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Curanderismo

Other common name(s): Latin American healing, Latin American folk medicine, Curandismo

Scientific/medical name(s): none

Description

Curanderismo is a form of folk healing that includes various techniques such as prayer, herbal medicine, healing rituals, spiritualism, massage, and psychic healing. It is a system of traditional beliefs that are common in Hispanic-American communities, particularly in the southwestern United States.

Overview

Available scientific evidence does not support the idea that curanderismo is effective in treating cancer or any other disease. However, there are some individual reports that curanderismo helps to improve symptoms, reduce pain, and relieve stress.

How is it promoted for use?

While some aspects of curanderismo, such as using folk remedies for minor illness, are practiced at home, many people seek out specially trained folk healers called curanderos (male healers) or curanderas (female healers). Curanderos’ knowledge of healing may be passed down from close relatives or learned through apprenticeships with experienced healers. In some cases, their healing powers may be described as a divine gift received later in life. Most curanderos say that their ability to heal involves divine energy being channeled through their bodies.

In addition to the curanderos, there are yerberos (herbalists), parteras (midwives), and sobadors or sobadoras (who use massage, bone manipulation, acupressure, etc.), each of whom treat more specific or limited problems. All of these healers may use herbs in addition to their other treatment methods. Most of these healers do not charge for their services, but they may accept donations.

Proponents claim curanderismo can be used to treat a wide range of social, spiritual, psychological, or physical problems, including headache, gastrointestinal distress, back pain, and fever, as well as anxiety, irritability, fatigue, and depression. Bad luck, marital discord, and illnesses caused by “loss of spirit” may be treated by curanderos or curanderas. Treatment may involve physical, spiritual, and mental approaches.

Practitioners believe good health is achieved by maintaining a balance of hot and cold. In order to treat a person, curanderos often classify that person's physical activities, food intake, drug consumption, and illnesses as hot or cold and treat the person to restore balance. Proponents also claim folk illnesses such as mal de ojo (the evil eye), susto (fright), and empacho (blockage of the digestive tract) can be treated by curanderismo. In these cases, the curandero may perform barridas (ritual cleansing) to rebalance the body and soul of the sick person.

What does it involve?

Curanderismo techniques can involve the use of herbs, massage, manipulation of body parts, spiritual rituals, and prayer -- either in combination or by themselves. The healing often involves others in the family and community.

The treatments given by curanderos can vary widely depending upon the nature of the illness or complaint. For physical illnesses, herbal mixtures, poultices, or teas are often recommended. One cure for a headache is to place a slice of raw potato over each temple. Dandruff is treated by rinsing hair with juice from the olivera plant, a type of cactus. To reduce the size of an overly large “energy field,” the curandero may beat the air around the patient’s head with a large feather, then roll an egg around the patient’s face before cracking it open into a glass.

What is the history behind it?

Curanderismo evolved from the culture that grew out of the Spanish colonization of Mexico hundreds of years ago. It takes its name from the Spanish word curar, meaning “to heal.” The tradition combines aspects of both Catholicism and the traditional folk medicine of the natives of Latin America.

Today, it is practiced in several Latin American countries as well as in the United States. Because of its long history of cultural connection, curanderismo remains popular among some Mexican-American communities as an alternative form of medicine. Curanderismo has remained popular among some of these communities because it offers a spiritual treatment for problems that conventional medicine does not recognize, such as evil spirits. Also, many people have turned to curanderismo after conventional treatments have failed to cure their disease or because they do not trust conventional methods.

What is the evidence?

Available scientific evidence does not support any claims that curanderismo cures cancer or any other disease. However, some people report it helps to reduce pain, relieve stress, and promote spiritual peace. A study in 1977 that looked at the relationship between Mexican-American populations and folk medicine suggested that conventional medicine look more closely at curanderismo. Researchers proposed that a better understanding of folk medicine, such as curanderismo, might help physicians treat patients more effectively and understand patients’ fears and beliefs. A more recent study found that patients often seek treatment by curanderos alongside conventional medical treatment.

Are there any possible problems or complications?

These substances may have not been thoroughly tested to find out how they interact with medicines, foods, or dietary supplements. Even though some reports of interactions and harmful effects may be published, full studies of interactions and effects are not often available. Because of these limitations, any information on ill effects and interactions below should be considered incomplete.

Treatment by curanderos may involve taking unregulated herbs, some of which may have harmful effects. In addition, the potential interactions between herbal preparations and conventional drugs and other herbs should be considered. Some of these combinations may be dangerous. Always tell your doctor and pharmacist about any herbs you are taking.

Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.

Additional resources

More information from your American Cancer Society

The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-ACS-2345).

Dietary Supplements: What Is Safe?

The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management

Complementary and Alternative Methods and Cancer

Placebo Effect

Learning About New Ways to Treat Cancer

Learning About New Ways to Prevent Cancer

References

Alegria D, Guerra E, Martinez C Jr, Meyer GG. El hospital invisible. A study of curanderismo. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1977;34:1354-1357.

Allen H. Folk healer discusses art of 'curanderismo.' Yale Daily News Online. Yale Daily News Website. Accessed at http://www.yaledailynews.com/ onDecember 11, 1999. Content no longer available.

Cosentino BW. Harmony and healing: the practices of curanderismo. Swedish Medical Center Web site. Accessed at http://www.swedish.org/16379.cfm?InFrame on March 20, 2007. Content no longer available.

Graham J. Curanderismo. Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association Web site. Accessed at http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/CC/sdc1.html on May 23, 2008.

Liñan L. Curanderismo: holistic healing. Denver Public Schools Web site. Accessed at http://www.dpsk12.org/programs/almaproject/pdf/Curanderismo.pdf on May 23, 2008.

National Institutes of Health. Alternative Medicine: Expanding Medical Horizons: A Report to the National Institutes of Health on Alternative Medical Systems and Practices in the United States. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office; 1994. NIH publication 94-066.

Ness RC, Wintrob RM. Folk healing: a description and synthesis. Am J Psychiatry. 1981;138:1477-1481.

Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.

Last Medical Review: 11/01/2008
Last Revised: 11/01/2008