Prayer, distant healing

March 22, 2017


Prayer, distant healing

Natural Standard Bottom Line Monograph, Copyright © 2013 (www.naturalstandard.com). Commercial distribution prohibited. This monograph is intended for informational purposes only, and should not be interpreted as specific medical advice. You should consult with a qualified healthcare provider before making decisions about therapies and/or health conditions.

While some complementary and alternative techniques have been studied scientifically, high-quality data regarding safety, effectiveness, and mechanism of action are limited or controversial for most therapies. Whenever possible, it is recommended that practitioners be licensed by a recognized professional organization that adheres to clearly published standards. In addition, before starting a new technique or engaging a practitioner, it is recommended that patients speak with their primary healthcare provider(s). Potential benefits, risks (including financial costs), and alternatives should be carefully considered. The below monograph is designed to provide historical background and an overview of clinically-oriented research, and neither advocates for or against the use of a particular therapy.

Related Terms

  • Absent healing, attitudinal healing, Ayurvedic healing, centering prayer, compassion and healing, compassionate intention, distant healing, divining, entanglement theory, external qi gong, faith healing, healing belief, holographic consciousness, human energy fields, imagery, intentionality, intercessory prayer (IP), Kahuna healing, meditation, mental healing, mind beyond body, Native American faith healing, noetic therapy, psychic healing, qigong, quantum healing, quantum mechanics, Reiki, religion, remote healing, remote prayer, search for God, spiritual healing, spirituality, state-dependent learning, Sufi healing.


  • Prayer can be defined as a "reverent petition," the act of asking for something while aiming to connect with God or another object of worship. Prayer on behalf of the ill or dying has played a prominent role throughout history and across cultures.

  • Prayer is found in many forms. It may be practiced by individuals or organized groups within the framework of an organized religion or without ascribing to a particular faith or belief system. Prayers can focus on a specific desired outcome or be undirected without an objective in mind.

  • Individuals may pray on behalf of themselves, or for others. "Intercessory prayer" refers to prayers said by individuals or groups on behalf of a person who is ill or in need. Intercessors (those praying on behalf of the ill) sometimes have specific objectives in mind when they pray or they can appeal for the general well-being or improvement of a patient's health. Prayers said by intercessors may or may not be known to the ill individual. Intercessory prayers may be performed from a distance or in the presence of patients and in some cases will involve the laying on of hands.

  • Most clergy members receive training in pastoral care from their respective institutions. Certified chaplains and pastoral counselors are trained to address the spiritual and emotional needs of physically and mentally ill patients and their families or loved ones.


  • There are several theories as to how prayer might be beneficial during illness, including both scientific and metaphysical explanations.

  • It has been suggested that patients who pray for themselves or are aware that others are praying for them may develop stronger coping skills and decreased anxiety, thereby potentially improving health outcomes. Other theories include beneficial effects of prayer or "positive thinking" on the immune system, central nervous system (brain), or endocrine (hormonal) system. The meditative, relaxing aspects of prayer have been suggested to have beneficial effects such as lowering blood pressure. There are no plausible scientific explanations for the possible effects of intercessory prayers said without the knowledge of patients.

  • Metaphysical explanations and beliefs often underlie the practice of prayer. Prayers may be rooted in a belief in the power of a superior being or God who can influence health.

  • Studies on the effects of intercessory prayer on health outcomes report variable results, with some research finding benefits and other trials noting no effects. Most research in this area is not well designed or reported. There are several difficulties with studies of prayer that make it difficult to form firm conclusions: there are many different types of prayer and religious orientations; intercessors do not always know the identity of patients in studies and therefore prayers are often non-specific; it is challenging to design a study with "placebo" prayer; and there is not widespread agreement on how to best measure outcomes.

Scientific Evidence


These uses have been tested in humans or animals. Safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider.


Critical illness

There are several studies of intercessory prayer on behalf of patients in intensive care units with severe heart disease or infections. Although some research reports promising results, most trials have not been well designed or reported. As a result, a firm conclusion is not possible.



Limited study of prayer in patients with AIDS reports fewer new AIDS-related illnesses and hospitalizations, although due to methodological problems these results cannot be considered conclusive.


Alcohol or drug dependency

Initial research reports no effects of intercessory prayer on alcohol or drug dependency. Better research is necessary before a firm conclusion can be drawn.



Prayer has been studied in patients with anxiety but results are mixed.


Blood pressure control

Initial study reports no effects of intercessory prayer on blood pressure. Better research is necessary before a firm conclusion can be drawn.



Limited research in burn patients reports improved outcomes when prayer is used, although due to methodological problems these results cannot be considered conclusive.



Initial studies in patients with cancer (such as leukemia) report variable effects on disease progression or death rates when intercessory prayer is used. Better quality research is necessary before a firm conclusion can be drawn.


Cardiac bypass (complications)

In one well-designed clinical trial, intercessory prayer had no effect on complication-free recovery from coronary artery bypass surgery. Interestingly, patients that knew they were receiving intercessory prayer (as opposed to those who did not know) were associated with a higher incidence of complications. More study is needed to confirm these results.


Chronic pain

There is not enough scientific evidence to make a firm recommendation about prayer for chronic pain.


Conflict resolution

Prayer appears to be a significant "softening" event for religious couples, facilitating reconciliation and problem-solving based on one study.



Early study suggests psychiatric inpatients might benefit from anonymous distant healing intention.



The potential effect of intercessory prayer on pregnancy rates in women being treated with in vitro fertilization-embryo transfer has been studied. Preliminary results seem positive, but further research is necessary.


Heart disease/heart attack

Initial studies in patients with heart disease report variable effects on the severity of illness, complications during hospitalization, procedure outcome, or death rates when intercessory prayer is used. Better quality research is necessary before a firm conclusion can be drawn.


Improving health outcomes (general)

There are numerous studies on the effects of intercessory prayer (praying on behalf of patients) on illness severity, death, and well-being of patients or loved ones. Results are variable with some studies reporting benefits of prayer on severity or length of illness and others suggesting no effects. Most research has not been well designed or reported and as a result, a firm conclusion is not possible. Additional research is needed in this area with clear descriptions of prayer techniques and well-defined health outcomes.Several studies in which patients knew that prayers were being said on their behalf report benefits, although it is not clear that prayer is superior to other forms of compassionate interaction.



Prayer may help reduce the length of hospital stay as well as the duration of fever in patients with infections. However, early study is controversial and additional study is needed before a conclusion can be drawn.


Kidney disease (kidney transplant)

Preliminary research shows positive trends associated with prayer and spirituality in patients with end stage renal disease who are coping after kidney transplant. Further research is needed before conclusions can be drawn.



Initial studies report fewer birth complications in people who are religious or pray, although due to methodological problems, these results cannot be considered conclusive.



Preliminary study suggests that older adults who participate in private religious activity before the onset of impairment in activities of daily living appear to have a survival advantage over those who do not. Further research is needed to confirm these results.


Psychological disorders

Forty-eight percent of the homeless women in one study reported that the use of prayer significantly related to less use of alcohol and/or street drugs, fewer perceived worries, and fewer depressive symptoms. Further research is needed before a firm conclusion can be drawn in this area.


Quality of life in chronically ill patients

Limited study reports improved quality of life in patients who desire others to pray for them and receive healing. Better quality research is necessary before a firm conclusion can be drawn.


Rheumatoid arthritis

Initial research suggests that in-person intercessory prayer (praying by others in the presence of patients) may reduce pain, fatigue, tenderness, swelling, and weakness when it is used in addition to standard care. Better quality research is necessary before a firm conclusion can be drawn.


Sickle cell anemia

Prayer has been studied as a coping mechanism for patients with sickle cell disease with mixed results.



There is some research that suggests that religiously active persons may be less likely to smoke cigarettes or, if they do smoke, may be likely to smoke fewer cigarettes.



Prayer has not been shown to help prevent or treat diabetes or related health issues. Diabetes should be treated by a qualified healthcare professional using proven therapies.



Early study suggests that distant healing by experienced healers may have no effect in removal or size of skin warts.


*Key to grades:A: Strong scientific evidence for this use; B: Good scientific evidence for this use; C: Unclear scientific evidence for this use; D: Fair scientific evidence against this use (it may not work); F: Strong scientific evidence against this use (it likely does not work).


The below uses are based on tradition or scientific theories. They often have not been thoroughly tested in humans, and safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious and should be evaluated by a qualified health care professional.

  • Adjunct in surgery (perioperative management), angioplasty, arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms), cystic fibrosis, gastrointestinal disorders, immune system stimulation, increased cerebral blood flow, inflammatory dermatoses, lung disease, lung function (successful liberation from prolonged mechanical ventilation), meningitis, menopause, neurological disorders, respiratory disease, self-esteem, spinal cord injury, stress, stroke, viral infection (polio), wound healing.


Many complementary techniques are practiced by healthcare professionals with formal training, in accordance with the standards of national organizations. However, this is not universally the case, and adverse effects are possible. Due to limited research, in some cases only limited safety information is available.

  • Prayer is not recommended as the sole treatment approach for potentially serious medical conditions and should not delay the time it takes to consult with a healthcare professional or receive established therapies. Sometimes religious beliefs come into conflict with standard medical approaches and an open dialog between patients and caregivers is recommended.

Author Information

  • This information is based on a systematic review of scientific literature edited and peer-reviewed by contributors to the Natural Standard Research Collaboration (www.naturalstandard.com).


Natural Standard developed the above evidence-based information based on a thorough systematic review of the available scientific articles. For comprehensive information about alternative and complementary therapies on the professional level, go to www.naturalstandard.com. Selected references are listed below.

  1. Benson H, Dusek JA, Sherwood JB, et al. Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer. Am Heart J. 2006 Apr;151(4):934-42. View Abstract

  2. Blumenthal JA, Babyak MA, Ironson G, et al. Spirituality, religion, and clinical outcomes in patients recovering from an acute myocardial infarction. Psychosom Med 2007 Jul-Aug;69(6):501-8. View Abstract

  3. Cha KY, Wirth DP, Lobo RA. Does prayer influence the success of in vitro fertilization-embryo transfer? Report of a masked, randomized trial. J Reprod.Med 2001;46(9):781-787. View Abstract

  4. Collipp PJ. The efficacy of prayer: a triple-blind study. Med Times 1969;97(5):201-204. View Abstract

  5. Dossey L. Prayer and medical science: a commentary on the prayer study by Harris et al and a response to critics. Arch Intern.Med 6-26-2000;160(12):1735-1737. View Abstract

  6. Hamm RM. No effect of intercessory prayer has been proven. Arch Intern Med 6-26-2000;160(12):1872-1873. View Abstract

  7. Harris WS, Gowda M, Kolb JW, et al. A randomized, controlled trial of the effects of remote, intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients admitted to the coronary care unit. Arch Intern Med 10-25-1999;159(19):2273-2278. View Abstract

  8. Hoover DR, Margolick JB. Questions on the design and findings of a randomized, controlled trial of the effects of remote, intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients admitted to the coronary care unit. Arch Intern Med 6-26-2000;160(12):1875-1876. View Abstract

  9. Ikedo F, Gangahar DM, Quader MA, et al. The effects of prayer, relaxation technique during general anesthesia on recovery outcomes following cardiac surgery. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2007 May;13(2):85-94. View Abstract

  10. Krucoff MW, Crater SW, Gallup D, et al. Music, imagery, touch, and prayer as adjuncts to interventional cardiac care: the Monitoring and Actualisation of Noetic Trainings (MANTRA) II randomised study. Lancet 7-16-2005;366(9481):211-217. View Abstract

  11. Masters KS, Spielmans GI. Prayer and health: review, meta-analysis, and research agenda. J Behav Med 2007 Aug;30(4):329-38. View Abstract

  12. Matthews DA, Marlowe SM, MacNutt FS. Effects of intercessory prayer on patients with rheumatoid arthritis. South Med J 2000;93(12):1177-1186. View Abstract

  13. Narayanasamy A, Narayanasamy M. The healing power of prayer and its implications for nursing. Br J Nurs 2008 Mar 27-Apr 9;17(6):394-8. View Abstract

  14. Roberts L, Ahmed I, Hall S. Intercessory prayer for the alleviation of ill health. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2007 Jan 24;(1):CD000368. View Abstract

  15. Sicher F, Targ E, Moore D, et al. A randomized double-blind study of the effect of distant healing in a population with advanced AIDS. Report of a small scale study. West J Med 1998;169(6):356-363. View Abstract

Copyright © 2013 Natural Standard (www.naturalstandard.com)

The information in this monograph is intended for informational purposes only, and is meant to help users better understand health concerns. Information is based on review of scientific research data, historical practice patterns, and clinical experience. This information should not be interpreted as specific medical advice. Users should consult with a qualified healthcare provider for specific questions regarding therapies, diagnosis and/or health conditions, prior to making therapeutic decisions.


March 22, 2017