Perhaps you’ve heard of Reiki, a type of “laying on of hands” energy practice that is being used in some hospitals and other mainstream medical settings. While proponents say it promotes relaxation and overall wellness, reduces stress and pain, and has healing effects for a range of conditions, including cancer, critics call it a pseudoscience—or downright quackery.
Just what is the evidence for Reiki, the origins of which can be traced back to ancient Eastern spiritual texts?
The word Reiki comes from the Japanese Rei meaning “universal life,” and ki meaning “energy.” During a typical session, the patient lies down or sits, fully clothed, while the practitioner places his or her hands on or just above different body parts for a few minutes in each spot. The idea, in brief, is that energy supposedly passes from the practitioner to the patient to bring about a natural healing response.
Several organizations provide Reiki instruction, and many nurses and other medical staff, along with volunteers, are being trained in some hospitals. But the techniques vary, and there is no national licensing for practitioners, who may have anywhere from one day to several years of training.
Research on Reiki
A few studies have reported benefits from Reiki, such as reductions in pain, anxiety, and depression. But nearly all the studies are small and of poor quality. Most lack a control group, which makes it hard to tease out the effect that comes simply from the attention, comfort, and gentle touch provided by the practitioner, all of which may have therapeutic effects. That is, the physical act of making contact with another person likely has benefit—or the benefit may be due to a relaxation response—but this has nothing to do with the underlying tenets of the practice, which claim that the effects result from the transfer of “universal life force.” There is no scientific evidence of the existence of such energy, let alone that humans can channel it.
Only a few studies have compared Reiki (done by a trained practitioner) to a placebo (a “sham” treatment done by an untrained person), which would be the best way to determine therapeutic effectiveness. In one, in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2008, neither Reiki nor a placebo had an effect on pain, physical or mental functioning, medication use, or number of doctor visits in people with fibromyalgia.
Another study, in Oncology Nursing Forum in 2011, found that both Reiki and sham Reiki improved self-reported comfort and well-being in chemotherapy patients, compared to standard treatment—which suggests that “participants may have felt better simply because of the attention,” the researchers said. In other words, the benefits may be due to a placebo effect.
Several reviews have noted that because of methodological problems in trials, no conclusions about Reiki’s effectiveness can be made. Even the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says that “Reiki hasn’t been clearly shown to be useful for any health-related purpose.”
Bottom line: We don’t doubt that Reiki can promote relaxation and other “feel good” effects—just like massage, music therapy, or other alternative practices—with patient expectations perhaps being the most important factor in positive outcomes. We can’t endorse a therapy that is not proven to be better than a placebo, but because no adverse effects have been documented, there’s no harm in trying Reiki for overall relaxation and stress reduction. If you are dealing with a chronic condition or acute illness, don’t use it in place of standard medical care. As one paper concluded, “It seems likely that this kind of therapy may offer some relief to those who are attracted to it.”