Prayer therapy

Prayer therapy for chronic disease: does it work? #MSBlog #MSResearch

“In response to Vasilis Vasilopoulos’ comment yesterday, ‘Let’s get back to praying as a treatment option’, you may be interested in the Cochrane review below that did not find any evidence to support prayer to alleviate ill health. I am not aware of any specific studies of prayer therapy in MS, but I may be wrong. I personally would not promote prayer therapy and I would also not stop someone from praying for an improved outcome in relation to their MS. Religion plays a very important role in society and in some peoples lives, we need  to respect that.”

Roberts et al. Intercessory prayer for the alleviation of ill health. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009 Apr 15;(2):CD000368.

BACKGROUND: Prayer is amongst the oldest and most widespread interventions used with the intention of alleviating illness and promoting good health. Given the significance of this response to illness for a large proportion of the world’s population, there has been considerable interest in recent years in measuring the efficacy of intercessory prayer for the alleviation of ill health in a scientifically rigorous fashion. The question of whether this may contribute towards proving or disproving the existence of God is a philosophical question lying outside the scope of this review of the effects of prayer. This revised version of the review has been prepared in response to feedback and to reflect new methods in the conduct and presentation of Cochrane reviews.

OBJECTIVES: To review the effects of intercessory prayer as an additional intervention for people with health problems already receiving routine health care.

SEARCH STRATEGY: We systematically searched ten relevant databases including MEDLINE and EMBASE (June 2007).

SELECTION CRITERIA: We included any randomised trial comparing personal, focused, committed and organised intercessory prayer with those interceding holding some belief that they are praying to God or a god versus any other intervention. This prayer could be offered on behalf of anyone with health problems.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: We extracted data independently and analysed it on an intention to treat basis, where possible. We calculated, for binary data, the fixed-effect relative risk (RR), their 95% confidence intervals (CI), and the number needed to treat or harm (NNT or NNH).

MAIN RESULTS: Ten studies are included in this updated review (7646 patients). For the comparison of intercessory prayer plus standard care versus standard care alone, overall there was no clear effect of intercessory prayer on death, with the effect not reaching statistical significance and data being heterogeneous (6 RCTs, n=6784, random-effects RR 0.77 CI 0.51 to 1.16, I(2) 83%). For general clinical state there was also no significant difference between groups (5 RCTs, n=2705, RR intermediate or bad outcome 0.98 CI 0.86 to 1.11). Four studies found no effect for re-admission to Coronary Care Unit (4 RCTs, n=2644, RR 1.00 CI 0.77 to 1.30).Two other trials found intercessory prayer had no effect on re-hospitalisation (2 RCTs, n=1155, RR 0.93 CI 0.71 to 1.22).

AUTHORS’ CONCLUSIONS: These findings are equivocal and, although some of the results of individual studies suggest a positive effect of intercessory prayer,the majority do not and the evidence does not support a recommendation either in favour or against the use of intercessory prayer. We are not convinced that further trials of this intervention should be undertaken and would prefer to see any resources available for such a trial used to investigate other questions in health care.

CoI: I grew up in Christian/Catholic family environment, but I now classify myself as being an agnostic.

About the author

Prof G

Professor of Neurology, Barts & The London. MS & Preventive Neurology thinker, blogger, runner, vegetable gardener, husband, father, cook and wine & food lover.


  • Really? I find it so sad that in 2014, people still need religion, and to look outside of themselves to fairy tales for answers.

  • Anyway miracle happens….
    look at case studies literature….happens with all ilness, multiple sclerosis as well.
    Medjugorje, Lourdes and so on.
    No scientific explanation, it only happens (sometimes)

  • I try it becasue I have the same background as Prof G – the thing is prayer can lessen stress which in turn can lessen an MS attack (as I believe although more studies are urgently needed!) so in that way a philosophical / religious outlook is as good as anything.

    I would never say though that through prayer you can make somebody walk again unless perhaps their incapacity was caused by psychosomatic reasons not organic!

    • Anon at 9.25am I think you may be right here. Prayer gives time to reflect and relax, which may reduce stress. Stress is not good in MS and also other illnesses, I think sarcoidosis can be precipitated by stress. Studies are needed to investigate stress and MS.

    • There is currently a phase II trial of Mindful based stress reduction (MBSR) in MS by Glasgow University. Recuitment closed for this trial mid September 2014. It will be interesting to read the results.

    • It will be interesting to see. I practice mindfulness mainly by Zen meditation .. That and tulsi (also known as Holy Basil @2.5 mg ursolic acid x3 times a day – in EAE models it has also been found to be anti-inflammatory, though that's not why I take it, I have other herbal stuff for that) certainly helps keep the stress down. What I find interesting is not all stress has an impact. For me, I have isolated it to uncontrollable emotional stress of at least four week's duration. Work stress has no affect and I really like working to deadlines and being very busy (way to much energy for MS according to my neurologist :)). Even though I don't have constant stress, mindfulness is something you need to do every day.

    • It really concerns me that the consequences of stress in MS are not been taken seriously. Stress in MS has changed my life beyond belief. I would say this needs to be one of the priorites of universities researching into MS. I do stress management myself as I am all to aware of how damaging it can be to MSers.

  • I'm a Christian and believe that miracles can happen. However, they're miracles precisely because they're not the norm. I believe in prayer. It's part of my relationship with God. I dislike it if promises of healing are made though or if prayer is imposed in an insensitive way. When I pray personally or sensitive others support me that way, it does give me peace. Medicine and doctors are no less important because of that. I pray because it is my lifeline. I inject myself with Copaxone every day because I choose life.

  • Prayer may work in a similar way as the placebo-effect and a subgroup of people may be more susceptible to its effects than others. I don't think we should dismiss the potential of the placebo or prayer. We need to keep an open mind when it comes to alternative medicine and therapies. It is all about being proactive about your disease management.

    • I could not agree more about alternative therapies, but so far in the last two weeks all I've seen on this blog is dubious 'oxygen therapy'' and now prayer. There is a lot more that this, that have shown more efficacy so why highlight the dodgy ones? Because I could not get access to DMT, I did a post grad in herbal medicine. I read medicine at college before switching to anthropology, which didn't involve dissecting mice – sorry Mouse Doctor, so it isn't too difficult to work out what might -in theory -have some effect etc. I have a very mild course so far -25 years, no EDDS etc etc, and perhaps my diet, exercise and the herbal meds, I take every day helps with this. I'm writing on my tablet because posting from my macbook doesn't seem to work with this blog, otherwise, I'd give examples.

  • Is it me or is MS research news very thin on the ground? We had a batch of COI posts and now prayer. Prof G – any views on what research news / trial news we might expect to hear about in the next 12 months? Apart from Alemtuzumab not much seems to be happening. I'm praying it's the lull before the storm.

    • Re: "I'm praying it's the lull before the storm."

      We have the Daclizumab results, next out will be the fingolimod in PPMS (potentially very big news), then raltegravir in RRMS (black swan), phenytoin in acute optic neuritis and later next year ocrelizumab in RRMS. Then there are the remyelination studies that are getting off the ground. So things are happening; it always looks quite when you look over months, but when you extend your vision to years a lot is going on in the MS space.

    • Prof G,

      Thanks. When you have MS these things can't come quick enough. I was surprised to see how many remyelination trials were planned – your presentation at the Imperial College event. I wasn't quite so excited when I saw the Daclizumab trial results. Enjoy your sabbatical.

  • I am very much excited about the current medical research on buddhist prayer which is basically meditation, if one excludes the "please god give me this and that…", real christian prayers could potentially have the same meditative effect. I believe that when heavy inflammation is going on, the body will send signals through the feedback systems that have evolved over millions of years. Inflammation is a result of some heavily disturbed balances in the biochemistry of the body, and through the feed-back systems a person will identify those needs, whether it is sun-light, or a special diet etc, but we have unlearned to use those feedback-mechanism…So, enough of my gibberish, here some good links for the scientific mind:

  • "you cannot petition the Lord with prayer" The Soft Parade, Jim Morrison of The Doors. Not to ask for "things" from God, but to seek clarity with the use of prayer. Unfortunately Jim Morrison sought clarity in bottles of bourbon. So ends the sermon:-)

By Prof G



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