Four years ago, Linda Garcia was taking handfuls of pills each day -- 30 pills, to be exact. Today, however, she relies on a different but not uncommon method: Her pain relief comes from above.
"Every day I wake up and go to bed doing my meditation," said Garcia, 49. "I wake up with my rosary in my hand and if my pain gets so severe, I put myself in another frame of mind in the back of my head."
Garcia isn't alone. About 58 percent of Americans have tried prayer to relieve their pain, according to a joint study by ABC News, USA Today and Stanford University Medical Center. That's about the same as the number of people who have taken prescription drugs for pain, the study reports.
And of those who've tried prayer, half say it has worked very well for them in terms of pain relief, tying it with prescription drugs as the most effective pain reliever.
The experience of pain is not purely physical, said Dr. Harold Koenig, co-director of Duke University's Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health.
"There is a lot of anxiety associated with pain, there is depression associated with it, there is a loss of hope, there is alienation and loneliness, there is anger associated with pain," Koenig said. "Religion helps with all of those factors that ultimately magnify the pain and bring it into such great focus for those who experience pain."
For Garcia it was prayer, not prescriptions, that helped. Seriously injured in an auto accident in 1997, Garcia underwent four surgeries -- three in her neck, one in her back -- to repair her spine. But the overwhelming pain lingered, and Garcia needed relief. Her doctor prescribed pain medication, but nothing helped.
"I kept complaining that I was constantly in pain, and [the doctors] responded and kept switching [medications]," she said. "I had to take one kind of pill to be able to take the pain pill because it made me so nauseous. I was vomiting, I would shake tremendously, and I couldn't control the shaking."
Not being able to think clearly, feeling sedated all of the time, and memory loss are other common complaints from drug-weary patients -- especially among those who seek alternative sources of relief, said Dr. William Brose, president of Alpha Omega Pain Associates, an interdisciplinary pain rehabilitation program in Redwood City, Calif. His nondenominational holistic program incorporates a spiritual component into conventional medicine.
"Frequently, what happens is these patients have been on these medications for years and have become incredibly dissatisfied with the long-term disadvantages of these medications," Brose said. "They want to try to eliminate their reliance on these medications; they want to try to be independent. So as they're looking for ways to become independent, prayer creates an opportunity for them that medications don't."
Daily prayer, Garcia said, has reduced her pain from a 10 (on a scale of 1 to 10) to an 8. When she's in a deep meditative state, she can get it down to a 6. The difference may not seem like much, but it's changed Garcia's life.
"I couldn't write a check before. Now, I can balance my accounts and pay my bills," Garcia said. "Before, I couldn't take a shower; I couldn't carry a conversation on a telephone or with anyone. I was a totally different person."