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
"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?"