Prayers For the Heart

If you suffered a heart attack, would you recover faster if people at your church, synagogue, or mosque prayed for you regularly? A July report of a study from the Duke University Medical Center suggests that such prayer would not help.

The researchers assigned 748 patients about to undergo a cardiac procedure at nine U.S. medical centers to either a "no prayer" group or a group for which members of established congregations representing various religions offered off-site prayers, called intercessory prayer, for 5 to 30 days. There was no significant difference between the two groups in the frequency of heart attacks and other cardiovascular events while in the hospital, deaths, or hospitalizations in the 6 months after the procedure.

Three previous studies had examined the effect of intercessory prayer on patients with coronary disease. Two of these studies involved about 1,400 patients admitted to coronary care units (CCU) in San Francisco and Kansas City who were randomly assigned to prayer and no-prayer groups. Although there were no differences between the two groups in deaths or length of stay in the CCU, patients who received remote prayer did significantly better while in the CCU.

The third study, from the Mayo Clinic, randomized 799 patients to receive either no prayer or intercessory prayer at least once a week for 26 weeks after discharge from a CCU. There were no significant differences between the two groups in deaths, rehospitalizations for cardiovascular disease, or need for coronary artery bypass or angioplasty.

The results of these studies appear to be a tie: two showed slight benefits from intercessory prayer; two found no benefits. But the studies raise more questions than they answer. Would the results be different if the people saying the prayers knew the people they prayed for, and could therefore offer more personalized prayers? How about the frequency and duration of prayers? Would it make a difference if the patients believed in the value of prayer, or knew that prayers were being offered for them?

It's hard to understand how intercessory prayer could help except through some divine intervention, and it's hard for me to appreciate how He or She would have the time to intercede for everyone who needs medical or other help. Despite the uncertainty of the benefits to patients, prayer should do no harm and may at least benefit those who pray.