Praying for Pain Relief

From Tom Rees of Epiphenom:

Prayer seems to work as a form of pain relief—but is this a physiological response, or is it purely psychological? To investigate this, Else-Marie Elmholdt Jegindø and her colleagues from the Danish Pain Research Centre in Aarhus, Denmark, strapped electrodes to the legs of 20 religious and 20 nonreligious volunteers. By administering a carefully calibrated shock, electrodes like this can deliver a five-minute long burst of sharp pain, but without causing any damage.

Participants were asked either to recite a prayer, including the line “Dear God, I pray that you will help to relieve the pain and give me good health,” or to recite a similar request to a generic nobody (“Mr Hansen”). Some were not given any instructions, and just sat and endured the pain.

As you can see from the graphic below, the only group that reported reduced pain was the religious group who recited a prayer. Across all groups, each individual’s expectations about how bad the pain would be were a good predictor of how bad the pain felt. However, for the religious group reciting a prayer (and that group alone), the amount of pain they reported was also influenced by how strong was their desire for pain relief.
So these results show that religious people (and the religious people in this study were highly religious) feel—or at least report—less pain as a result of prayer, but especially if they really want it to happen.

So much for the psychology, what about the physiology? Well, Jegindø and the team also measured a bunch of physiological markers of pain—things like heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate.

On the whole, they didn’t find much. Although the religious people reported less pain while reciting prayers, their bodies reacted pretty much the same. However, religious people reading prayers did have a lower breathing rate. That’s interesting because a similar effect has been reported for people meditating. It’s a tantalizing comparison, although Jegindø warns that these data are very preliminary and should not be over-interpreted.

All in all, this new study supports previous studies showing that religion can give pain relief through a kind of placebo effect. But what’s new is that the physiological stress seems to be just as high. It’s just that the people who pray and who want it to work say that, well, it really does work!

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2 Responses

  1. Debbie Jaegle says:

    As a chaplain in a hospital it has been my experience that when I pray with the patient who is in distress it does bring a calming effect to them. Many times I will be walking by a room where the patient is expressing pain verbaly. Upon entering the room and offering to pray with them they become more peaceful. It has been my experience that there is some psychological, spiritual and emotional effects of prayer for the patient who is experiencing pain. The effect of prayer may be temporary but it also serves as an example to the patient of how they, through personal prayer and meditation, can help to control their own pain.

  2. Jordan says:

    One possible reason for the change in the subjective experience of the pain could be the way that religious people are accessing higher-level goals in the midst of suffering. Higher-level goals are able to regulate affect at lower-levels of experience. In this case, the higher-level goal could be to be connected with God/higher power, to be aware of the presence of God in my life, etc. Reflecting on and accessing sources of meaning have been shown to be effective coping strategies. Much the same point was made by Viktor Frankl, when he suggested that having a sense of meaning makes it possible to endure all manner of suffering.

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