Greeting card companies have long known something science is only now trying to prove: Sending "get well soon" sentiments can help people feel better.
Lately, researchers have been looking at what beneficial role prayer and other forms of distant healing might have as an adjunctive therapy to medicine. And the results indicate that faith may not only be a great healer for those who believe, but also for those on the receiving end of the well-wishing.
A study published recently in the Archives of Internal Medicine, for instance, involved 990 cardiac patients in hospital coronary care units. The researchers found that intercessory prayer (spiritual attention directed toward or on behalf of another) was associated with better patient outcomes.
Another study, conducted with 40 advanced AIDS patients and published in the Western Journal of Medicine, found that distant healing resulted in fewer doctor visits, hospitalizations, and AIDS-related illnesses.
The most recent findings come from a review of 23 studies involving 2,774 patients. Led by John A. Astin, Ph.D., a health psychologist at the University of Maryland's School of Medicine, the research suggests that good intentions, without any physical contact—or even the patient's knowledge—may be healing to those with acute and chronic diseases.
The review found that distant healing was effective in 13 (57 percent) of the studies. (Nine others showed no effect, and one showed faster healing in the placebo group than in the test group.)
Yet while scientists are eagerly seeking to measure the effects of distant healing, figuring out how it works is another question.
There are presently three prevailing theories surrounding distant healing. The first is the idea of a universal energy that connects people, which means it would be conceivable for energy to flow from one person to another. A second theory suggests that human consciousness is nonlocal, and doesn't reside in the brain necessarily, but somewhere outside the body and mind, similar to a satellite connection. Then there's the more religious concept of distant healing being mediated through some higher power.
Considered a new player in the realm of complementary medicine, distant healing appears to be gaining ground as a potentially effective treatment for various ailments.
This explains The Prayer Site (www.theprayersite.com), the Web site and brainchild of George R. Schwartz, M.D., medical director of the Healing Research Institute. Launched in April of this year, the nonsectarian Web site allows people to post prayer requests to complement medical healing.
While we can't measure prayer in a dose-response relationship as we do drugs, Schwartz says gene mapping will soon help us arrive at some fast, hard evidence about its healing powers. "In the next few years, we'll be able to examine prayer by its effects at the micromolecular and genomic level," he says. "We'll study it in people who have a genetic profile whereby a protein predisposes them to a certain disease. Then we can see if prayer can measurably alter the expression of the protein."
Skeptics, however, suggest that a lot more evidence is necessary before doctors tell their patients, "Say two Hail Marys and call me in the morning."