Curing Practices

It is common for people around the world to assume that their medical system can actually cure people while other systems cannot.  This universal ethnocentric view leads some doctors and nurses trained in modern scientific medical practices to reject off-hand the knowledge and methodology of folk curers, especially if they involve a personalistic explanation for illness.  However, all medical systems have both successes and failures in curing sick people.

Curing with any medical system may work because of three different factors.  First, a cure may be successful because the medical procedures actually helps the patient recover from illness.  For example, an antibiotic may eliminate a bacterial infection in the urinary tract and filling a cavity in a tooth may stop continued decay.  In the past, folk medicines and curing practices were assumed by many western doctors to have no curative powers and to be based purely on superstition.  However, ethnopharmacologists have discovered that some herbal medicines used in traditional Indigenous folk curing around the world actually have properties that are beneficial in treating cancers and other diseases.  In addition, some non-western medical techniques, such as acupuncture, can relieve pain.

Photo of Modern Western medical pharmacy

  Many drugs used in
modern Western medicine
were derived from plants
used by folk curers.
help discover new ones.

The second reason that a cure may be successful is because patients often get well regardless of the steps taken by the doctor or folk curer.  It has been estimated that as much as 90% of illness afflicting Americans is in fact self-correcting.  This is particularly true of common viral infections such as colds or the flu.  Medications for these minor ailments often are intended to only reduce unpleasant symptoms such as headaches and coughs.

The third reason that a cure may work is because of the placebo click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced effect.  That is, patients may be cured because they believe in the efficacy of the treatment even though it really does nothing to help them.  For example, a doctor could give you a harmless sugar pill and tell you that it is a powerful medicine.  This placebo may actually make you feel better and even help you recover from a disease.  How could this be?  It has been suggested that when a patient strongly believes that a cure will succeed, there is a psychological effect that can reduce the amount of the stress hormone cortisol and subsequently increase the effectiveness of the immune system.  The result, is that the patient may recover from the disease.  The kind of placebo that works is highly culture related.  Not many people in the Western World would accept a magical charm as an effective cure for a cold, but we do accept a doctor's visit and medications that simply reduce the symptoms but do not actually cure the disease.

Placebos are especially effective when both the patient and the doctor believe that they really can cure an ailment.  This has been well documented by the research of Dr. Alan Roberts, head of the Division of Medical Psychology at Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, California.  During the early 1990's, he examined the records of 6,931 patients who underwent one of five different medical treatments that were thought at the time to be effective but were later abandoned because they were proven to be ineffective.  These treatments included glomectomy (a surgical procedure for asthma), gastric freezing for peptic ulcers, and three procedures for treating the herpes simplex virus.  Despite the fact that these treatments had no actual beneficial effects, 40% of the patients had excellent results and 30% had good results.  Only 30% reported that the treatments did not improve their condition.  Similar results were observed by a team of psychologists led by Andrew Leuchter at U.C.L.A.  They carried out research in which placebos were used to treat patients with clinical depression.  Not only did the depressed patients feel better after using a placebo, but scans of their brains showed that there was increased activity in the areas associated with mood and memory.  This confirmed that the belief in the efficacy of a treatment can actually cause organic changes in the body.

Steps in Curing

Regardless of whether you take steps to cure yourself or seek the help of a folk curer or a modern medical doctor, the process involves the same two steps--diagnosis and treatment.  In every medical system, curing begins by discovering the symptoms and making a judgment about the nature of the illness.  Following this preliminary step, a specific treatment is determined and carried out.

Photo of a Western trained medical doctor giving a man a physical exam   Photo of Western trained surgeons operating on a patient
Diagnosis Treatment

One of the biggest differences between the methods used by a curandero or other traditional folk curer and those used by modern medical doctors is the amount of time that is spent in diagnosis and treatment.  Native American folk curers traditionally spent many hours with each patient, showing great concern.  In contrast, a typical routine visit to a modern doctor's office involves a long, often frustrating, wait and a very short interview by the doctor.  In the case of minor illnesses, the doctor usually makes a diagnosis in a few brief minutes and quickly moves on to giving treatment advice and writing a prescription for medication.  The entire interaction with the doctor often takes less than five minutes and then the doctor must rush off to another patient because he or she has a very large patient load.  The speed and matter of fact character of this medical encounter leaves many patients feeling unsatisfied with the experience and doubtful about the doctor's concern for them personally.

Another major difference between traditional folk curers and modern medical doctors is in the fact that the former are likely to treat their patient in an environment that is familiar, comfortable, and non-threatening to the patient.  Typically, it is the patient's home with family and friends present to provide emotional support.  In contrast, modern medical doctors most often treat their patients in an environment that is alien and sometimes intimidating to their patients--e.g., the doctor's office or a hospital.  Patients are usually separated from their family and friends during diagnosis and treatment unless they are young children.  It is not surprising that doctors report that patient blood pressure measurements in their offices are often higher than normal.  This "white lab-coat phenomenon" is very likely a result of increased patient anxiety brought about by the intimidating environment and situation.

NOTE:  It is not the intention of this comparison of curing practices to endorse folk curing traditions or to denigrate modern western medicine.


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This page was last updated on Tuesday, October 02, 2007.
Copyright 2002-2007 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
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