People who listened to soothing music, participated in guided imagery and received healing-touch therapy before heart surgery were more likely to be alive 6 months later than those who did not experience these interventions, according to a study published in The Lancet (2005; 366, 211–17).

Lead investigator Mitchell W. Krucoff, MD, from Duke Clinical Research Institute in Durham, North Carolina, told Reuters Health that the study is an “early step,” and researchers still have a lot to learn about how to integrate high-tech approaches to medicine with “the rest of the human being.”

The purpose of the study was to examine whether alternative therapies that are natural and do not involve prescriptive medications can reduce distress before a procedure and improve results afterward in patients undergoing heart surgery.

Krucoff and associates studied 748 patients at nine centers throughout the United States. About a quarter received standard care only. The others, in addition to standard care, were assigned to off-site prayer (by established congregations of various religions); bedside music, imagery and touch therapy (MIT); or a combination of off-site prayer and MIT.

None of the therapies significantly improved immediate results after surgery. However, the significant finding was that the 6-month death rate was lower in patients who received both prayer and MIT therapy than in those who received standard care only or standard care with prayer. Patients who received MIT were 65% less likely to die within 6 months than those who did not receive this treatment. The researchers could not determine whether the lower death rates were the result of the actual treatment therapies or of the presence of a compassionate human being at the hospital bedside.

This study is significant for its effort to collect scientific information on intangible therapies in order to determine whether they lead to tangible and measurable benefits. As more scientists gather information about natural, noninvasive, alternative practices, researchers will have larger bodies of data to analyze, and our understanding of how mind-body interventions can contribute to overall health and well-being will ultimately improve.