Prayer as a Component of Managing Chronic Pain
The most common non-pharmaceutical practice to help manage pain
Prayer is the most common non-pharmaceutical method of pain management and the most popular form of alternative medicine practiced in the United States.5 Data released by the American Psychological Association show that the number of adults in the United States who pray for their health increased 36 percent between 1999 and 2007 (these people said they prayed to supplement the benefits of their health care, not to replace their health care).6
More than half of the 1,204 respondents to a nationwide poll conducted by ABC News, USA Today, and the Stanford University Medical Center said they use prayer against pain—90 percent said it “worked well” and 51 percent said it worked “very well.”7 Numerous other studies have come to similar conclusions, finding that people with chronic pain frequently rely on religious activities or beliefs, including prayer, to help them cope.
What is prayer?
Prayer is a conversation between you and a greater-than-human intelligence, a heartfelt conversation that requires no special skills or experience. The concept can be difficult if you have no religious background. You might wonder, What is this all about, or What is the point? If God (or some other universal intelligence) is all-powerful and all-knowing, why should you try to tell him about your pain or remind him how great he is? If God gave pain to you, who are you to ask that he take it back? These are valid questions.
Prayer, however, is not for God’s sake. It is for yours. The power of prayer, performed silently or aloud, is the profound feelings it arouses within us: a sense of connection with a divine presence that consoles us with serenity and a hopeful perspective. Through prayer we release control of our pain to a higher power, and in doing so we relieve ourselves of the burden of pain and the stress it causes. The result is more positive feelings and an improved sense of contentment.
Prayer as a Type of Meditation
If you think of prayer as a type of meditation, it is easy to understand why it calms and uplifts the spirit in the same way meditation does. Both actions promote a consciousness of hope that lowers stress and blood pressure. The process may be different—meditating is an inward concentration, while praying is an outward appeal to a greater being—but the mind-body spirit benefit is the same. Whether your prayers are short and to the point or lengthy and detailed, prayer serves best when it is genuine and expressed humbly and from the heart (table 7.2). Prayer changes us. It makes us more humble, more grateful, and spiritually stronger, whether we pray to God, the universe, or a higher power. Prayer may or may not eliminate pain, but it is fine to believe in an improved outlook and even hope for a miracle.
Can prayer backfire?
Some people wonder whether prayer can backfire. Prayer can bring about a less-than-desirable effect, especially if we view it as a demand of God; in that case, frustration and increased suffering may result from unanswered appeals. It is best to see prayer as an opportunity to work on ourselves and on our relationship with God.
This article is an excerpt from Confronting Chronic Pain, A Pain Doctor's Guide to Relief, by Steven H. Richeimer, MD with Kathy Steligo. Reprinted by permission of Johns Hopkins University Press. Dr. Richeimer is an associate professor in the Departments of Anesthesiology and Psychiatry and chief of the Division of Pain Medicine at the University of Southern California.
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