A Good Age: Using prayers to ease pain and enhance health
By Sue Scheible
Tue Mar 24, 2009, 05:16 AM EDT
QUINCY, Massachusetts -
Would you be surprised if you sought medical help for arthritis or cancer and the doctor asked if you believe in prayer or follow a faith? I might be, because there are so many new medical treatments. But after talking to Dr. Claire Levesque, chief of neurology at Quincy Medical Center, I realize talking about spiritual beliefs makes very good sense.
Levesque, 55, a member of the Baha’i faith since 1976, practices traditional Western medicine. She’s still likely to ask her patients if faith plays a major role in their lives. Levesque believes more doctors should do the same.
Baha’i includes writings on health and healing, and the belief that spiritual and physical healing go hand in hand. The faith speaks of the power of happiness, particularly the deep happiness that comes from being at peace with yourself.
From 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Thursday, Levesque will present a talk called “Does Prayer Help When You Hurt?” in the conference room at the hospital. The program is geared to the medical staff but is also open to the public.
There is evidence, she said, that prayer may ease pain or have other health benefits, such as boosting the immune system. In her talk, she will discuss studies from the past five to 10 years that looked at whether prayer can ease the chronic pain of conditions such as cancer, arthritis, and fibromyalgia.
Until 10 years ago, there was no research in this area. By the late 1990s, scientists wanted to follow up on anecdotal evidence that prayer, or meditation, can bring relief. The results have produced a mixed bag. There is no single objective test to measure pain, no marker in the blood, making it hard to apply scientific methods.
Some studies do suggest that people who pray also report the worst pain, but, as Levesque noted, that could either mean people don’t turn to prayer until the pain gets really bad, or that “maybe prayer doesn’t work as well as we would like.”
Other research shows prayer can boost the immune response and lower infection rates. And the relaxation response, known for years to have health benefits such as lowering blood pressure, is very similar to prayer in its use of meditation methods.
Surveys have found that prayer is the most common alternative treatment used – cited by 75 to 90 percent of patients using alternative medicine.
“The first thing doctors have to do is acknowledge that,” Levesque said. “We feel that patients don’t want us to talk about prayer or talk about their religion. In fact, I think they do. Even nonreligious patients say it is fine to ask about prayer. We need to talk about it.”
Even without prayer, Levesque has seen the social and health benefits of gathering at a church or temple. “The more you are engaged in things you enjoy, the more likely you are to be happy and the healthier you feel,” she said.
Even the well-accepted relaxation response, in which people meditate, is very similar to prayer, she said – with the emphasis on repetition of a phrase or word, removing oneself from the physical world and being detached from the body.
“If you are using a relaxation technique, plugging into your religious background with that technique makes it more powerful,” she said. She will talk about studies that show how meditation and “saying a special word or the name of God can help with pain, high blood pressure, infertility.”
Her message to doctors is to just raise the issue: “Make sure you talk to patients about how prayer can be an important technique for relaxation and helping their overall well-being.”
A Good Age: Using prayers to ease pain and enhance health - Quincy, MA - Wicked Local Quincy