Power Of Prayer – Its Effect On Health

Prayer for healthIn March 31, 2006 researchers began unraveling the long time debate on the tradition of praying for the sick. The recent issue of American Heart Journal highlights this controversial study about the effects of interceding for another person or commonly known as “distant” prayer specifically for surgery patients recovering from heart bypass operations. Indeed, “Prayer had a neutral effect” on the patients’ overall outcomes.

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Knowledge of prayer – what is it there for me?

Informing patients that they were being interceded was known to have a negative effect on complication rates compared to those that are uncertain but were also prayed for. Patients who were uncertain of being prayed for or not have similar complication rates.

Patients that were being interceded have an unexpectedly high complication rate as the study has observed. This finding is still subject to further studies in the near future. As was expected, the group they thought would do the best actually did worse in terms of being prayed for or not.

Study conclusions include: It may be that it was the effect of the prayer itself 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.

Stress is also a factor. Patients right before their respective operations are told about the prayer therapy, but were refrained from telling others. As they were going into major heart surgery – deep inside them, they knew something that they could not mention to anyone.

Another possibility is that knowledge of being prayed for can increase feeling of performance anxiety and doubts about their illnesses. The prayer therapy could make the patients think of the negative side of their circumstance. Involvement of the prayer group could equate presence of major complications in relation to their surgery.

Looking into the effects of prayer

The question of whether intercessory prayer can really affect a heart surgery patient’s recovery has always been scrutinized. Mind–body studies like these are to understand how stress affects the disease state and how we might use therapies to counteract stress. The study might open doors to the positive and negative effects of mind–body interactions.

The results of prayer studies have been mixed. Two studies have shown a benefit from prayer, but two found no effect. There have been limitations with those studies including the small numbers of patients enrolled.

Patients coming from six academic medical centers throughout the country took part in the recent study. Around 1,800 surgery patients ready for heart bypass surgery either belongs to one of these 3 groups:

  • Group 1: Patients received intercessory prayer but were told that they may or may not be prayed for.
  • Group 2: Patients did not receive intercessory prayer, but (like Group 1) were told that they may or may not be prayed for.
  • Group 3: Patients were told that they definitely would be prayed for and received prayer.

The patient’s families nor the hospital staff were never aware of the group assignments.

Three Christian groups (two Catholic and one Protestant) were involved all throughout the study. They offered a standard prayer (For a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications.) for each patient. This would start from midnight before each patient’s surgery to the 14-day period postsurgery.

A patient might have 70 people praying for them.

Stress – from the patients perspective

Conclusions and findings from the study are:

  • 52% of Group 1 and 51% of Group 2 patients had at least one complication.
  • 59% of Group 3 patients had at least one complication and significantly more cases of atrial fibrillation, compared with Group 1 (the other prayed-for group).

Atrial fibrillation is an abnormal heart rhythm and a complication that typically occurs in 30% to 40% of patients. It is a common complication in bypass surgery. It generally causes no serious side effects and, when treated with medication, typically resolves within a few weeks.

Anxiety triggers the onset of stress hormones like epinephrine, which could cause atrial fibrillation. The increased rate of atrial fibrillation is probably real rather than random. It raises the question whether we frightened the patients more than they needed to be.

It was also noted that major complications and death rates were more or less the same within the 3 group assignments.

Prayer studies under scrutiny

The study was not free from criticism and journal editors have thoughts about it as well. A balanced study would have a Group 4 – a group that knew they definitely weren’t being prayed for. Concern for the increase of the patient’s stress level was also taken into consideration.

Prayer’s effect may be larger when people pray for themselves. It often breaks the train of everyday thought and invokes a relaxation response. We were not studying relaxation response in this study, but others studies have shown it to be beneficial.

The findings were not terribly surprising. Chaplains are involved face-to-face all the time with patients in hospitals. Prayer takes on a different attitude and approach when we are praying with patients and families. In the catalog of types of prayer, intercessory prayer would be at the bottom of the list in terms of meaning and effectiveness.

People have been praying for others for centuries. If prayer is able to influence health care outcomes, then indeed it did so long before outcomes were ever measured and will likely skew outcomes in the future.

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