MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

In the UK, we have about 150000 practitioners of Spiritual Healing (SH). They treat all sorts of conditions claiming to channel ‘healing energy’ into the patient’s body which enables him/her to heal itself. The plausibility of SH is very close to zero and, despite numerous trials, its clinical effectiveness remains unproven. A new and, in my view, remarkable study of SH was aimed at investigating whether “SH could support patients with breast cancer”.

Spiritual Healing was provided by 4 healers registered with the National Federation of Spiritual Healers. Twelve patients with breast cancer undergoing long-term hormone treatment and experiencing its adverse-effects as onerous, self-referred themselves and were given ten weekly sessions of approximately 40 minutes each. Data collected included participant’s daily records, direct observations noted by the healers, the researcher’s field diary and a one-to-one semi-structured interview.

The alleged positive effects of SH included alleviation of the physical adverse-effects of their treatment, increased energy levels, enhanced well-being, emotional relaxation, and re-engagement with pre-cancer activities. Although one participant admitted considering a drug holiday prior to joining the study, none of the participants felt tempted to stop their hormonal treatments while receiving SH. The authors concluded that “these qualitative findings indicate that SH has the potential to support patients with breast cancer in the maintenance of their long-term orthodox treatments. Further research is needed to test SH as a cost-effective complementary therapy, for those undergoing long-term cancer treatments.”

As I already mentioned, I think this study is remarkable. Having done quite a bit of research into SH myself, I know how bizarre this intervention truly is. A typical treatment session might be with the patient lying on a couch in a relaxing atmosphere, often accompanied by soothing background music; the healer would talk gently but very little to enable the patient to be comfortable and relax; the SH itself might be performed by the healer moving his/her hands at a distance over the body of the patient; the healer would explain that this may cause the sensation of warmth as the ‘healing energy’ enters the body. Altogether, the experience is exotic to say the least.

It is therefore not surprising that SH generates a host of non-specific effects, including the most enormous placebo-response I have ever witnessed in any clinical trial which I have been involved in. I am mentioning this, of course, to point out that the above-noted effects are entirely compatible with those of placebo. As the study has no control group, there is no way of knowing what the effects of SH per se might have been. The fact that patients self-referred themselves to SH would only amplify this placebo-response. In the discussion of the paper, we find a further interesting pointer regarding patients’ prior experience with conventional health care professionals: “participants felt they were left to cope alone as their side-effects were trivialized.”  This seems to suggest that the group of patients were indeed highly selected and all had suffered badly from previous experiences of poorly administered heath care. Thus their expectations of SH were probably high which, in turn, would exaggerate the placebo-response even further.

All of these phenomena might well be fascinating and could provide ample material for relevant research. They deserve to be analysed carefully and discussed openly and critically. Unfortunately none of this happened in the present study. The authors do not even consider the possibility that the observed effects could be related to anything else than their SH. Their stated aim to investigate whether SH supports cancer patients is not even approached; the authors simply assume a cause-effect relationship without demonstrating one. I find this is more than just a missed opportunity; in my view, it is pseudo-science. And this is the reason why I find this study remarkable.

11 Responses to Spiritual healing: do we really need more pseudo-scientific ‘research’?

  • By ‘enormous placebo effect’ are you saying that there was a larger than normal placebo effect, and does placebo work like that?

  • How was this quantified?

  • A 2006 study in which an actor pretended to be a spiritual healer produced an interesting result. The study was conducted by Dr Jennifer Cleland of the University of Aberdeen. It set out to discover how much of the healing effect came from the interaction with the healer rather than any ‘subtle energy’ the healer might be sending the patient. In order to imitate the healer the actor was of a similar age and appearance, and for the purpose of the study both the actor and the healer wore similar clothes, both were called ‘Fred’, both used the same music, and both said and did the same things. Both men worked with chronic asthma sufferers who hadn’t had much improvement with conventional treatments. All the patients improved and there was no statistical difference between the groups, but there was a slight tendency for the actor’s patients to improve more.

    Ref: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1839019/

    • Very interesting. So according to you, its not really about the person(healer), its what both the healer and the patient believe that counts. Then anyone can be a spiritual healer, and there is no such thing as ‘spiritual healer’. Although spiritual healing exists. Very very interesting. Can you relate this to what Jesus Christ was doing in his time?

  • Great thanks. What were the ‘unusual experiences’ do you think?

  • I’m not sure I understand how anyone can ‘act’ being a healer… Unless you consciously tell yourself that you are NOT sending healing… if you are enacting a healing session, you WILL be sending healing energy. At least that is my understanding of how healing energy works after having studied both Reiki and Spiritual Healing. As a healer, it’s all about getting out of your own way. A healer with a big ego could get in the way and be worse than NO healer… And anyone who thinks healing energy is being channelled their way WILL receive healing energy. It’s simple Quantum Mechanics.

    • Lisa Frideborg said:

      It’s simple Quantum Mechanics.

      LOL!

      As Jim Al-Khalili, Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, said:

      Let me make this very clear: if you think QM allows for homeopathy, psychic phenomena, ESP etc then you’d better take a proper course in QM

      So, what’s this energy you speak of?

  • Is ‘exotic to say the least’ a scientific term that I’ve not heard, or another snide pejorative
    term used to try to discredit the whole experiment?

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