updated 5/6/2004 5:56:41 PM ET 2004-05-06T21:56:41

More than a third of Americans pray in hopes of achieving better health, according to a new study.

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Researchers say prayer is a common practice in the U.S., but little is known about how people use it for health concerns. Although prayer has no proven effect, researchers say previous studies have shown a positive association between spirituality and better health.

In a survey published in the April 26 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers found 35 percent of respondents said they used prayer for health concerns in the last year.

About three-quarters of those prayed for wellness, and less than a quarter prayed for specific health conditions.

Study sheds light on prayer and health
The study showed that most of those using prayer for any health concerns were simultaneously using conventional medicine, but the percentage of respondents using both prayer and conventional medicine varied widely by condition.

For example, only 10 percent of those who used prayer for psychiatric conditions were also seeing a psychiatrist or mental health care provider. But 71 percent of those who used prayer for other chronic conditions and 74 percent of those using prayer for cancer were also seeing a doctor for those concerns.

Of those that prayed for specific health conditions, 69 percent said they found prayer very helpful, but only 11 percent discussed it with their doctor.

Those more likely to use prayer than others had the following characteristics:

  • Women over 33 years old
  • Education beyond high school
  • History of depression
  • History of chronic headaches
  • History of back and/or neck pain
  • History of digestive problems
  • History of allergies

Researchers say their findings show that prayer for health concerns is common and often used in conjunction with conventional medical care.

"Physicians should consider exploring their patients' spiritual practice to enhance their understanding of their patients' response to illness and health," write researcher Dr. Anne M. McCaffrey, of Harvard Medical School, and colleagues.

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