Did you know that, historically, the priest and the doctor were the same person in many societies? It was only in the 19th century that modern Western medicine was developed and ideas about the mind and the spirit were fully separated from the body.
However, in recent years, the notion that we should treat our health holistically — as a whole rather than divided into parts — is gaining some traction again, as seen by the rise of complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs). CAMs are treatments outside of mainstream healthcare that can be used alongside conventional medicine or even as replacements. One example of this is spiritual healing, which Supportive Oncology defines as “the direct interaction between one individual (the healer) and a second (sick) individual with the intention of bringing about an improvement in the illness”. This can be done by any spiritual means and may include talking, prayer and the use of crystals.
However, the impact is difficult to prove as spiritual healing and other CAMs are usually not compatible with relevant scientific methods. So what are the benefits of alternative medicine that we do know about?
Benefits of spiritual healing
Spiritual healing is an incredibly wide-ranging practice almost exclusively concentrated on a person’s mind and beliefs, so it is extremely difficult to test. Nevertheless, some successful research has been conducted, showing that spiritual healing can help manage chronic pain syndrome. The patients studied actually decreased their intake of painkillers and improved their sleeping patterns. More research has found that spiritual healing may relieve acute pain, as well as post-surgical and centralised sensitisation pain conditions.
Elsewhere, a study conducted in Germany demonstrated that both healers and patients described feeling more positive, as well as reporting that symptoms of various medical complaints had been relieved. However, it is important to note that this study was completely qualitative (observed rather than measured) with few participants, so the results are very subjective and cannot be generalised.
That being said, the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families suggests that the actual medical benefits of spiritual healing might not even be considered by those interested in it. According to the Centre, many mental health patients reported it as a method that worked for them, and “while many people might question the potential for spiritual energies, forces and healers to help them, some young people told us that believing in the power of something outside of themselves can help to ease their symptoms”.
This connects to a much larger question regarding spirituality itself and whether our state of mind can be helpful against our suffering. Neurologist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in his famous book Man’s Search for Meaning about how his fellow concentration camp inmates found solace and eased their pain by searching and finding purpose in their lives. Even in the most traumatic situations, perhaps spirituality can bring comfort.
Benefits of other types of alternative medicine
Spiritual healing is only one kind of alternative medicine. Other types include reflexology, hypnotherapy, massage and traditional Chinese medicine. Here are some of the most popular examples that have evidence of physical benefits:
Acupuncture is an ancient treatment originating from China where fine needles are inserted into pressure zones on the body for therapeutic purposes. Benefits of acupuncture include relief from pain, osteoarthritis, menstrual cramps, nausea and vomiting. The practice is particularly recommended for people who suffer from chronic pain –– specifically neck aches and fibromyalgia –– according to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Acupuncture has also been found to reduce high blood pressure and alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and other mental conditions.
Reiki is a form of alternative healing where the practitioner transfers energy from the palm of their hands in measured movements over or on a patient’s body. Although research into its benefits is sparse, Reiki can be effective. Some studies have shown it makes people relaxed, which in turn reduces blood pressure, heart rate, anxiety and pain. It may also help control the side effects of chemotherapy and decrease fatigue.
Aromatherapy involves using natural plant extracts for their health benefits either by inhaling the oils or absorbing them through the skin. Different oils have different effects on the body, however, aromatherapy as a whole has been shown to improve sleep quality, reduce stress, and treat pain –– headaches and migraines in particular. The benefits of specific oils are also numerous. For example, peppermint oil helps with digestion, while lavender oil can decrease anxiety.
Are spiritual healing and alternative medicine worth trying?
The notions of spiritual healing and alternative medicine are more and more understood now, and different types are being explored by healthcare systems around the world. Regardless of the lack of empirical evidence compared to conventional medicine, the return to a holistic approach to health — which considers the mental and spiritual state of a patient as well as their physical body — suggests there may be benefits.
Whatever you may believe, one fact is clear: alternative medicine won’t do any harm provided patients still treat their conditions with medically proven methods. However, before you choose a practitioner, make sure they have the relevant insurance in place — such as spiritual healing insurance. That way if any accidents do happen, you know you’re protected.