Despite our obvious faith in science and passion for material things, the vast majority of Americans report having religious affiliations or being otherwise spiritual. In recent years a growing number of studies have shown an association between religious engagement and health. Some research suggests that people who consider themselves religious or spiritual experience better physical and mental health and adapt more successfully to stress. Although there is no proven therapeutic efficacy of praying, many Americans believe in the healing power of prayer.

According to a new study in the April 26, 2004 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, in 1998 an estimated one out of three American adults prayed for a favorable health outcome. Most of those surveyed prayed for wellness or the resolution of common medical conditions, but few discussed these prayers with their physicians.

About the Study

This study included 2055 English-speaking adults who were selected through a random national household telephone survey conducted between November 1997 and February 1998.

During the interviews the researchers asked about health problems, the use of conventional medicine, the use of prayer for health concerns, and the use of 18 different complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies. The researchers also collected information on demographic characteristics.

The Findings

Thirty-five percent of the respondents reported using prayer for health concerns. Based on the US Census figures for 1998, this translates into an estimated 62 million Americans.

Of those who used prayer for health concerns, 75% used prayer to promote wellness and 22% prayed for specific medical conditions. The majority (69%) of those who prayed for specific medical conditions found it very helpful. Interestingly, only 11% of those using prayer discussed it with their physicians.

Respondents who were most likely to use prayer for health concerns were: women, educated beyond high school, and baby boomers or pre-baby boomers; they were also more likely to suffer from depression, chronic headaches, back and/or neck pain, digestive problems, or allergies.

One limitation of this study is that it only surveyed people who speak English and therefore isn’t completely representative of the entire US population. Also, the results may have been biased if the respondents who felt their prayers were answered were more likely to remember praying than those who felt their prayers were ignored.

How Does This Affect You?

This study shows that religious practice, specifically the use of prayer, is an important component of health and well-being for many Americans.

With the exception of end-of-life issues, modern medicine rarely incorporates spirituality into its practices. The therapeutic efficacy of prayer has not been scientifically proven and many physicians feel it is inappropriate to ask their patients about their religious views and practices. But these findings, combined with previous research showing a positive relationship between spirituality and health, highlight the important role that religion and spirituality plays in the life of many individuals. It also raises the question of whether spirituality should be addressed in the clinical setting.

While many physicians feel that taking a “spiritual history” provides useful information and can be done tactfully, others remain convinced that more qualified professionals should be handling these sensitive issues outside the exam room. All physicians, however, must acknowledge the significance of prayer to many of their patients.

If you use prayer or other spiritual practices for health concerns—and perceive it as a helpful and important part of your well-being—do not hesitate to mention this to your physician. It will serve to enhance your therapeutic relationship, and it will provide him or her with a more complete and accurate understanding of who you are, and the way you respond to stress and illness.