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Healing Through Prayer

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  • medit8ionsociety
    Last September, a thought-provoking study appeared in the Southern Medical Journal (2010; 103:864–9). Researchers from Indiana University showed that
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 25, 2011
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      Last September, a thought-provoking study
      appeared in the Southern Medical Journal
      (2010; 103:864–9). Researchers from Indiana
      University showed that proximal intercessory
      prayer (PIP) by evangelical Christians
      improved auditory and visual acuity in
      patients from rural Mozambique with poor
      hearing and sight. PIP's effects were greater
      than that produced by sugg­estion or hypnosis,
      which can also sharpen auditory and visual acuity.

      PIP involves touch – such as an embrace or
      the placing of hands on the patient's head –
      and praying close to the patient. Praying or
      knowing someone cares enough to pray for you
      may make you feel better by enhancing well-being,
      optimism and confidence (Medscape General
      Medicine 2007; 9:56). So, PIP could trigger
      placebo responses – bolstering the body's innate
      ability to heal itself. But several studies
      now suggest that intercessory prayer (IP, or
      asking a higher power) speeds healing – even
      if patients don't know that they're the subject,
      if other people prayed from a distance or, most
      remarkably, prayed retrospectively. Not surprisingly,
      these results proved deeply controversial. IP
      doesn't just challenge established medical and
      scientific beliefs – it rips them to shreds!

      The scientific study of IP began in 1988,
      when doctors in San Francisco split 393
      patients admitted to a coronary care unit into
      two groups. The first group received no organised
      prayer. Christians outside the hospital prayed
      for the second group's recovery. When admitted,
      the two groups were equally ill. But the IP group
      developed less severe heart disease, were less
      likely to need mechanical help breathing, and
      consumed less medicine in the form of antibiotics
      and diuretics (Southern Medical Journal 1988;
      81:826–829). Then, in 1999, researchers in
      Kansas City found that IP reduced heart disease
      severity by 11 per cent (Archives of Internal
      Medicine 159:2273–2278).

      A year later, the British Medical Journal
      (2001; 323:1450–1) published even more startling
      results. In 2000, Leonard Leibovici (Rabin Medical
      Centre, Israel) randomly divided 3,393 patients
      who had had septicæmia between 1990 and 1996
      into two groups. He arranged remote retrospective
      IP for one group. One in 50 fewer people died in
      the IP group (28.1 per cent mortality) than in
      the control group (30.2 per cent) – although
      Leibovici couldn't rule out that this was the
      play of chance. But the lengths of hospitalisation
      and fever were shorter in the IP group. Statistical
      ana­lysis suggested these weren't chance findings.

      Other studies tell a similar story. Patients
      left unconscious after severe head injury recovered
      better if they were the subject of IPs (American
      Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care 2009;
      26-264-269). Another investigation examined
      bush babies (Otolemur garnettii), small African
      primates, which injured themselves (as in humans,
      a sign of distress). Self-inflicted wounds healed
      quicker in bush babies which were IP subjects
      compared to animals which were not. The IP group
      also showed improved blood quality – such as
      increased red blood cells and hæmoglobin – and
      more normal behaviours, such as time spent
      grooming (Alternative Therapies in Health and
      Medicine 2006; 1242–8). This finding is important.
      Bush babies presumably don't have strongly
      held beliefs about religion and medicine that
      could contribute to the placebo effect and
      complicate human studies.

      Furthermore, other distance healing techniques –
      such as spiritual healing, noncontact therapeutic
      touch and external qigong – also seem to work.
      For example, in AIDS patients, distance healing
      reduced the likelihood of new AIDS-related
      illnesses (by 83 per cent), visits to doctors
      (by 30 per cent), hospitalisations (by 75 per
      cent), time spent in hospital (by 85 per cent)
      and illness severity – while improving mood
      (Western Journal of Medicine 1998; 169:356–363).
      In 2000, researchers (Annals of Internal
      Medicine 132:903–910) examined 23 trials involving
      2,774 patients; 13 studies sugg­ested that
      various types of distance healing worked.

      You could argue that benefits in one, even two,
      studies are flukes. But as several – although
      not all – studies show similar results, the
      findings are harder to dismiss. An authoritative
      review by the Cochrane Collaboration (which
      usually assesses medicines, surgical techniques
      and so on) looked at 10 studies of IP. So, if
      IP is ineffective you'd expect clear evidence
      to emerge. Yet the authors commented: "The evid­ence
      does not support a recommendat­ion either in favour
      or against the use of intercessory prayer." Critically,
      they add that the lack of "clear effects does
      not mean that intercessory prayer does not work".

      In other words, we can't unequivocally claim
      distance healing works; but equally, there's
      no compelling evidence that distance healing
      does not work – and that's remarkable. And
      discrepancies between studies are understand­able.
      Perhaps the study designs are more appropriate
      for investi­gating new medicines than distance
      healing. The Cochrane Review notes that problems
      with the IP studies' designs "are enough to hide
      a real beneficial effect". Perhaps distance
      healing works only for certain healers (prayers)
      and patients. After all, prayer is intensely
      personal. Perhaps differ­ent techniques have
      different effects. Perhaps dist­ance healing
      works in only some medical situations – boosting
      the immune system so people recover more quickly,
      but not regenerating amputated limbs. But if
      further investigations show distance healing has
      an effect – however small in however few studies
      – it's hard to overstate just how radically the
      results will revolutionise our understanding
      of the Universe.

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