In cultures all around the world, spirituality has historically played a large and important role in healing. In today’s science-based, technological world, these practices sometimes fall into the category of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). But how large a role does prayer still play in today’s world?
At best, evidence is mixed and controversial. Most studies cannot determine if faith really helps because there is no clear medical reason for changes in the course of disease. In a world of medicine based on scientific evidence, this is something that cannot be measured.
Here are a few of the studies that assess the power of prayer.
A study conducted in California on the effects of prayer found that patients with advanced AIDS who were prayed for 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. Another small study found some benefit with patients' overall mood who received distant prayer, but found no clinical difference in the outcomes of any patients. The participants in these studies were aware if they were or were not being prayed for.
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. The participants in this study were not informed that they were the recipients of prayer.
One study looked at the effects of prayer on patients admitted to a cardiac care unit . This study found that patients receiving prayer had fewer side effects from these procedures than people not prayed for. In contrast, two other large studies, found that being prayed for did not affect the number of complications people had after undergoing coronary artery bypass grafting or coronary balloon angioplasty. In one study, the patients who knew that they were being prayed for actually had more complications. However, there were patients who refused treatment which may have affected the rate of complications. The participants in these studies were aware if they were or were not being prayed for.
Many studies have failed to prove the effects of prayer. One such trial from researchers at the Mayo Clinic followed 799 patients for six months after discharge from the hospital coronary care unit. This trial found no significant effect of prayer on the medical outcomes. The participants in these studies were aware if they were or were not being prayed for.
Some studies were also conducted on psychiatric patients. In Australia, a triple-blind study using intercessory prayer was conducted on children with psychiatric conditions, meaning the study participants, family members, and doctors were not aware that others were praying for them. There was no additional benefit found in the children who had people pray for them compared to those who had normal treatment.
Spirituality is very individual and it is difficult to prove if intercessory prayer affects patients. If it makes you feel better, or makes you feel like you are making progress against your condition, then there is no harm in continuing what you practice.
In the end, what seems most important is your view about the effect of faith and prayer on your own healing process. 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.
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
IN-CAM Research Network
Astin JA, Stone J, Abrams DI, et al. The efficacy of distant healing for human immunodeficiency virus—results of a randomized trial. Altern Ther Health Med. 2006;12(6):36-41.
Aviles JM, et al. Intercessory prayer and cardiovascular disease progression in a coronary care unit: A randomized controlled trial. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 2001; 26:1192-1198.
Benson H, Dusek JA, Sherwood JB, et al. Study of the therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer. Am Heart J. 2006;151(4):934-942.
Byrd RC. Positive therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer in a coronary care unit population. Southern Medical Journal. 1988;81:826-829.
Cha KY, Wirth DP. Does prayer influence the success of in vitro fertilization-embryo transfer? Report of a masked, randomized trial. J Reprod Med. 2001;46(9):781-787.
Krucoff MW, Crater SW, Gallup D, et al. Music, imagery, touch, and prayer as adjuncts to interventional cardiac care: the Monitoring and Actualisation of Noetic Trainings (MANTRA) II randomised study. Lancet. 2005;366(9481):211-217.
Mathai J, Bourne A. Pilot study investigating the effect of intercessory prayer in the treatment of child psychiatric disorders. Australas Psychiatry. 2004;12(4):386-389.
Sicher F, Targ E, Moore D, Smith HS. A randomized double-blind study of the effect of distant healing in a population with advanced AIDS. Report of a small scale study. Western Journal of Medicine. 1998; 169: 356-363.
Last reviewed November 2014 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.