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Can Prayer Influence Pain?

Prayer has been used as an appeal for physical healing and emotional calm for thousands of years. In our modern day society thousands of people still use the practice of prayer and other religious activities to influence their health.

A study released in May 2004 by the US National Centre for Health Statistics involving 31,000 adults revealed prayer to be the most commonly used alternative and complimentary therapy in America1. 45% of these people used prayer for health reasons: 43% prayed for their own health; almost 25% had had others pray for them; and 10% had participated in a prayer group for their health.

But is prayer helpful? Harvard Medical School in Boston also conducted a national survey in 1998 and found that 35% of participants used prayer for health concerns2. 22% of these people prayed for specific medical conditions with a large majority of 69% finding prayer very helpful. They concluded that although participants did not discuss prayer with their doctors they reported "high levels of perceived helpfulness". I think the words "perceived helpfulness" demonstrate how difficult it is to measure, let alone prove, the power of prayer; it is a personal matter which in the end has to be taken on faith.

Nevertheless a report from Croatia this year reveals, "A large proportion of published empirical data suggest that religious commitment shows positive associations with better mental and physical health outcomes. There are relatively few studies showing no effect or negative effect of religion on health outcomes."3

Personally, as a Christian I find prayer invaluable. However, praying for health issues can be tough and in my experience quite an emotional roller coaster. When I first developed fibromyalgia at the age of 19 I was a committed Christian attending a local Methodist Chapel. When I realised that I had developed an illness that the medical profession could not cure I turned to God for healing and fully expected him to oblige.

It confused me considerably when nothing seemed to happen and my condition only got worse. As a teenager this became an intolerable situation and I soon found myself turning against God in anger and frustration. As the years went by I adapted to my situation and began to re-explore my faith. I found myself consuming many books on prayer and healing trying to find an answer to why God healed some people and not others and why in my situation I felt so far away from God.

Interestingly, a study reported in the Journal of Pain a couple of years ago by the University of Iowa Health Care4 observed that, "Pain patients' religious and spiritual beliefs appear different than the general population. Pain patients feel less desire to reduce pain in the world and feel more abandoned by God." So, I was obviously not alone in struggling with my beliefs at that time. However, since then I have come a long way in experience and understanding and from my current standpoint I would not agree with the participants in this study.

I have experienced the great joy of emotional healing where through prayer, both alone and groups, I have found release from my anger, resentment and bitterness that built up through the early years of learning to cope with fibromyalgia. I found a deep sense of peace which came with learning to love God for who he is rather than what he could do for me. I think learning to trust has to be one of the hardest things we learn to do, especially when we do not have control over our situation and for me this has been the emotional rollercoaster.

I have found that learning to trust God and believe that he will work all things together for good has enabled me to pick up the threads of my life again, embrace my prayer life and view my life from a more positive standpoint. I believe people in pain can have a huge desire to reduce pain in the world and can develop a prayer life that is deeply fulfilling, leaving them feeling cherished and loved for who they are, despite their situation, rather than abandoned.

The study from the University of Iowa indicates that those who are experiencing very poor health are more likely to engage in religious activities and suggests that perhaps this is simply a way of coping4. I would suggest it is more than that: they have discovered something beyond themselves that can give them a greater ability to cope, but also the desire to reach out to others in their pain to offer support, love and understanding. Prayer may or may not release you from your own physical pain, but it can bring you great joy and inner peace and inspire you to become involved in your local community to help relieve others of their pain.

  1. Barnes P.M. et al, Complimentary and alternative medicine used among adults, Advance Data Report, 2004.
  2. McCaffrey A.M. et al, Prayer for health concerns: results of a national survey on prevalence and patterns of use. Archives of Internal Medicine 2004, 164(8): 858-62.
  3. Margetic B. et al, Religiosity and health outcomes: review of literature. Coll Antropol. 2005, 29(1): 365-71.
  4. Rippentrop EA et al, The relationship between religion/spirituality and physical health, mental health, and pain in a chronic pain population. Journal of Pain 2005, 116

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