Study: Prayer no help to sick

By Rob Stein
Washington Post

July 15, 2005

WASHINGTON - Praying for sick strangers does not improve their prospects of recovering, according to a large, carefully designed study that casts doubt on the widely held belief that praying for someone can help them heal.

The study of nearly 750 heart patients, one of the most ambitious attempts to test whether prayer has medicinal power, showed those who had people praying for them from a distance, and without their knowledge, were no less likely to suffer a major complication, end up back in the hospital or die.

While skeptics of prayer welcomed the results, other researchers questioned the findings, and proponents of prayer maintained God's influence lies beyond the reach of scientific validation.

Surveys have shown that millions of Americans routinely pray for themselves and for others when they or someone they know is sick. A growing body of evidence has found that religious people tend to be healthier than average, and that people who pray when they are ill are likely to fare better than those who do not. Many researchers think religious belief and practice can help people by providing social support and fostering positive emotions, which may produce beneficial responses by the body.

But the idea that praying for someone else -- even when they are unaware of it -- can affect a person's health has been much more controversial. Several studies have purported to show that such prayer is beneficial, but they have been criticized as deeply flawed. The debate prompted a spate of new studies aimed at avoiding those shortcomings, including the new study, which is the first to test prayer at multiple centers.

For the Mantra II study, Mitchell Krucoff, a cardiologist at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., and his colleagues designed an experiment involving 748 patients who underwent treatment at nine hospitals around the country for heart problems from 1999 to 2002.

The researchers enlisted 12 congregations of various Christian denominations, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists around the world to pray for some of the patients, giving them names, ages and descriptions of the illness. The researchers then divided the patients into four groups. The first quarter had people praying for them. The second quarter received a non-traditional treatment known as music, imagery and touch (MIT) therapy, which involved breathing techniques, soothing music, touch and other ways to relieve stress, such as imagining calming images. The third group received both prayer and MIT, while the fourth received nothing.

The researchers followed all the patients for six months to see which patients suffered serious complications, such as heart attacks, were re-hospitalized, or died from heart problems. Overall, there was no difference among the four groups, the researchers report in Saturday's issue of the Lancet medical journal.

The researchers acknowledged that it was impossible to make any firm conclusions because of the difficulty of studying something like prayer. The study, for example, could not accurately measure factors as fundamental as the "dose" of prayer.

"Nobody disputes that religious practices bring comfort to people in times of illness," said Richard Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University in New York and frequent critic of prayer research.

"The question is, can medicine add anything to that? It trivializes the religious experience to think you can subject it to the measurement of science."

The Baltimore Sun contributed to this report.

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