Dear Dr. Garner,
I read your column each week and thoroughly enjoy it.
I have a question that may be difficult to answer; however, I hope you will be able to provide some information on the subject.
My question is: Does prayer have the power to heal? Do you think there is any way to really tell if prayer has an effect, and what proof is there?
Looking for Healing in Hollis
This is an interesting question and not an easy one to answer.
It is hard to apply scientific principles to religious matters, as religion often relies on faith without proof.
However, numerous studies have been performed, which may demonstrate a positive effect of healing from prayer. Some argue that the studies are not scientific enough, but there are facts that are interesting to relate.
In one study, patients in the hospital with heart disease who said prayers had less breathing trouble and required fewer antibiotics. Another study suggested that prayer improved the health of AIDS patients. One study demonstrated that infertile women who prayed became pregnant twice as often as those who did not pray.
Finally, an international study found that patients’ vision and hearing improved after people prayed. One elderly woman who could not see a person’s hand when two fingers were held in front of her face was said to have been cured.
While the aforementioned studies may not stand the test of scientific research, they were performed by high-level physicians utilizing scientific research methods as best as possible.
The value of prayer as determined by scientific studies is unlikely to change what people believe. A negative study will not stop people from praying.
It is worth mentioning that there are many unproven remedies used in medicine that have significant cost and adverse side effects.
There is little cost or risk associated with prayer. It provides calmness to those praying and allows friends and relatives to feel a part of the treatment process.
The value of prayer should be decided by individuals rather than scientific studies. Prayers allow the patient and his or her family to be proactive and feel more in control over the situation.
It is interesting to note that 85 percent of doctors questioned in a survey a couple of years ago indicated that prayer and religion have a major role in the health and recovery of patients. Half of Americans regularly pray for their own health, and at least a quarter have others pray for them.
Power of Prayer
Studies have shown that devout and religious patients tend to be healthier in general. It is not clear if this is related to spirituality or merely that the patients who join churches, synagogues or mosques are healthier to begin with and take better care of themselves. The meditations and prayers that a patient recites have been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones and slow the heart rate.
To get back to your question as to whether or not prayer has the power to heal, that is something I believe, we are never going to be able to document.
Having said that, I believe, along with the majority of doctors, that prayer and spirituality play a major role in many patients’ recoveries from medical illness.
Doctors, in general, try to maintain hope for patients and the power of prayer can offer this hope.
I would like to conclude with an interesting fact. On Christmas Day, the fewest number of obituaries are found in our newspapers. It is believed that people can prolong their lives for a short period of time to enjoy or experience significant life events. Prayer is a part of this process.
Thank you for this interesting question. May all of your prayers be answered.
Dr. Garner is a Fidelis Care provider who is affiliated with New York Methodist Hospital, Park Slope. He also hosts “Ask the Doctor” on NET-TV, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Time Warner Channel 97 and Cablevision Channel 30.