Healing, spirituality and integrative medicine

Ann Palliat Med. 2017 Jul;6(3):237-247. doi: 10.21037/apm.2017.05.01. Epub 2017 May 22.


Spirituality plays a prominent role in the lives of most palliative patients whether or not they formally adhere to a specific religion and belief. As a result, the palliative care team is frequently called upon to support families who are experiencing their "dark night of the soul" and struggling to make sense of their lives during a healthcare crisis. While conventional religious practices provide a source of comfort and guidance for many of our patients, a significant number of our patients do not have a strong religious community to which to turn. Over the last two decades, more people in Western countries identify themselves as spiritual but not religious and do not belong to an organized faith community. For those patients who express a strong spiritual connection or sense of 'something greater' or 'a higher power', encouraging the exploration of those feelings and beliefs through chaplains, clergypersons, or members of the interdisciplinary palliative care team can help provide context, meaning and purpose in their lives impacted by serious illness. One of the goals of effective palliative care is the facilitation of personal growth and psychological resilience in dealing with one's health challenges. Integrative medicine, also referred to as complementary and alternative medicine, provides a set of tools and philosophies intended to enhance wellness and a sense of wellbeing. Many of the modalities are derived from disciplines such as massage, acupuncture, Rei Ki, aromatherapy, and dietary supplements. The use of integrative medicine in North America is widespread and frequently not shared with one's clinician due to many patients' concerns that clinicians will disapprove of the patient's use of them. In addition to its efficacy in reducing symptoms commonly experienced by patients receiving palliative care (e.g., nausea, pain, depression, and existential suffering), integrative medicine offers non-verbal, non-cognitive avenues for many to achieve a peaceful and calm inner state. The calm state often achieved during integrative medicine treatments is similar to that seen during deep prayer or meditation. In such a transcendent or non-ordinary state of consciousness, many people experience new insights or understanding of their lives and choices they must make. Thus, integrative approaches facilitate patients attaining greater self-awareness and may meet their spiritual needs without the religious overtones that accompany traditional prayer. In so doing, patients may gain greater insight and find inner peace through simple, non-verbal approaches.

Keywords: Suffering; acupuncture; complementary medicine; shamanism; spiritual healing.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Chronic Disease / psychology
  • Chronic Disease / therapy*
  • Humans
  • Integrative Medicine
  • Palliative Care*
  • Spirituality