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What is Reiki? Is it Real or Fake? Discover What the Scientific Studies Reveal...

What, if any scientific evidence exists to prove Reiki is an effective practice? The answer is very little. Now, don’t be throwing any crystals or stones at me, as that would be like killing the messenger. Before delving into the studies on the efficacy of this practice, it’s necessary to define what it is…

What Does Reiki Mean?

Herein the first sign of trouble arises.  Having lived in Japan for years and being able to speak the language I can tell you, without hesitation,  literal translations from Japanese to English are at best approximations.  ‘Reiki’ is comprised of two distinct Japanese words:  ‘Rei’ and ‘Ki’, providing us double the challenge of an accurate translation.  If we take the exact translation, “rei” means ghost and “ki” means vapor, we’re not getting even close to the definition.  The Japanese language has multiple layers, symbolic nuances and context-dependent meanings. The closest we can get is something like this:  ‘Rei means a higher form of intelligence, and ‘ki’ means life force.  Joining these two words,  “Reiki” can be roughly translated to  mean spiritual energy or life force, although  we’re losing something in translation here…

Reiki Treatment

Reiki Treatment

What is Reiki?

Volumes can and have been written on the practice, so this is merely the short and annotated version.  In a nutshell, Reiki is a technique that promotes healing, relaxation and stress reduction.  It is aimed at treating the whole person including the physical, emotional, the mind and the spirit.  It is generally a “hands on healing” technique where the Reiki practitioner channels this universal life force/energy into the parts of the recipient’s body where it’s absent.  This is done through gentle touch, or sometimes with the “hands off” approach where the hands hover just above the person. 

The typical session starts with a fully-clothed client usually lying down, but occasionally sitting.  Palms down, the practitioner begins a series of 12 to 15 hand positions that are either on or just above the client’s body.  The hands are then kept in particular positions for about 2 to 5 minutes, until the flow of energy has stopped or is beginning to dissipate.  The practitioner describes this energy as warmth or even as a tingling feeling in the hands.  The number of sessions varies upon the needs of the client.

Reiki may also be performed remotely (remote healing), that is, when the client isn’t physically present. 

Difficulties Studying Reiki

Conventional science relies heavily upon the use of measurements and definitions, both qualitative and quantitative.  The trouble with studying Reiki is the inability to not only define this, but also to measure it. 
Reiki practitioners also make claims about restoring harmony and balance., which medical researchers find equally as elusive.  It is, however possible to study some of the effects Reiki has upon the human body.  It purports to decrease stress and anxiety, so measuring blood pressure and heart rate is appropriate.  However, many long-term Reiki recipients report feelings of increased spirituality and self-esteem, which are not quantifiable.

To truly determine whether or not any medical treatment is effective, it must be subject to a double-blind, placebo controlled trial.  Unfortunately, this is not possible with Reiki or other “hands on” therapies, such as massage therapy.  In a double-blind study neither the practitioner  nor the subjects know who is getting the treatment versus the placebo.   Obviously, there is no way for the Reiki practitioner to not know he or she is the real thing.  The next best tool for measuring the effectiveness of this treatment is a single-blind study where the subjects don’t know they whether they have a real or fake Reiki therapist.

Essential Elements in a Well Designed Study

In addition to the importance of a study being blind and controlled with a placebo or positive control group, a well designed study will have a stated hypothesis at the outset, as well as the specific measurements that will be taken and the data analysis methods that will be utilized.  The types of patients (or subjects)  in the study must be defined and the number of subjects must be determined by valid statistical methods.  In order to avoid bias, randomization to either the placebo or test group must be employed.  After the subjects have been assigned to their groups, the groups must be shown to be similarly balanced in terms of gender, age or predetermined and relevant attributes.  

Dr. Edzard Ernst, Author of "Trick or Treatment", co-authored with Simon Singh

Dr. Edzard Ernst, Author of "Trick or Treatment", co-authored with Simon Singh

Reiki Study Results

The Efficacy of Reiki in the Treatment of Fibromyalgia

This study showed no significant Reiki efficacy.

Reiki and Diabetic Neuropathy

This study also showed no significant Reiki efficacy.

The Use of Reiki for Patients With Advanced AIDS
Strangely, no reports were ever posted, despite the study being completed in 2003.

Six studies have been funded by NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). NCAAM Studies on Reiki A total of $3,311,000 has been spent on these five studies. There has been some criticism that we should not be spending our government money on funding these scientifically unsound studies.

The most in-depth, comprehensive review of Reiki clinical trials was done by University of Exeter’s Edzard Ernst, M.D., Ph.D. and his colleagues in Effects of reiki in clinical practice: a systematic review of randomised clinical trials. They reviewed studies through January of 2009 and found ), methodological flaws like poor design, improper reporting and inadequate sample sizes. They concluded: “the evidence is insufficient to suggest that reiki is an effective treatment for any condition.".

Dr. Edzard Ernst Writes a Letter to the Prince of Wales in which he challenges the Prince to withdraw two guides that promote alternative healing methods, among them is the use of Reiki for "physical, emotional and mental conditions".  Dr. Ernst clearly states:  "There is no good evidence that Reiki is effective for any condition."

There is a huge deficit in well designed clinical trials in studying the efficacy of Reiki. In my research I discovered a plethora of unsubstantiated claims by the Reiki community, its practitioners and proponents.

The International Center for Reiki Training makes some remarkable claims about the practice. One such claim is: “it always creates a healing effect.” It goes on to say: “It has been effective in helping virtually every known illness and malady and always creates a beneficial effect. It also works in conjunction with all other medical or therapeutic techniques to relieve side effects and promote recovery.”
I wonder where the research lies here, no doubt these are pretty strong claims. The other part about this website that struck a cord with me is there are no links whatsoever to any Reiki research.

The Reiki Research Foundation
, as the name would imply does have links to a wide range of Raiki studies. As you peruse the study links, you will quicky find the multitude of non-controlled pilot studies, the lack of single-blind studies, the lack of control groups, and very small subject numbers. Some of the better designed studies even reveal Reiki had no clinically significant effects (Study on Reiki with Subacute Stroke Patients).

The Center for Reiki Research at first glance seems to be onto something. It describes its “Touchstone Process” as being: “This process is a method of analyzing all studies within a specific field of scientific research. It was developed as part of a project to determine the current state of Reiki research. In this project, every Reiki research study, ever published in the U.S. in a peer reviewed journal, was put through a rigorous critique.” I had to become a member to view the research studies, which I did. The results were similar to what I’d found on The Reiki Research Foundation site: flawed studies, poorly balanced groups (one was 92% female), or just the blatant results that Reiki showed no significant treatment effects. I was not impressed.

Many of the other Reiki sites I visited had preposterous, unsubstantiated and inaccurate claims regarding Reiki’s effectiveness in treating cancer, AIDS, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, and the list goes on. Many studies that may have once been ongoing have since completed and shown Reiki has no statistically significant effect. Either the sites haven’t been updated and were just hoping the studies would result in a favorable outcome for Reiki proponents, they’re just listening to what other Reiki practitioners claim, or they simply have not done their research.

The Cleveland Study is an ongoing study looking at Reiki/energy healing in prostate cancer patients. The results are not yet in.

A Word on the Placebo Effect: Is There Any Harm in a Placebo Effect?

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Michael Schmitz from Berlin on March 10, 2012:

I wanted to write an article about Reiki myself, as I am a former Reiki master but later on realized that it wasn't the Reiki doing the things (if it ever did) that I thought it did. It was mere placebo or the effect of taking care of someone. I might write down my story though and would definitely like to link this well researched article to it. Well done. Have a good day. Mk

caithleen on January 20, 2011:

I lived with Attention Deficit Disorder all my life with Reiki I have now a relaxation and vitality I never thought possible.I practice Yoga meditation twice daily and give myself Reiki twice daily.The best part about it is that it works very well.

gajanis from Pakistan on January 20, 2011:

Excellent hub....I personally believe a lot in Reiki and have seen miracles happening through this form of treatment.Reiki is no doubt amazing.....this is a true gift from heavens.Thanks.

Elsie Nelson (author) from Pacific Northwest, USA on December 01, 2010:

DoorMatt- I hear what you're saying, that's why I put that last video in about the placebo effect. I do think Reiki has its place, but I just wanted to demonstrate what the studies have to say about it... they're just not impressive. That said, I wouldn't dismiss it as having therapeutic value, albeit, probably one stemming from a placebo effect.

Lily Rose, glad you came by and learned something. It's a very interesting practice, no doubt.

Kim, I lived in Japan for a while, so I pretty much was forced to learn it. I had a long commute everyday on the train, so I listened to language tapes... I'm glad you dropped by, too. Hope all is well with you.

kimberlyslyrics on December 01, 2010:


Just loved this hub, not one part did I know until now. Most certainly am reading again. Fabulous you speak that language, I never knew. Must have been difficult to learn/

Glad I dropped by, Thank You

Lily Rose from A Coast on December 01, 2010:

I've heard many good things about Reiki but never knew much about what it is - I found this to be a very interesting read!

DoorMattnomore on December 01, 2010:

My sister swears it helped her. I suppose die hard science-y people would claim she is crazy, and maybe she is..but she felt a lot better after a couple of sessions and I received far fewer midnight panic attack induced phone calls. I think if something helps a person, it's a good thing, whether others believe in it or not. (I mean, as long as the person isn't ignoring medical advice probably shouldn't try to "think" a deep puncture wound into non existence.) Great hub WS!!

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