Belief and Chronic Pain

This article, in a slightly edited form, first appeared on Pain News Network on September 28, 2019.

It has been revised since its first publication.

Does prayer lead to healing? Many religious people around the world believe that it does. According to the science, it may.

What the Research Says

Medical researchers have looked into the effects of religion and spirituality on chronic health conditions, including chronic pain, for many years. Different research has produced vastly different results. According to an article in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, the research has shown that prayer may contribute to healing; may worsen health; or may make no difference at all.

Helen Fosam, Ph.D. says in Clinical Pain Advisor, “a positive emotional state and a positive expectation of pain relief can lower pain and enhance clinical effect of treatment.” So if you believe prayer can ease your pain, it may happen.

Pain Is a Spiritual Condition

As I say in my book, The Painful Truth, pain is a bio-psycho-social-spiritual condition. Actually, however, it might make more sense to reverse the order and put “spiritual” first because, for many people, the spiritual dimension is the most important. More times than I can remember, I’ve known people in pain to cry out to God for mercy, kneel in silent prayer, cross themselves or finger their rosary, practice yoga or meditation, wear crosses or angel pins or crystals, express a longing for heaven, mention attending religious services, or tell me about their belief in God. Even religious skeptics who are in pain sometimes pray for themselves or ask others to pray for them.

The simple fact is that most people have a tendency to turn to God and faith when they are in need, including when they are in need because of pain. I, and most others in my specialty, have come to see this as generally a good thing, because relating to a God or a perceived spiritual reality beyond oneself can affect one’s pain experience positively.

Prayer As Meditation

To some, prayer is a specialized form of meditation. To others it is much more. Some people believe it is a direct communication with their God and does not have anything to do with meditation or thought processes. They believe that God is the source of healing through existential powers.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), meditation “may be helpful for a variety of conditions, such as high blood pressure, certain psychological disorders, and pain.” People who have faith in a higher power and turn to prayer may be availing themselves of the medical benefits of meditation.

Of course, not everyone who is in pain is also religious or spiritual, or wants to be, and certainly I’ve known many people with pain who have experienced a substantial increase in their life satisfaction without recourse to spiritual beliefs and practices. Some of them have practiced meditation, and some of them have not. But if we’re interested in what promotes healing for those enduring long-term pain, we can’t ignore the interaction between belief and pain.


Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is author of the award-winning book, The Painful Truth,” and co-producer of the documentary,It Hurts Until You Die.”

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.




  1. Mary on September 29, 2019 at 4:14 pm

    I wonder how many people have died to to this superstition. Not one so called expert promoting this topic has ever considered the unintended consequences. Believing things does not make them so, in spite of what cult leaders, televangelists and mass media tell us. This promotion of pseudo science and faith has undermined our nations ability to recognize facts, and made people vulnerable to frauds and charlatans.

    The NIH needs to take down the alternative medicine research, in fact most of it can’t even be described as research. After all these years there is still nothing conclusive about any of it. All indicators or our nations health and well being tell us that things are getting worse, much worse. Suicide rates are increasing, people are dying without accesses to healthcare, and the insertion of complimentary medicines has not improved health outcomes.

    Our regulatory agencies are no longer functioning, years ago marketing pseudo science to vulnerable patients would have been a crime, now it is just a profitable business model.

  2. Michael p Flegel on October 5, 2019 at 11:23 pm


    like pray JESUS comes today. The effect is the same.
    Endurance only.goes so far and for most we are past that.

  3. Jason Helm on October 17, 2019 at 8:14 pm

    Thank you, this was very informative.
    Being a patient of lower back pain I have been to mostly all the doctors.
    and there medicines seemed to help me temporarily. Currently my doctor is [edited] and he has recommended me thermotherapy. Which has been quite helpful for me. The icing might help
    in injuries but I believe it would cause more pain if applied for joint pain.

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