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Does Prayer Help Others Heal?

Study's Mixed Results May Pave the Way for Future Research
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WebMD Health News

July 14, 2005 -- A new study of prayer and heart health has researchers asking more questions than they can answer right now.

The findings didn't show a benefit for the main result measured. But that may not be the end of the story.

"This is a first step, not a final, conclusive work," researcher Mitch Krucoff, MD, FACC, FCCP, tells WebMD.

"We are very early in our scientific understanding of how important prayer works for healing," he says.

Krucoff is a professor of medicine and cardiology at Duke University Medical Center. He also directs the cardiovascular devices unit at the Duke Clinical Research Institute. The study appears in The Lancet.

Prayer's Effects

The study included 748 people. They were due to get a heart procedure -- a cardiac catheterization -- to check for blocked arteries. Three out of four also got other procedures to reopen those arteries.

The researchers asked a dozen congregations from a variety of faiths around the world to pray for 371 of the patients. The other 377 patients were not put on official prayer lists.

Everyone got standard medical care. Some patients also got bedside music, imagery, or touch therapies.

The patients were followed for six months.

All groups had similar outcomes in the study's main measurement: a combination of major in-hospital heart problems, rehospitalization within the next six months, or death.

But other measures showed possible benefits.

Possible Benefits

While there was no positive result on prayer for the main result, Krucoff says there was a suggestion of benefit in other specific areas.

Emotional distress before the heart procedure and death six months after the procedure were lower in the music/imagery/touch group.

"These may be the world's most ancient healing traditions, but the clinical science we're using is what we would use for evaluating the most modern of therapeutics," says Krucoff.

"What real science in this area does is set the stage for us to learn something and then continue to investigate until we really begin to understand the role of the human spirit in the context of high-tech cardiovascular care," he says.

Methods, Groups Varied

The study included Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian congregations around the world.

The patients' names were sent to the congregations within 30 minutes of assignment to the prayer group.

Congregations were free to pray for the patients whenever, whatever, and however they wanted. Some prayed for five days, others for as many as 30 days.

"We deliberately enrolled different denominations [and] different religions who were physically in different time zones, each of whom say prayers with different syntax during the day for different durations over a different number of days," says Krucoff.

"We left the content, the timing, and the duration of prayer up to the routine practice of each congregation. We did not dictate," he says.

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