What Is It?
How Does It Work?
What You Can Expect
Health Benefits
How To Choose a Practitioner
Evidence Based Rating Scale

What Is It?

Prayer is an address to an entity thought to be greater than oneself (the word "prayer" comes from the Latin precarius, which means "obtained by begging"). The practice is rooted in the belief that there is a power larger and wiser than our human selves that can influence our lives.

Prayer is probably as old as mankind and is part of virtually every religion in the world. However, although it is often linked to religion, prayer can be practiced outside the realm of a specific religion. Not surprisingly, many people feel a deep sense of calm after praying. Like meditation, prayer has been found to promote a feeling of relaxation that is conducive to both mental and physical health.

Prayer can be expressed out loud or in thought, alone or in a group. It typically consists of praise, thanksgiving, a request, or a confession. Most types of prayer can be divided into four categories: meditative prayer; ritualistic prayer; petitionary prayer (the most common form in the U.S.); and conversational prayer.

·  Meditative prayer focuses on a particular topic, word, sound, or phrase in order to induce a state of relaxation. It may also create a receptive state in which one is able to hear God.

·  Ritualistic prayer involves reciting texts that have been learned as part of a particular religious tradition or training.

·  Petitionary prayer consists of addressing a divine being directly to request something, such as guidance or physical healing for oneself or another person (the latter is known as intercessory prayer, and is a form of what is known in alternative medicine as non-local or distant healing). This can involve as little as a name and photograph, you do not even need to have intimate knowledge of the subject.

·  Conversational prayer involves speaking on an very personal level with God about feelings, thoughts, and needs. It can be aloud or in your head.

Today polls show that most Americans believe that faith and prayer can benefit health. In response, more than 60 medical schools are now teaching courses on religious and spiritual issues, and many hospitals and clinics have set up centers for spirituality and healing. A recent study conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, found that out of a survey of 31,000 adults prayer was the most common form of integrative care used in the United States (1). Therefore, whether you choose to practice alone or in a group you will be able to find a practice that suite your personal tastes and needs.

Like many aspects of spirituality, exactly how prayer works is a mystery. Several theories exist. The easiest physiologic explanation is that prayer helps people handle stress more effectively. During any tense or anxiety-producing situation, the body's adrenal glands release chemicals that raise the heart rate and blood pressure and lower immunity. Praying helps people maintain lower stress levels, thus enhancing immunity and promoting health in general. In addition, people who pray tend to have a sense of purpose and to find meaning in life. Such a positive outlook also may promote health and well-being.

In recent years, many studies have appeared about the efficacy of distant healing for various medical conditions. However, just how prayer can help people across vast distances continues to evade conventional or physical explanation.

There is no correct or incorrect way to pray. Your conception of the deity or entity you pray to and how you choose to talk to that entity are very personal decisions. You can use any of the formal prayers created through the ages, which are available in countless sources, or you can make up your own prayers or incantations.

Some people prefer to pray in a church, synagogue, or mosque. Others feel more comfortable praying at home. Some pray silently while working or doing their household chores. Many people, especially Christians, kneel when they pray, but you can also sit, walk, or lie down. You can pray using song and dance as well as words. As long as you are honest and earnest, there is no form or topic of prayer that is taboo.


Numerous scientific studies have evaluated the therapeutic effects of prayer. Generally, the research has shown that people who pray regularly are less likely to become ill and that when they do, they tend to recover faster. Interestingly, not only does prayer seem to have healing effects upon the people who pray, it also appears to benefit those who are prayed for by others.

Research reveals that people who pray have lower depression and suicide rates as ell as better overall psychological health (2). Prayer even appears to lower blood pressure. In a study funded by the National Institutes of Health, investigators found that individuals who attended religious services at least once a week and prayed at least once a day or studied the Bible frequently were 40% less likely to have high blood pressure than those who did so infrequently. In other research, elderly women recovering from hip-fracture surgery who had strong religious beliefs and practices were able to walk greater distances when they left the hospital than those who were not as religious.

Other chronic conditions seem to benefit from prayer and spiritual practice as well. Sickle cell patients report reduced levels of pain resulting from regular practice (3). Other studies have confirmed that prayer can help mediate both the physical and psychological strains resulting from chronic illness. Prayer has been reported to have the ability help patients cope better with pain and also help them find personal answers in the search for meaning and purpose in their lives (4-6). Prayer and spiritual involvement may even help improve health in healthy individuals. Prayer has been shown to improve coping, reduce stress, and even reduce the chances of taking up unhealthy behaviors such as alcohol or drug dependence (7).

Studies have also yielded findings in the area of distant healing (which includes intercessory prayer for someone who is ill), although many of these reports are ony in their preliminary stages of research. This research topic is quickly expending. A small study of healers asked to send healing energies between themselves and a person with whom they felt a connection while the subject was receiving a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) brain scan. Consistently between subjects brain activation was noted in the anterior and middle cingulate area, precuneus, and frontal areas (8). This area of research will prove to be very interesting and very controversial in the years to come.

A large study conducted by surgeon Randolph C. Byrd was published in 1988 in the Southern Medical Journal. In the study 393 coronary heart disease patients with similar symptoms of were admitted to a coronary care unit. The patients were divided into two groups, with neither group knowing whether they were being prayed-for or not. Distant healing was sent from born-again Christians to just under half of the patients. The remainder of subjects were not prayed-for and served as controls.

At the end of the study, all of the patients' charts were analyzed. Results showed that significantly fewer patients in the prayed-for group required ventilation/intubation; they also needed fewer drugs and contracted pneumonia less than those who were not prayed for. Similar results were found in another 2001 study conducted on 120 patients receiving various forms of non-pharmacologic therapy (9). Prayer did not shorten the hospital stay of either group, however (10).

This finding is not uniform across studies, though. A study conducted on 800 adults over the age of 50 hospitalized for general medical conditions, found that the average number of hospitalized days in patients requiring long term case, was reduced by those patients who reported having a regular religious or spiritual practice (11).

A long term study on 3,851 older adults found that those that had an established religious or spiritual practice prior to the onset of disease, showed reduced mortality rates compared to their counterparts who only began practice after experiencing impaired function (12,13). So perhaps you should try and develop your own individualized plan early in life. That way when the multitudes of commitments besiege you as you enter midlife you will be better able to deal with the stress and also will establish a beneficial routine for your later years.

How To Choose a Practitioner

If you find that you are having trouble learning to pray, or want to investigate your spirituality in other ways, consult with a local pastor, priest, rabbi, or other spiritual leader, or contact one of the many centers for spirituality and healing that are affiliated with hospitals across the country.

Prayer does not have to be confined to any particular form of worship service or denomination. The main benefit of prayer may be in the intention and quiet time you spend with yourself but, not concentrating on your daily worries. Studies show that helping others actually boosts the levels of chemicals associated with positive emotions and can even help boost your immune system. Therefore, how you practice is not as important as the positive intention and genuine compassion you cultivate in your practice.

There are no procedural cautions associated with prayer. However, if you are suffering from a chronic condition try not to become enveloped in a religious struggle with your circumstances. Some people find themselves questioning their higher power or the fates in terms of fault or blame for their misfortunes. These individuals tend to experience higher mortality rates than their religious but non-conflicted counterparts (14). If you find yourself struggling to come to grips with your situation, you should consider seeing a behavioral health practitioner or professional counselor.


1. Barnes PM, Powell-Griner E, McFann K, Nahin RL. Complementary and alternative medicine use among adults: United States, 2002. CDC Advance Data Report #343. 2004. Accessed at on January 17, 2005.

2. Koenig HG. Religion and medicine II: religion, mental health, and related behaviors. Int J Psychiatry Med. 2001;31(1):97-109.

3. Harrison MO, Edwards CL, Koenig HG, Bosworth HB, Decastro L, Wood M. Religiosity/spirituality and pain in patients with sickle cell disease. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2005 Apr;193(4):250-7.

4. Koenig HG. Religion, spirituality, and medicine: research findings and implications for clinical practice. South Med J. 2004 Dec;97(12):1194-200.

5. Koenig HG, Larson DB, Larson SS. Religion and coping with serious medical illness. Ann Pharmacother. 2001 Mar;35(3):352-9.

6. Koenig HG. Psychoneuroimmunology and the faith factor. J Gend Specif Med. 2000 Jul-Aug;3(5):37-44.

7. Koenig HG. Religion and medicine III: developing a theoretical model. Int J Psychiatry Med. 2001;31(2):199-216.

8. Achterberg J, Cooke K, Richards T, Standish LJ, Kozak L, Lake J. Evidence for correlations between distant intentionality and brain function in recipients: a functional magnetic resonance imaging analysis. J Altern Complement Med. 2005 Dec;11(6):965-71.

9. Krucoff MW, Crater SW, Green CL, Maas AC, Seskevich JE, Lane JD, Loeffler KA, Morris K, Bashore TM, Koenig HG. Integrative noetic therapies as adjuncts to percutaneous intervention during unstable coronary syndromes: Monitoring and Actualization of Noetic Training (MANTRA) feasibility pilot. Am Heart J. 2001 Nov;142(5):760-9.

10.  Byrd RC. Positive therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer in a coronary care unit population. South Med J. 1988 Jul;81(7):826-9.

11.  Koenig HG, George LK, Titus P, Meador KG. Religion, spirituality, and acute care hospitalization and long-term care use by older patients. Arch Intern Med. 2004 Jul 26;164(14):1579-85.

12.  Helm HM, Hays JC, Flint EP, Koenig HG, Blazer DG. Does private religious activity prolong survival? A six-year follow-up study of 3,851 older adults. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2000 Jul;55(7):M400-5.

13.  Koenig HG,

Date Published: 04/19/2005
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