People who are facing serious medical problems or major surgery often turn to prayer for healing. Some scientific studies have found that prayer can positively influence the outcome of heart surgery patients, but others have found no effect.

In a new study in the April 2006 issue of the American Heart Journal , researchers found that people who received intercessory prayer—prayer provided by others—were no less likely to experience complications after heart surgery than those who did not receive this kind of prayer.

About the Study

This study included 1,802 people who were undergoing coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery. The participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups:

  • Group 1 – participants did not know whether they were receiving intercessory prayer, but received it
  • Group 2 – participants did not know whether they were receiving intercessory prayer, but did not receive it
  • Group 3 – participants were informed they would receive intercessory prayer and received it

The intercessory prayer was performed by one of three Christian prayer groups. Each day, the prayer groups received a list of names to pray for, along with instructions to pray “for a successful surgery with quick, healthy recovery and no complications.” The participants in groups 1 and 3 were on these prayer lists for 14 consecutive days, beginning the day before their surgery. The researchers followed the participants for 30 days after the surgery, tracking whether complications occurred.

About two-thirds of the participants reported that they believed in spiritual healing, and almost all believed that family, relatives, or others would be praying for them. Complications occurred in 52% and 51% of participants in groups 1 and 2, respectively. But significantly more participants in group 3 (59%) experienced at least one complication.

This study was limited because, to control the quality of the study, the researchers had to put constraints on how the prayer was performed (e.g., everyone received the same standardized prayer). Prayer under more natural circumstances may have produced a different effect. Furthermore, the large amount of prayer outside the study (by families and friends) could have presumably affected the results.

How Does This Affect You?

The findings from this carefully controlled study suggest that intercessory prayer has no effect on the risk of complications after CABG. Surprisingly, the participants who knew that they would receive prayer (group 3) fared significantly worse that those who were kept in the dark. The authors say this finding may have been due to chance, but more research is needed to find out why this may have happened.

While in this study intercessory prayer had no apparent health effects in this study, this does not mean that personal prayer (praying for ones own benefit) is ineffective. In fact, a large and growing body of evidence supports the contention that spiritual beliefs and practices, like prayer, lead to favorable health outcomes. The effectiveness of distant prayer, on the other hand, has little scientific support. In fact, there a many who argue that scientists are ill equipped to probe such mysterious phenomena. Healing from a distance, after all, is a matter of faith, not science.