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Can Prayer Heal?

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

The Impact of Religion on Health continued...

Also, says Koenig, "people who are more religious tend to become depressed less often. And when they do become depressed, they recover more quickly from depression. That has consequences for their physical health and the quality of their lives."

Koenig's current study -- conducted with Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the first to be funded by the NIH -- involves 80 black women with early-stage breast cancer. Half the women will be randomly assigned to participate in a prayer group, and will choose eight women in their church to form the group.

In the prayer group, he says, "[the support team] will pray for her; she will pray for them," Koenig says. "They will offer each other psychological support, talk about things that are bothering them." During the six-month trial period, each patient will be monitored for changes in immune function.

Religion provides what Koenig calls "a world view," a perspective on problems that helps people better cope with life's ups and downs.

"Having that world view helps people integrate difficult life changes and relieves the stress that goes along with them," Koenig says. "A world view also gives people a more optimistic attitude -- gives them more hope, a sense of the future, of purpose, of meaning in their lives. All those things get threatened when we go through difficult periods. Unless one has a religious belief system, it's hard to find purpose and meaning in getting sick and having chronic pain and losing loved ones."

"Nobody's prescribing religion as a treatment," Koenig tells WebMD. "That's unethical. You can't tell patients to go to church twice week. We're advocating that the doctor should learn what the spiritual needs of the patient are and get the pastor to come in to give spiritually encouraging reading materials. It's very sensible."

When We Pray for Others

But what of so-called "distant prayer" -- often referred to as "intercessory prayer," as in Krucoff's studies?

"Intercessory prayer is prayer geared toward doing something -- interrupting a heart attack or accomplishing healing," says Krucoff, who wears numerous hats at Duke and at the local Veterans Affairs Medical Center. An associate professor of medicine in cardiology, Krucoff also directs the Ischemia Monitoring Core Laboratory and co-directs the MANTRA (Monitoring and Actualization of Noetic Teachings) prayer study project at Duke. Long-time nurse practitioner Suzanne Crater co-directs that study.

Noetic trainings? "Those are complementary therapies that do not involve tangible elements," says Krucoff. "There are no herbs, no massages, no acupressure."

 

The goal of prayer therapy is to accomplish healing, yet "there are a lot of questions about what healing means," Krucoff tells WebMD. "At this level of this work, there are many philosophical debates that can emerge. The basic concept is this -- if you add prayer to standard, high-tech treatment -- if you motivate a spiritual force or energy, does it actually make people better, heal faster, get out of the hospital faster, make them need fewer pills, suffer less?"

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