A+ A A-

Can prayer really heal?


Twelve years ago Nancie Nicholson's two-year-old nephew, Kyle, began having problems with his balance. It took doctors a month to figure out what was wrong: Tests showed a rare form of cancer in one of his adrenal glands.

Note from the Editor: The following article makes some useful points -- informing us, for example, that prayer can and often does result in miraculous healing. It also informs us that the healing power of prayer is beginning to be widely acknowledged â even within the medical world.

At the same time, the article fails to make important distinctions: between different kinds of prayer, different faith communities and their different understandings and approaches to prayer, and it also neglects to make the point that the power of prayer is dependent on the strength of the faith of he or she who is praying. Clearly from a Christian point of view these represent serious deficiencies. Nevertheless, it was felt that the article was worth reprinting for what it "does" say.


Doctors recommended surgery to remove the gland, but gave the young boy only a 20 to 25 percent chance of recovery. Feeling powerless, Nicholson decided to enlist the help of a prayer group at her children's Catholic school in Uxbridge, Ont. On the day of the surgery, 300 students and staff put their hands -- and minds -- together and prayed for Kyle.

Most people turn to prayer at some point in their lives. It's a centuries-old source of comfort and strength during times of crisis. But when you open your eyes, the question remains: Can prayer really affect health? Over the past decade the medical community has been looking for answers, and now scores of scientific studies point to a positive and, at times, mysterious link between prayer and health. As a result, 80 of the 126 medical schools in the United States have formal courses that examine the evidence surrounding the healing power of prayer.

That's not to say there isn't skepticism among health professionals and spiritual leaders. Many point out, for example, how difficult it is to ensure that subjects enrolled in the control group of a prayer study don't receive prayers in the same way that those in the treatment group do. Surely, says Dr. Harold G. Koenig, director of the Centre for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health at Duke University Medical Centre in Durham, N.C., your friends will pray for you whether you're in a study or not.

And what about all the people who die despite prayers? "Are people who promote prayer as healing implying that people whose prayers aren't answered are not sufficiently faithful?" asks Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka, national secretary of the Canadian Jewish Congress.

Even if there is scientific evidence that casts doubt, numerous Canadians swear that the prayers of family, friends and even strangers were instrumental in their recovery. Nicholson, for example, believes that prayer helped Kyle, now a healthy 15-year-old.

Koenig, too, believes that praying for health or recovery from an illness works -- especially for the person who is praying. "As scientists, we can show that people experience a sense of relaxation, peace, control and comfort when they're praying," he says.

Over and above the stress-busting benefits, quieting the mind and body in prayer has proven to have physiological effects and may even prolong life. Koenig describes a large American study of healthy older adults published in the Journal of Gerontology in 2000. It shows that those who pray or read the Bible are 50 percent more likely to survive over a six-year period than those who don't.

Similarly, when Dr. Marilyn Baetz, a psychiatrist and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, studied the level of religious commitment of 88 depressed and medicated psychiatric patients, she found that those who used some sort of spirituality or religion to cope (prayer or attending worship services) had shorter hospital stays and higher life satisfaction than those who didn't.

How does prayer affect the body? A meditative state decreases blood pressure, relaxes muscles and reduces the secretion of stress hormones. Also, prayer may have a positive effect on immune-system and cardiovascular function and help the body cope better with illness.

One study of older adults showed that those who pray or read the Bible are 50 percent more likely to survive over a six-year period.

But physiology alone can't explain the case of Father Tom Lynch. About 13 years ago, at the age of 32, Lynch was stricken with a form of Bell's palsy, a virus that destroyed a nerve in his throat and left him with one vocal cord. At the time, he was a busy prison chaplain in Peterborough, Ont., who also ran two parishes. Once his voice gave out and he began to experience breathing and swallowing problems, he had to resign his posts. Over a difficult 14-month period, Lynch learned how to swallow and speak again. To this day, doctors tell him that he shouldn't have a voice.

During Lynch's ordeal, thousands of people, including his parishioners, prayed for his health. "I believe fervently that I'm able to talk because of prayer," says Lynch, who works at St. Augustine's Seminary in Toronto.

Physiology also can't explain how prayer on behalf of someone else (intercessory prayer) works when the afflicted person doesn't even know that he's being prayed for. Consider the story of Marguerite Prevost of Ste-Genevieve, Que. Two weeks after having a tumour removed from her colon in 1991, the 71-year-old woman suffered severe complications. She had two more operations in one week, but her condition continued to worsen. Her doctor finally threw up his hands, saying there was nothing more he could do â Prevost needed a miracle.

So that's what family members, along with the Sisters of Saint Anne in Ste-Genevieve and parishioners, asked for. Two days after they had prayed to the venerable (and deceased) Mother Marie-Anne Blondin to ask God to cure Prevost, she started to recover. As far as the Vatican is concerned, Prevost's case was a medical and religious miracle, which qualified Mother Marie-Anne to be declared "blessed" and one miracle away from being ordained a saint.

Dr. Larry Dossey, author of nine books, including Healing Beyond the Body, is another believer in the benefits of intercessory prayer. He can rhyme off a litany of studies that provide support. For example:

  • In 1988 Dr. Randolph Byrd, a cardiologist at San Francisco General Hospital, randomly assigned almost 400 patients in a coronary-care unit to either a group that received daily prayers or a group that did not. While in hospital, those who had been prayed for were much less likely to need antibiotics or develop complications.

  • In 1997 Dr. Elisabeth Targ, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, recruited experienced distant healers who used prayer on patients with advanced AIDS for about one hour a day. Forty percent of those not prayed for died, while none of the patients who received the distant healing died. Targ doubled the number of patients and started over â again, the patients who received prayer fared much better.

  • In September 2001 the Journal of Reproductive Medicine published a study from Columbia University in New York that examined 219 women at an in vitro fertilization clinic in Korea. It showed that women who were prayed for were twice as successful in conceiving.

No one knows for sure how prayer might work to cure the sick. But if we accept that prayer does heal, what about nonbelievers? Even if nonreligious people say they don't pray, they probably do look for answers surrounding life-and-death issues, says John Vincent, teaching supervisor of pastoral services at Sunnybrook and Women's College Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. "It seems the answers come from within people and yet, at the same time, from a source of energy and life that people acknowledge as beyond themselves," he says.

Regardless of their religious affiliation, health professionals try to tap into that energy. Take Dr. Yvonne Kason, a Toronto physician who had a near-death experience after praying during a plane crash in 1979. Although she follows standard medical procedures, she also recommends that her patients pray and meditate.

Patients of Dr. Lucinda Sykes, a physician and psychotherapist who founded the Meditation for Health program in Toronto, use a form of contemplative prayer to facilitate and support healing.

For Dr. Larry Dossey, this pause for prayer can affect a person's health, whether God is in the loop or not. And such prayers may continue to form an integral part of our lives. He concludes: "We are in one of those transition periods in human culture in which we cannot order our personal lives or even our world -- as we've seen since September 11 -- without trying to bring a sense of spirituality and meaning to modern life."




Ylva Van Buuren. "Can Prayer Really Heal?" Canadian Living (April, 2002).

This article first appeared in Canadian Living and was reprinted in the April, 2004 issue of Reader's Digest.

It is reprinted here with permission from the author.

The Author

Ylva Van Buuren is a freelance writer in Toronto.

Copyright © 2004 Ylva Van Buuren
back to top