Prayer gives hope but it was science that saved Fabrice Muamba



11:23 GMT, 29 April 2012

As a Christian, it’s not surprising that Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba wanted first and foremost to thank God for saving his life after he suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch last month.

His girlfriend Shauna is reported to believe it was the power of prayer that helped him pull through against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Twitter has been awash with criticism: divine power had no role to play in his survival, many have said. It is the medics’ tenacity and the wonders of modern science that should be praised.

One-in-a-million: Bolton footballer Fabrice Muamba survived after he suffered cardiac arrest

One-in-a-million: Bolton footballer Fabrice Muamba survived after he suffered cardiac arrest

And I agree it was technically the unprecedented 78 minutes of resuscitation that brought the footballer back rather than the power of the fans’ prayers.

But even as a true believer in science, I have seen the positive power of individual prayers on a range of medical conditions. I rationalise this as the power of mind over matter rather than that of a higher spiritual being.

Patients often tell me prayer gives them hope, allows them time to relax, dissipates their anxieties and builds a positive mental attitude. Research shows prayer used in this way may have a physiological impact in the same way meditation does.

It lowers blood pressure and changes hormone levels such as serotonin, reducing the body’s stress response and boosting the immune system.

This can reduce anxiety and increase tolerance to pain. For some, this would even lessen the duration of an illness.

Praying for yourself would have a role in the same way meditation, counselling or group therapy does – one deals with the psychological aspects of the condition which in turn reduces physiological symptoms. I don’t believe this would cure cancer, but it could ameliorate a patient’s perceived experience of the disease.

Indeed, Conservative MP Gary Streeter said recently he believes the power of prayer cured him of chronic hand pain, and can help relieve back pain and depression – although this was treated with scepticism by critics.

The Bolton player before he fell ill

The Bolton player before he fell ill

But what about the idea of communal prayer or group prayer for Muamba, who was in no position to pray for himself

A surprising amount of research has been carried out on the power of group prayer in healing. One scientific paper showed that women being prayed for were more successful with IVF than those who weren’t. In this case, neither the patients nor doctors involved in their care knew if they were being prayed for.

But equally, there is research showing distant prayer has no effect, or even a negative effect: one study on patients who had suffered a heart attack actually found more complications in those who were being prayed for.

We can’t look at one case such as Muamba and use it as proof that group prayer works, without counting the millions also prayed for who don’t make it.

There will always be the one- in-a-million person who has made a seemingly miraculous recovery. If prayer was involved, it is natural to correlate that with the desired outcome. But I have seen many situations with only tragic endings, despite vast amounts of faith and prayer. It is difficult to believe in the power of prayer when you have seen children die.

The fact that Muamba had a cardiac arrest in a stadium and received immediate, appropriate intervention is what made him the one-in-a-million case.

Prayer has a role to play but it is not a role in physical healing – it should be recognised as a support system and a coping mechanism, albeit a very valuable one.