Prayer and Spirituality

For tens of thousands of years, religion has been a major aspect of human culture. An overwhelming majority of Americans believe in a God who responds to prayer, and three-quarters of physicians believe faith can help with recovery from an illness. Spirituality refers to a person’s commitment to religious values. Prayer is a practice used as a means to communicate with a higher power, in order to ask for help or give thanks. Prayer is often used in combination with conventional medicine. However, followers of some faiths, such as Christian Science, sometimes choose to use prayer instead of conventional medical care. Recently, interest in the medical implications of spirituality and prayer has grown. This surge in attention is in part due to the work of Dr. Larry Dossey and Dr. Herbert Benson.

Treatment Approach

Prayer is a common religious practice and takes many forms. It can be done individually or in large groups, in silent mediation or spoken aloud. Intercessory prayer is a type of prayer in which one individual prays for another. As prayer is merely a single component of religious practice, it may not have the same effect if used without the other components.

Spirituality has been shown to have some effectiveness as a treatment, but it has yet to be determined whether these effects go beyond those of a placebo. Some have suggested religion may simply be a particularly strong means by which to deliver the placebo effect, as the placebo effect requires belief and spirituality is a very strong form of belief.

Evaluation in MS and Other Conditions

There is limited research on how prayer and spirituality affect people with MS. One large, formal clinical study currently being conducted in the Midwest is examining how intercessory prayer affects disability and quality of life. Over 200 people with MS are participating in this study, where they are randomly assigned to either a treatment group which receives prayers, or a control group which does not. The findings from this research have yet to be published.

The results of studies evaluating prayer in medical conditions tend to be mixed. Some have reported prayer may reduce anxiety and depression, which are often seen in association with MS. This may be due to the relaxing effects of prayer, which are similar to those seen with meditation (see Meditation page).

Some of the current interest in research on intercessory prayer dates back to a 1988 study in San Francisco. This study involved 400 people in the coronary care unit and found that people who were prayed for experienced fewer complications. Since its publication this study has been widely criticized, in part due to statistical flaws.

Reviews of intercessory prayer studies have been published. They report that many studies have produced intriguing data, but results were often mixed and complicated by shortcomings in methodology. The reviews also suggest that further research may be warranted, but urge improved methodology and adherence to strict clinical study guidelines.

No formal studies concerning the effects of spirituality on MS have been conducted. Other studies, however, have found that religious involvement may help with stress, depression, and anxiety, symptoms that may occur in association with MS. Furthermore, spirituality and religious involvement may decrease mortality rates, improve quality of life, decrease the risk of developing certain diseases, and help with both coping and recovery.

Adverse Effects

Spirituality and prayer are widely regarded as safe. Some people have expressed concerns over the potential for negative thoughts about an individual to negatively impact health. Prayer and spirituality are not substitutes for conventional medicine.


Prayer and spirituality are low risk and inexpensive. Their efficacy in influencing medical outcomes has yet to be established. Some research has suggested prayer and spirituality may help with anxiety and depression. Religious involvement may also prevent some diseases, improve quality of life, decrease mortality rates, and help people cope with and recover from illness. The results of a recent study evaluating the effectiveness of intercessory prayer on MS have yet to be published.

References and Additional Reading


Benson H. Timeless Healing: The Power and Biology of Belief. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Bowling AC. Complementary and Alternative Medicine and Multiple Sclerosis. New York: Demos Medical Publishing, 2007, pp. 190-194.

Cassileth BR. The Alternative Medicine Handbook. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998:292- 293, 309–313.

Dossey L. Reinventing Medicine: Beyond Mind-Body to a New Era of Healing. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1999.

Hirshberg C, Barasch MI. Remarkable Recovery: What Extraordinary Healings Tell Us About Getting Well and Staying Well. New York: Berkley, 1996.

Kiresuk TJ, Trachtenburg AI, Boucher TA. Psychiatric disorders. In: Oken BS, ed. Complementary Therapies in Neurology. London: Parthenon Publishing, 2004, pp. 417–419.

Klaus R. Rita’s Story. MA: Paraclete Press, 1993.

Mueller P. Religious involvement, spirituality and medicine: subject review and implications for clinical practice. In: Oken BS, ed. Complementary Therapies in Neurology. London: Parthenon Publishing, 2004, pp. 189–207.

Spencer JW, Jacobs JJ. Complementary and Alternative Medicine: An Evidence-Based Approach. St. Louis: Mosby, 2003.


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