Health: Healing: is the spirit at work?

Spiritual healing is the alternative therapy with which science has the most difficulty, but it seems to help some people, says Professor Edzard Ernst, in his third article in our series on complementary medicine
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Healing: what is it? "Healing", or "spiritual healing" as it is sometimes called, can be traced back to the New Testament (1 Corinthians 12:9) where it is listed among the gifts bestowed on the faithful. Throughout the Middle Ages, healing power was believed to be given to kings and saints. Today, healing through the "laying on of hands" (though not all healers follow this method) is a widespread practice, not confined to the Christian faith. In Britain, healers constitute the largest group of complementary practitioners, with about 14,000 members.

There are few treatment modalities within complementary medicine that are in more overt contradiction to science. Emotions tend to rise high. On the one hand some proponents claim that any scientific investigation would "throw the baby out with the bath water". On the other hand, some scientists flatly reject even the possibility that spiritual healing has any basis whatsoever, and insist that researching the subject is a waste of time.

The rationale of healing does, indeed, seem far-fetched. Healers claim they can link up with an indefinable "energy" that enables them to cure diseases. This "energy" is then transmitted to the patient and enables him or her to cure the problem. Thus healers see themselves as passive instruments rather than active participants in the therapy. The source and nature of the healing "energy" are unknown. By attunement through meditation and prayer - whether or not in the presence of a patient - the healer seeks to induce a beneficial effect on a patient's "life force" at all levels of his or her existence.

Objective evidence for its effectiveness is inconclusive. There have been five clinical trials of healing since 1969, using control groups for comparison. Three of them showed negative results: there was no evidence that it worked in cases involving high blood pressure, arthritic pain and leukaemia.

In the other two trials (high blood pressure again and heart conditions) there was a suggestion of improvement as a result of healing.

Healers are not normally medically qualified. There is no mandatory training but, in order to belong to the Confederation of Healing Organisations, a minimum of two years of training is required.

Some healers do not charge for their services at all; others ask pounds 30- pounds 80 per session. Most healers would recommend a series of healing sessions, anything from four to eight visits, and advise repeating the series if the problems recur.

What happens during

a healing session?

n A session normally requires the patient to sit or lie quietly while the healer moves her/his hands over the body, locates areas of malfunction and transmits the healing "energy". Many patients perceive a certain warmth under the healing hands. A session may last up to about 30 minutes. Some healers add music and other relaxing factors to the treatment; others also counsel their patients, but often much of the healing session will be conducted in complete silence. Patients often feel refreshed afterwards.

What is it used for?

n Healing is used for almost any type of complaint, illness or injury. The focus is usually not on a physical symptom but on spiritual balance and well-being. Indeed, the medically-diagnosed nature or severity of the illness is unimportant with regard to the outcome.

Healers believe that once spiritual aspects have been addressed, physical symptoms such as pain will also disappear. Common indications for healing are chronic pain, emotional problems, insomnia and a general lack of well- being.

There are few rigorous clinical trials to test healing. Those that have been published often suffer from considerable methodological weaknesses and a lack of independent replication. Despite this, some patients have reported truly amazing results which, to the open-minded, would seem to deserve further investigation.

While there is evidence to suggest that patients can be helped with minor medical problems by healers, sceptics would insist that this must be due to the patient's expectation,the charisma of the healer, the relaxation experienced during the treatment session, or to other "non-specific" (ie placebo) effects. Healers, on the contrary, are convinced that their success is due to the "specific" powers of healing. This discrepancy can be resolved only in properly controlled trials. Unfortunately, too few such trials exist at present to give a firm verdict on the efficacy of healing.

An interesting and much debated question is: Who should supply the proof that healing is effective beyond a placebo effect? (This question applies to virtually all types of complementary medicine).

What are the potential risks?

n Because there is no direct physical intervention there are few conceivable risks. Some healers would insist that it is important to plug into the right type of "energy", because they believe that "evil energy" could harm the patient.

Healers often work in co-operation with the medical profession. If they do not, there is a risk that a healer may attempt to cure a condition that should really be treated with conventional therapy - such as cancer or diabetes. In such cases, valuable time can be lost and patients can be seriously harmed. One US organisation, for instance, apparently holds a list of 140 children who have died following such tragic circumstances.

There are more spiritual healers in the UK than any of the other complementary professions. There is little doubt that patients can perceive healing as beneficial. It is, however, entirely unclear whether this is due to non-specific (placebo) effects or to the specific power of healing.

Association for Therapeutic Healers, 6 Cleaver House, Adelaide Road, London NW3 3PT.

National Federation of Spiritual Healers, Old Manor Farm Studio, Church Street, Sunbury-on-Thames, Middlesex TW16 6RG.

College of Healing, Runnings Park, Croft Bank, West Malvern, Worcestershire WR14 4DU.

Confederation of Healing Organisations, 113 High Street, Berkhamsted, Herts HP4 2DJ.

International Self-Realisation Healing Association, 1 Hamlyn Road, Glastonbury, Somerset BA6 8HS.

Recommended reading

Angelo Jack, Your Healing Power. Piatkus, London 1994.

Edwards Harry. The Healing Intelligence, Jenkins, London 1995.