candle light faith prayer In cultures all around the world, spirituality has historically played a large and very important role in healing. In today’s science-based, technological world, these practices now fall into the category of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). But how large a role does prayer still play in today’s world?

In May 2004, results of a large (31,000 adults) comprehensive survey on Americans' use of CAM was released. This survey found that when prayer was included in the definition, 62% of respondents said they had used CAM. This was compared to only 36% who admitted to using some form of CAM when prayer was not included in the definition of CAM. In addition, the survey found that:

  • 45% had used prayer for health reasons
  • 43% had prayed for their own health
  • Almost 25% had had others pray for them
  • Almost 10% had participated in a prayer group for their health

Looking at the Evidence

A study conducted in California on the effects of prayer found that patients with advanced AIDS who received prayer survived in greater numbers, got sick less often, and recovered faster than those who did not receive prayer. Researchers have also studied the role of distant healing, which includes prayer and spiritual healing, in people with AIDS. One study involving 156 patients did not find any benefit, but a smaller study did.

Another study focused on women undergoing in vitro fertilization. The group that was prayed for had improved pregnancy rates compared to the women who were not prayed for.

Researchers at Duke University Medical Center looked at the effects of prayer on patients undergoing cardiac procedures. This study found that patients receiving prayer had fewer side effects from these procedures than people not prayed for. In contrast, an interesting and large study published in the American Heart Journal found that being prayed for did not affect the number of complications people had after undergoing coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG). But, the patients who knew that they were being prayed for actually had more complications (It is not exactly clear why this would be the cases). Another study also failed to find the benefit of prayer for people undergoing cardiac procedures.

On the website, Stephen Barrett, MD cites many other studies that failed to prove the effects of prayer. For example, in one such trial, researchers at the Mayo Clinic found no significant effect of prayer on the medical outcomes of more than 750 patients who were followed for six months after discharge from the hospital coronary care unit.

Dr. Barrett also scrutinizes studies that report on the favorable effects of prayer. For example, one San Francisco study compared 192 patients who were prayed for with 201 patients who were not. The results of the study found that the prayed-for group had fewer complications. But according to Dr. Barrett, the investigators’ conclusion was invalid because they scored interrelated complications separately, giving more weight to them. The average length of hospital stay, which was not subject to this type of scoring, was identical for the treatment and control groups.

Addressing Spiritual Concerns

In the end, what seems most important is your view about the effect of faith and prayer on your own healing process. A task force of doctors and end-of-life specialists suggested these guidelines for healthcare professionals who wish to respond to spiritual concerns:

  • Respect the patient’s views and follow his lead.
  • Make a connection by listening carefully and acknowledging the patient’s concerns, but avoid theological discussions or engaging in specific religious rituals.
  • Maintain one's own integrity in relation to one's own religious beliefs and practices.
  • Identify common goals for care and medical decisions.
  • Mobilize other resources of support, such as referring the patient to a chaplain or encouraging contact with the patient’s own clergy.

If you are facing a challenging diagnosis or an upcoming surgery, you may want to share your spiritual concerns with your doctor. This information may help your doctor gain an understanding of how you are coping with these changes in your health.