Faith, Prayer, and Healing
by Elizabeth A. Peterson, MFA
Faith and prayer is often a practice of one's spirituality. It is a way to connect with spiritual side. When it comes to medicine the focus tends to be on the physical side. Do these approaches intersect? How much does your spiritual side interact with the physical? A second factor is having someone pray for you. Can distance prayers affect the outcome of your condition or procedure?
These questions or beliefs have been around as long as we have. Stories have been shared and research has been done to try to find the answer. Unfortunately, it is hard to measure someone's spirituality and the effect on the body.
Looking at the Evidence
There are many studies that look to see if prayer or faith can change the course of an illness. A medical study need to be able to show a clear connection between a treatment and a cure. For example, a medicine may block pain signals. It is then very likely that pain relief after taking the medicine was due to the medicine. If someone gets well after prayer, there is no known path for the researchers to study. This means the improvement may be due to prayer or anything else.
Still studies go on. The hope is to find trends that may encourage more studies. At best, right now, evidence is mixed and controversial.
Spiritual health is tied to wellness. Studies have found that those with strong spiritual ties are more likely to be happy and have lower risk of depression. It has also been noted that people who are facing serious health issues tend to better if they have a strong spiritual connection. The type of religious or spiritual practice did not matter, just that someone felt connected. These benefits are believed to be from a sense of support and mental wellness that helps through difficult times.
Many people also ask for prayers after a medical illness, injury, or before a procedure. The request may go out to family, friends, or religious community. Social media has provided a tool where a request can reach people all over the world. There have been many studies that looked for the benefits of this distance prayer but no clear effect has been found. Other studies have shown that feeling supported and having a positive attitude can help quality of life when dealing with severe illness. These prayer circles may play an important role in support.
Finally, can prayer heal an illness? Studies have looked at the effect of prayer on illnesses ranging from heart disease and cancer to warts. There are many stories about healing but research has not found the benefit. This is not to say things did not heal or get better after prayer but the rate of healing with prayer was similar to the rate without prayer. There may be an exception when it comes to pain relief. Pain is caused by physical issues but can be greatly affected by mental health. Prayer and spirituality may provide tools to help ease stress and anxiety. This in turn can ease pain.
How To Include Faith and Prayer in Your Care
Prayers can work well along with the medical care that you need. It should not be used in place of care. Spirituality is an important part of overall wellness. How you practice is up to you. This may include being part of a religion or taking time to reflect on spirit wellness like meditation.
Talk to your medical team about your spiritual needs. This is most important if you have severe illness or procedure or are facing end of life care. Spiritual care can improve your quality of life whether or not it can change physical condition. It may be very comforting during stressful times. Your medical care team can help you connect with services that may help.
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
IN-CAM Research Network
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Last reviewed June 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Last Updated: 6/11/2020
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