Many Turn to Prayer, Not Prescriptions

May 12, 2005 — -- 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.

Prayer Is Powerful for Some

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."

Placebo, or Something More?

Joanne Pearson, 48, had the prayers of many. An ambulance whisked her to the hospital after she fell down the stairs at the school where she teaches. She had compressed vertebrae and a fractured elbow, and doctors thought she'd be out of work for six to seven weeks.

But as her students prayed for her, Pearson said she began to feel better more quickly than expected.

"Every day I felt significantly better than the day before," she said. "I really think their prayers had something to do with it."

An avid walker, Beverly Logan, 48, deals with a large bone spur on the top of her foot. She says doctors told her surgery to relieve the problem was impossible. But prayer, she said, has allowed her to continue her daily activities -- and continue to take her daily walks.

"[The pain is] still there," she said. "But you don't notice it."

While detractors may argue that prayer functions as a placebo, Brose believes otherwise.

"I think there are probably a lot of nonspecific effects that happen with prayer. Some of them may be characterized as a placebo, some of them may be related to relaxation, but I also believe there is a significant spiritual piece that we just simply don't understand," he said. "But the absence of proof isn't the proof of absence. People have faith because they believe in something even when there is no proof."

Today, Garcia is still medication-free and though her pain-management doctors are in awe, they still suggest medication. Others can't believe she's living without it. Most people, she says, don't believe prayer works. Garcia, however, insists that it does.

"A lot of people saw me when I was on medication, and when they saw me afterward, they thought I was miraculously cured," she said. "I just pray and meditate when my days are really rough."