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Prayer and the Placebo

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When the subject of placebos enters into the conversation, what’s the perception? That the brain can fool the body? That doctors sometimes use it to convince the patient that a substance or pill will change the existing conditions of the body? Are there ethics guiding the use of placebos?



The 60 Minutes interview concerning placebos brought to the public an awareness of the existence of the placebo and the effect it has on the body. This high-profile and explosive television program with Leslie Stahl and Dr. Irving Kirsch, Associate Director of the Placebo Studies Program at Harvard Medical School, not only validated the effect placebos can have but also opened the door to challenge the use of antidepressant drugs that may have negative side effects. As researchers, physicians, and members of the public express more interest in the use of placebos to treat patients, rather than just as research tools, what constraints or guidance for their use are in place?

The PLoS One Journal article “British Doctors Increasingly Banking on ‘Placebo Effect’” describes the inconsistent guidelines and usage surrounding placebos and makes the startling statement that more than three-fourths of British doctors surveyed in a recent study prescribed treatments at least once a week that they knew probably wouldn’t work. Recently the British medical establishment has taken a stance against placebos by declaring them unethical. Yet, one key reason the British physicians use placebos is pressure from patients who want something to cure a perceived issue.

On the other hand, the American Medical Association’s stance on placebos is that physicians may only use them when the patient has been made aware. A U.S.–based study found that about half of American doctors give their patients treatments that probably won’t work, but will set their patent’s mind at ease.

What does a placebo do? Under the definition that physicians use of setting a patient’s mind at ease, a placebo could be considered prayer. In an article, “Prayer and Placebo,” David Sack states, “Prayer at the very least is a placebo and placebos have been shown time and time again to be effective.”

However, to accept prayer as a placebo would be to ignore many studies that indicate prayer is much more than a placebo. In the Journal of Holistic Nursing article “Prayer and Healing” Christina E. Hughes states, “There sometimes exists a facet of prayer and healing that defies rational explanation and seems to suggest the existence of a higher power. A case is presented that explores assistance from a higher power as a potential explanation for the healing.”

The Bible supports the statement of the effectiveness of prayer with, “And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.” From personal experience, I’ve found prayer and meditation puts my mind at ease and maintains my health during physical or stressful conditions. Many others are also finding the benefit of prayer. An earlier NIH study indicated that the public was very interested in alternative and complementary therapies, with prayer being the most used at 48%. It will be interesting to see where public demand leads the medical world and the responses of physicians to this form of treatment.


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About Don Ingwerson

Previously in the education sector as Superintendent of Schools, Don Ingwerson now serves as the media and legislative liaison for Christian Science in Southern California and corrects misconceptions about Christian Science. Don is a frequent blogger about health and spirituality.
  • Dr Dreadful

    Another reason I don’t see how such studies could be reliable is that prayer can be many different things. The way a Muslim prays, for example, is very different to the way a Jew, a Hindu, a Sikh or a Buddhist does so.

    Even within Christianity you have the highly ritualized prayers of the Roman Catholic mass, the silent reflections of the Quakers, the flamboyant supplications of the evangelicals and just about everything in between, including those folks we all know who don’t so much pray to God as chat constantly to him.

    For this reason I don’t think you can lump prayer in with meditation (of which there are also many different kinds), because the woman conversationally and matter-of-factly addressing Jesus as if he were sitting across the room from her can hardly be said to be meditating.

  • Dr Joseph S Maresca

    Not only prayer but also deep meditation calms the whole body. That’s one of the reasons why people join Yoga classes. Science is now looking at what prayer does for people both psychologically and physiologically. Even health gurus like Dr. Gary Null have discussed the need for the current studies and additional ones.

    I still say that taxing junk food is the best way to pay for health care and to reduce consumption of bad food.

  • Dr Dreadful

    “However, to accept prayer as a placebo would be to ignore many studies that indicate prayer is much more than a placebo.”

    This is a very strange statement. How exactly would one even design a study that could measure the comparative effects of prayer and a placebo? Unless there was some predetermined degree of effect that the placebo was supposed to have, I don’t see how positive effects of prayer could be assessed any differently.

  • Dr Joseph S Maresca

    Prayer can be helpful in relieving stress at the cellular level. The thing really needed is to tax junk food out of existence so that the health care system can operate more cost effectively. Many of today’s maladies can be placed at the doorstep of bad food.

  • Doctors are unaware of a little known feature of our physiology of sight discovered to cause mental breaks for office workers in the 1960’s.

    There have been incidents to show that the problem can cause a large number of psychosomatic medical complaints including racing hearts, headaches, dizziness, nausea, memory loss, fainting, and in extreme exposure, hearing voices and a believed-harmless temporary psychotic-like episode of confusion.

    Engineers learned to stop the problem by blocking peripheral vision for a concentrating knowledge worker with the office cubicle by 1968.

    But there is no magic about offices so that the problem only happens there. It is only necessary to create all the “special circumstances” for Subliminal Distraction exposure long enough.

    When exposure stops the symptoms remit spontaneously. Any treatment modality from placebo to prayer would appear to have worked.