November 25, 2004

Too Many Hands?

Complementary therapies are capturing the interest of nurses. But will there be enough work for all those taking courses in reiki, t'ai chi and reflexology?

TEN YEARS ago hardly any nurses were doing reiki, t'ai chi or reflexology. Most of us had no idea what they were, or even how to spell them. But things have changed. At a major London conference on complementary therapies last week it was dear that nurses' interest in these sorts of treatments is expanding very quickly. When the audience was asked who was using reiki about 15 hands went up. Most had taken it up in the past five years, it emerged.

Reiki originated in Japan in the early 20th century. It is considered a method of natural healing by which the practitioner corrects anomalies in the patient's energy, or magnetic fields. The treatment may not involve touching at all, but moving the hands in the space just above the affected area. Exponents say reiki alleviates anxiety and promotes a feeling of wellbeing.

One nurse, Barbara Burden, who works at Compton Hospice in the West Midlands, has been given funding to study the impact of reiki on palliative care patients under supervision by the University of Birmingham. This is seen by complementary therapy enthusiasts as a big step forward.

'I knew about reiki for about six years and avoided it like the plague,' Ms Burden admitted at the RCN conference. 'I thought everyone I met who was associated with it was a bit weird.'

Some people still think it is pretty weird. One audience member claimed is practitioners use 'secret symbols'. But Ms Burden put aside her own prejudices to give it a go. She did a course and now patients tell her that her reiki sessions help them.

There are many other nurses whose work with complementary therapies would have seemed startling only a few years ago. Lecturer in nursing studies Graeme Smith told how his hypnosis techniques were improving the emotional well-being and energy levels of patients with irritable bowel syndrome.

'People ask where the link between hypnosis and the stomach comes from,' said Dr Smith, from Western General Hospital in Edinburgh. Think of butterflies in the stomach. When there is a perceived anxiety we feel it in the stomach.'

Anna Ejindu, a senior lecturer at London South Bank University, said her research showed that foot and facial massage can reduce blood pressure and stress levels, and is possibly a cure for insomnia. The conference also heard nurses' success stories of using yoga for adults and babies.

Reiki is one of the more widely known forms of healing using energy forces

Yet there are concerns. Some experts feel that the number of jobs using complementary therapies is some way short of the number of nurses being trained in these techniques. Anya Morris-Paxton, programme manager at Thames Valley University, said: 'For some practitioners the only option is to work privately. I am seeing a distressing number of people who wonder what opportunities there are here. There are more opportunities in other parts of Europe and New Zealand.'

Her views are shared by Julia Fearon, chair of the RCN complementary therapies in nursing forum. 'It is a concern for a lot of us. I did a course on complementary therapies and there were eight of us. Of the others there is only one working full time in complementary therapies. There is no point in people churning out qualifications if there is nowhere for them to go.'

Some NHS trust managers argue that they risk lawsuits by allowing the use of therapies with unproven track records. Angie Buxton- King, healer and complementary team manager at University College London Hospital, said: 'Our nurses were really interested in having foot massage skills, but then a risk management issue came up.'

The government's opposition to complementary therapies is softening gradually. Last year it singled out a small group of therapies, including acupuncture and herbal medicine, which were showing evidence of effectiveness. Practitioners in these areas could be regulated soon.

It might be a while before reiki or t'ai chi join the list, but that does not seem to be discouraging nurses from training. The question is, will nurses' enthusiasm bottom out as more of them realise there are not enough jobs to go round?

Complementary therapies

* Reiki - The placing of hands on or over a patient and redistribution of the body's energy through touch.

* T'ai chi - A series of gentle movements designed to improve balance, stretch the body and improve body alignment.

* Reflexology - Based on the belief that massaging the feet can heal pain in other parts of the body. It is used to treat arthritis, back pain and migraines.

* Acupuncture - The insertion of fine needles into the body to locate 'channels of energy' and restore its 'natural balance'.

'I knew about reiki for about six years and avoided it like the plague'

Copyright RCN Publishing Company Ltd. Nov 10-Nov 16, 2004