of programs reported use of at least one form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Guided imagery, along with mindfulness, stress management-relaxation therapy and progressive muscle relaxation techniques were the most popular.

For more information on healing touch and guided imagery techniques, check out the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.


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