The Touch That Heals: The Uses and Meanings of Touch in the Clinical Encounter


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Drew Leder and Mitchell W. Krucoff


The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine Volume 14, Number 3, 2008, pp. 321–32







This paper investigates the healer’s touch in contemporary medical practice, with attention to both allopathic and alternative modalities. Healing is understood as the recovery of an integrated relationship between the self and its body, others, and the surrounding world—the relationship that illness has rendered problematic. In this context, touch can play a crucial role in the clinical encounter. Unlike other modes of sensory apprehension, which tend to involve distance and/or objectification, touch unfolds through an impactful, expressive, reciprocity between the toucher and the touched. For the ill person this can serve to reestablish human connection and facilitate healing changes at the prelinguistic level. The healer’s touch involves a blending of attention, compassion, and skill. The clinical efficacy of touch is also dependent upon the patient’s active receptivity, aspects of which are explored.

All too often, modern medical practice is characterized predominately by the “objectifying touch” of the physical examination, or the “absent touch” wherein technological mediation replaces embodied contact. This paper explores the unique properties of touch as a medium of perception, action, and expression that can render touch a healing force within the clinical encounter.

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