A new study from Duke University Medical Center shows that intercessory prayer -- as well as guided imagery therapy, relaxation therapy and touch therapy -- improved the recoveries of 120 heart patients who underwent various coronary procedures for their conditions.
Although all the non-medical therapies showed a 25 percent to 30 percent reduction in adverse outcomes when compared to standard medical treatment alone, the most provocative finding was that prayer had the most profound effect on healing.Even more startling, the researchers say, was the fact that the 30 patients in the prayer group did not know of the prayers for their health, yet they showed the fewest complications six months after their procedures.
"I don't know what to make of it. As a scientist, I can't explain it, and there needs to be further study," says Dr. Harold Koenig, one of the study's authors.
That's exactly why the researchers say they have already started a larger study at nine medical centers around the country. Roughly 500 patients are already enrolled in the 1,500-patient study, which should be completed by late 2002 or early 2003.
"If they find 25 percent to 30 percent in that group, that would be incredible. We'd have to rethink a lot of things. You'd have to look at some physical alteration in the universe, something that is not known in physics," Koenig says. "The only possible scientific explanation other than that is to say God is doing it. It's not totally unimaginable. It's scientifically highly unlikely, but not unimaginable."
In the study, 150 heart patients were randomly selected to be in one of five groups: intercessory prayer, stress reduction therapy, healing touch therapy or guided imagery therapy together with standard medical treatment, or standard medical treatment alone.
Of the 120 who were assigned to noetic, or non-medical, therapy, 118 completed the study. All 150 patients were checked six months later. Although the mortality rate was higher in the groups that received noetic therapies, those groups also had the greatest reduction in complications. And the prayer group showed the fewest postoperative problems of all.
The study appears in the Nov. 1 issue of the American Heart Journal.
This is not the first time intercessory prayer has been shown to help in the healing process.
In 1999, a Missouri study found that heart patients who unknowingly received prayers from strangers did better than those who received standard medical care. In that study, 1,000 people with a variety of coronary problems were studied during a one-year period. The half that unknowingly received prayers from prayer groups showed 11 percent fewer complications a month later than did their counterparts.
The author of that study says the Duke study is tantalizing at best.
"I think they have properly couched this. This is not something that should be blown out of proportion," says William Harris, a heart researcher at the Mid America Heart Center at St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. "It's a step ahead, but there's no conclusions."
Because of the small sample size, "as a stand-alone study, you couldn't conclude that prayer did anything. You need to get a larger study," he says. "The second study will be the test. This is the hors d'oeuvre. I do think it portends of good things to come, as hors d'oeuvres do."
And previous studies have pointed to the benefits of prayer therapy, so the Duke findings do add to that body of research, he adds.
An expert in religion and medicine says prayer therapy is definitely not a new concept.
"Science is only one way of approaching the world," says Dr. Dale Matthews, author of the book The Faith Factor. "Billions of people throughout the world would attest to the effects of prayer. This has been a phenomenon that has been talked about for centuries."
Still, Matthews notes he was taken aback by the finding that intercessory prayer was potentially so powerful. Having authored a small study on the effects of two kinds of prayer with arthritis patients, which appeared in the December 2000 issue of Southern Medical Journal, Matthews notes he found intercessory prayer did not seem to have an added health benefit while laying-on of hands did.
"I'm actually surprised by that result. I found that personal contact was much more powerful than the distant prayer. That's very interesting," he says.
Perhaps the most influential study on the effect of praying on health was conducted in 1988 by Dr. Randolph C. Byrd at San Francisco General Hospital. It was the first finding that showed proof of the benefit of prayer in healing.
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