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Spirituality & Healing Touch

How incorporating these practices can help improve pain management
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In this installment of our ongoing series on pain education1 in Practical Pain Management, we discuss the role of spirituality and healing touch.

Editor's Note: Previous installments have included hypnosis and biofeedback.

Spiritual Approach to Health

Health care systems in the United States have begun implementing a new medical care model that is more aligned with a biopsychosocial–spiritual approach to health.2 The original biopsychosocial model was posed in 1977 after practitioners noted “the need for a new medical model.”3 It proposed that a combination of biological, psychological (entailing thoughts, emotions, and behaviors), and social (economical, environmental, and cultural) factors play a significant role in disease. That model was in stark contrast to the traditional biomedical model of medicine, which suggested that every disease process could be explained in terms of an underlying biological deviation.4

The renewed biopsychosocial–spiritual approach emphasizes the patient’s responsibility for self-management and should include patient education, wellness principles, and sound interventions.5 In our opinion, such a comprehensive approach must be used in chronic pain management, and health professionals should serve their patients’ needs as a “whole,” including their mind, body, and spirit.

Chronic pain can be considered a disruption in biological relationships that in turn affects all the other relational aspects of a person, including the psychological, social, and spiritual. Spirituality concerns a person’s relationship with transcendence, or “whole”-ness. Scholars suggest that many patients would like health professionals to attend to their spiritual needs, but health care providers must be cautious and avoid preaching.6,7

The topic of “spiritual healing” or “spiritual acts” is riddled with controversy due to its religious implications. Certain religious groups may believe that these practices are condemned in the Holy Bible, New International Version.8 For example, Deuteronomy 18 (v. 10-11) states, “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead.” Others shy away from these practices because they equate spirituality with religion.

Spiritual healing is largely non-denominational, and traditional religious faith is not a prerequisite for therapy. This tutorial explores spirituality and outlines the manner by which it can contribute to patients’ coping with chronic pain. The tutorial also introduces the practice of Healing Touch, a form of energy medicine.

What Does Spirituality Mean?

As noted, pain management should treat patients as a whole—their mind, body, and spirit. But how do you define spirit? In athletics, spirit may mean excitement or passion. In sacred texts it denotes the breath or life. In modern times, it connotes meaning (a sense of beliefs or values) or purpose (a sense of direction or aim). Thus, spirituality is the “aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred.”9

Spirituality is a framework, or an umbrella term, used to define a set of experiences (empiricist, humanist, atheistic, agnostic, theistic, religious, etc.) that are very personal to each individual.10 A chronic illness, however, can cause patients to question their purpose in life.6 The literature suggests that it is important to discuss spirituality because such efforts increase overall satisfaction with health care, improve quality of life, and increase clinical effectiveness in pain management.7,11

How Are Spirituality and Pain Related?

In 1946, Viktor Frankl described in “Man’s Search for Meaning” how concentration camp inmates’ pain and suffering eased once they found meaning and purpose in their lives.12 Spirituality matters to many people who experience pain. In addition, patients may struggle to make sense of their pain experience. Those who struggle with their spirituality are at risk for inadequate pain management.13 The relationship between spirituality and healing can be traced back into antiquity. Historically, the priest and the physician were the same person in some societies.

The advent of scientific medicine in the mid-19th century separated the body from the mind and spirit nearly completely. A century later, the direct interrelationship between the body and mind became firmly established. Over the past several decades, there has been a broad revival of interest in spiritual healing and health.14 Spirituality may have analgesic properties, inoculate against depression and suicide, add psychosocial support, decrease risky behaviors, provide a means for community integration, and give meaning, or “existential coherence.”14

Incorporating Spiritual Healing in Practice

There are several ways patients who suffer from chronic pain can integrate spiritual healing in their lives, including:

  • Reconciling with themselves and/or others
  • Joining spiritual support groups
  • Becoming one with nature
  • Reading sacred spiritual passages or performing rituals
  • Engaging in movement programs (yoga and Tai Chi)
  • Journaling or starting other reflective practices
  • Participating in the arts.

Chaplain services have been integrated in most health-care systems, and are available to facilitate spiritual healing by providing chapel worship, sacraments and rites, memorial services, inpatient hospitalization visits, and other types of spiritual care. At times, chaplain services may not provide exactly what the patient seeks; in such cases, the services may be able to direct patients to alternative choices via a network of other clergy and spiritual leaders within the community. Perhaps some of your patients may be interested in seeking spiritual healing from traditional healers, such as a “Curandero” or Native American “Medicine Man.” These are options to consider in your practice.

Prayer (a reverent petition made to an object of worship) is the simplest form of self-care and has been found to be the most common complementary and alternative medical intervention used in the United States.15 The three largest faith groups in this country are Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Perhaps providers should encourage their patients from those faiths to use prayer as a form of pain management (Table 1).

Last updated on: June 16, 2015
First published on: June 1, 2015
Continue Reading:
Hypnosis: Tool for Pain Management