Health benefits of prayer

Posted: Aug 01, 2005 12:00 AM
Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him (James 5:14)

Prayer heals. So say thousands of Americans who use prayer to improve their health. According to a study by Dr. Anne McCaffrey of the Harvard Medical School one third of Americans use prayer to facilitate physical healing. 69 percent of the 2,000 people surveyed said prayer greatly improved their health. Additional studies have linked prayer to positive health outcomes with high blood pressure, asthma, heart attacks, headaches, and anxiety. "It's not a fringe thing," says McCaffrey. "I think very mainstream Americans are using prayer in their daily lives."

Though Western medicine, with its focus on the scientifically quantifiable results, tends to eschew the links between prayer and healing, the Old and New Testament have long espoused the healing power of prayer. A prayer for the sick is a regular part of Catholic and Jewish religious services. Members of Muslim congregations often conclude daily services by asking the imam to offer a special prayer for those who are sick. 'This is the most ancient, widely practiced therapy on the face of the earth," said Dr. Mitchell Krucoff, a professor of medicine and cardiology at Duke University Medical Center

Patients describing the benefits of prayer often talk about how it provides a sense of well being. Makes sense. When we accept God, we achieve a spirituality that connects us to the significance of life and provides an immutable foundation from which to judge right and wrong. This foundation is not transient like the vain and materialistic trappings of life. It is eternal. Even during the worst hardships, when the other things in our lives seem to fall apart, we can still find peace in the eternal love of God. People who understand this will feel God’s love reflected back. That is to say, a person cannot love God, without loving himself. How could a belief system designed to bring about such a sense of peace not have positive general health benefits?

Of course, none of this means that spiritual health is a substitute for traditional medicine, or that prayer will ensure physical well being. After all, many saints suffered from a laundry list of physical maladies. We are only human. But what’s telling about the Harvard study is that it reveals just how critical a component prayer is in most American’s lives. Doctors cannot and should not ignore that. Traditional medicine needs to explore this critical component of patient’s lives to better understand their response to illness and recovery. "Doctors need to realize that we don't have the market on what people are doing to make themselves feel better," says McCaffrey.

Of course, it is difficult to test the effects of prayer. You cannot reduce spirituality to a quantifiable figure. You can’t measure its effects in a beaker. Perhaps that’s why physicians are loathe to discuss the matter with patients. But the fact that prayer is a critical component in most people’s lives tells us that spirituality-- when combined with traditional medicine—should be embraced as an integral part of the health care process.