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Praying for Health: Study Stirs Debate

Researchers Try to Test the Power of Prayer on Surgery Patients
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 31, 2006 -- In the largest study of its kind, a group of researchers presented data that are sure to stir debate about a long-held spiritual tradition: praying for the sick.

The study examined the effects of intercessory or "distant" prayer -- prayer provided on another's behalf -- on heart bypass surgery patients. It appears in this month's issue of American Heart Journal.

"Prayer had a neutral effect" on the patients' overall outcomes, researcher Charles Bethea, MD, with the Oklahoma Heart Institute in Oklahoma City, said in a news conference.

Knowledge of Prayer

However, knowing that someone would pray for you seemed to have a negative effect on complication rates. Patients that were certain that others would pray for them had a higher rate of complications than patients who were uncertain but did receive prayer.

Patients who were uncertain whether anyone was praying for them had similar complication rates -- regardless of whether they received prayer or not.

Those who were certain they were being prayed for "had an unexpectedly high complication rate," Bethea says. "This aspect of awareness needs further study ... such a significant finding begs for more evaluation."

"The reality of this study is that the group they thought would do the best actually did worse," says Mitchell Krucoff, MD, a cardiovascular specialist at Duke University School of Medicine who was not involved in the study. Krucoff has conducted his own studies of prayerstudies of prayer.

"It may be that it was the effect of the prayer itself," Krucoff tells WebMD. "Or it could be that the Lord works in mysterious ways, and what we think of as a negative outcome is really a good outcome in the larger picture -- that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger."

However, stress could have been the cause, he says. "Think about it, the night before surgery they were told about the prayer therapy, then asked not to tell anyone. They were going into major heart surgery -- yet they knew something they could not mention to anyone."

"It's possible that knowledge about the prayer might have induced a form of performance anxiety in the patients, or made them feel doubtful about their outcome," Bethea says. "They may have wondered, 'Am I so sick that they had to call in the prayer team?'"

Examining Prayer's Effects

Over the past decade, a number of studies have looked at this issue - whether intercessory prayer can affect a heart surgery patient's recovery.

"Mind-body studies like these are to understand how stress affects the disease state and how we might use therapies to counteract stress," says researcher Herbert Benson, MD, founder and director of the Mind/Body Institute in Boston and a professor at Harvard Medical School.

"This study might be opening doors to the positive and negative effects of mind-body interactions," Benson says.

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