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alternative therapies for children with cerebral palsy

Prayer Healing

In a well-designed study published in 1988, 393 coronary care unit patients were randomly assigned to an "intercessory prayer" group or a control group. While hospitalized, the first group was prayed for daily by a Christian prayer circle given the first names and diagnoses of each patient. This group had a significant decrease in medical complications during hospitalization, including decreases in incidences of pneumonia and requirements for antibiotics, decreased need for intubation, and lower severity of illness at the end of the study period.1

In a study published in 1994, 53 male patients who had undergone hernia surgery were randomly assigned to:

  1. A group receiving prerecorded taped suggestions for accelerated recovery
  2. A group exposed to distant healing by an experienced healer during surgery
  3. A control group.
Distant healing showed a significant difference on 9 of 24 variables associated with improved recovery, including both objectives measures such as wound appearance and less fever during hospitalization and subjective measures such as less pain and more confidence in their treatment when compared with the suggestion tape and control groups. These findings relative to the suggestion tape group suggested that distant healing might offer psychological benefit beyond what would be predicted for manipulation of patient expectation.2

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Distant Healing

Theoretically, distant healing can help anyone, so many wonder if it wouldn't potentially be useful for cerebral palsy. Elisabeth Targ is a physician who has conducted research on distance healing. Though born into a Jewish family, she never went to temple, and was raised to believe only in the "super rational."3

Nonetheless, her physicist father was intrigued by such phenomena as clairvoyance and telepathy. Beginning in the 1960's he conducted research on parapsychology at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, California. During college, and then medical school at Stanford University, Elisabeth worked as her father's researcher. Today Dr. Targ is a practicing psychiatrist, and the Director of the Complementary Medicine Research Institute (CMRI) at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, and one of the country's leading researchers in the area of distant healing (DH).

"Distant healing is any purely mental effort undertaken by one person with the intention of improving the physical or emotional well-being of another," explains Dr. Targ. "I knew that various forms of distant healing were widely practiced around the world, including prayer and psychic healing, and I knew that numerous, well-controlled trials had demonstrated the mental effects of DH on humans, animals, and other biological systems. However, not enough research had been conducted to definitively determine whether such activities had a clinical impact independent of psychological effects. I wanted to further the research in that area."

Even if DH has measurable effects upon patients, they are unlikely to dwell on the mechanics of the phenomenon. Reverend Laurie Garrett is the Chaplain and Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor at California Pacific Medical Center, and one of Dr. Targ's colleagues. "It is not surprising to anyone who practices prayer that distant healing makes a difference", says Reverend Garrett. "Prayer is a use of our consciousness that helps us create our reality."

The first DH study that Dr. Targ and her colleagues conducted was on AIDS patients and took place in San Francisco between July 1995 and January 1996. This was before the introduction of "triple-drug therapy" (simultaneous use of a protease inhibitor and at least two antiretroviral drugs), which has been shown to have a significant effect on mortality. This double blind pilot study included 10 control subjects and 10 subjects treated by self-identified healers representing many different healing and spiritual traditions. The subjects and healers never met. The study suggested that there were both medical and psychological benefits of distant healing, with 4 of the 10 control subjects dying during this period, while no one in the treated group died.

Since the sample size was small, and those who died were older, the study was repeated between July 1996 and January 1997, using 20 control subjects and 20 treated subjects. At this point, triple-drug therapy for AIDS patients had been widely introduced in San Francisco, and mortality was less likely.

Different outcomes were evaluated, including:

  1. Improved disease progression (fewer and less severe AIDS-defining diseases and improved CD4+ levels)
  2. Decreased medical utilization
  3. Improved psychological well-being.
DH practitioners were recruited via professional healingassociations and schools of healing, and each had at least five years' ongoing experience as a healer. Practitioners included healers from Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Native American, and shamanic traditions, as well as graduates of secular schools of bioenergetic and meditative healing.

During the six-month study period, the DH group experienced significantly fewer outpatient doctor visits, fewer hospitalizations and days of hospitalization, fewer AIDS-defining diseases, and a significantly lower illness severity level.4

Dr. Targ believed that DH was responsible for the improved health outcomes, as the study adjusted for most other variables, such as age, sex, ethnicity, and years HIV positive.

Fifty-six out of 131 controlled studies dealing with the effects of psychic healing on humans or biological systems have found significant effect, according to Dr. Targ.

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  1. Byrd RC. Positive therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer in a coronary care unit population. South Med J. 1988;81(7):826-829.

  2. Bentwich Z, Kreitler S. Psychological determinants of recovery from hernia operations. Paper presented at Dead Sea Conference; June 1994; Tiberias, Israel.

  3. "Distant Healing", by Molly Prescott

  4. Sicher F, Targ E, Moore D, Smith HS. A randomized double-blind study of the effect of distant healing in a population with advanced AIDS- report of a small-scale study. West J Med 1998; 169:356-363.

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Written and overseen by Lewis Mehl-Madrona, M.D., Ph.D.

Program Director, Continuum Center for Health and Healing,
Beth Israel Hospital / Albert Einstein School of Medicine

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