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Can Prayer Heal?

Does prayer have the power to heal? Scientists have some surprising answers.
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WebMD Feature

Could it be possible? Could the prayers of a handful of people help someone -- even someone on the other side of the world -- facing heart surgery?

A few years back, Roy L. was heading into his third heart procedure -- an angioplasty and stent placement. Doctors were going to thread a catheter up a clogged artery, open it up, and insert a little device, the stent, to prop it open. It's a risky procedure under the best of circumstances. "The risks are the big ones -- death, stroke, heart attack," says his doctor, Mitchell Krucoff, MD, a cardiovascular specialist at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C.

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"You're mighty thankful you came out of it," Roy tells WebMD

Though he didn't know it, Roy may have had some help getting through the procedure, some nonmedical help. Later, he learned he was on the receiving end of prayers before, during, and after the procedure -- prayers sent from nuns, monks, priests, and rabbis all over the world, with his name attached to them.

"I'm not a church-going man, but I believe in the Lord," he tells WebMD. "If somebody prays for me, I sure appreciate it." And he's doing well now, with his heart problems anyway. The only thing plaguing him presently is the onset of diabetes.

Roy was part of a pilot study looking at the effects of "distant prayer" on the outcome of patients undergoing high-risk procedures.

But did prayers help Roy survive the angioplasty? Did they help ameliorate some of the stress that might have complicated things? Or do a person's own religious beliefs -- our personal prayers -- have an effect on well-being? Is there truly a link between mere mortals and the almighty, as some recent neurological studies have seemed to show?

Those are questions that Krucoff and others are attempting to answer in a growing number of studies.

God Grabs Headlines

Research focusing on the power of prayer in healing has nearly doubled in the past 10 years, says David Larson, MD, MSPH, president of the National Institute for Healthcare Research, a private nonprofit agency.

Even the NIH -- which "refused to even review a study with the word prayer in it four years ago" -- is now funding one prayer study through its Frontier Medicine Initiative. Although it's not his study, Krucoff says it's nevertheless evidence that "things are changing."

Krucoff has been studying prayer and spirituality since 1996 -- and practicing it much longer in his patient care. Earlier studies of the subject were small and often flawed, he says. Some were in the form of anecdotal reports: "descriptions of miracles ... in patients with cancer, pain syndromes, heart disease," he says.

"[Today,] we're seeing systematic investigations -- clinical research -- as well as position statements from professional societies supporting this research, federal subsidies from the NIH, funding from Congress," he tells WebMD. "All of these studies, all the reports, are remarkably consistent in suggesting the potential measurable health benefit associated with prayer or spiritual interventions."

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