We’re all for out-of-the-box ways to make our health and wellness goals a reality. But it can sometimes be difficult to discern the next best thing from the total B.S.
The latter category is where we were tempted to place Reiki (pronounced ray-kee), a Japanese healing practice in which a practitioner’s hands hover above a patient’s body in order to transfer life-giving energy. But in the name of research, we asked the experts—and science—to see if the idea actually holds water.
The practice, which isn’t as ancient as it sounds, was developed by a Japanese Buddhist in the early 20th century. Proponents of Reiki, which loosely translates to “universal life energy,” claim that therapeutic touch or near-touch on the body can have both mental and physical healing effects. In this way, Reiki is a form of vitalism: a pre-scientific belief that if a person’s spiritual force is low, sickness and stress results; improve that force, and they'll be healthy and happy.
Despite the Star Wars-esque vibes, these claims are not entirely unfounded. According to a 2010 study, patients who were recovering from a heart attack and received Reiki therapy demonstrated increased heart rate variability and an increasingly positive outlook as compared to the control group and patients who listened to meditative music.
A 2011 study found that receiving Reiki (from both a real practitioner and a “sham” practitioner) helped increase chemotherapy patients’ comfort and well-being. Investigation of standard care versus sham Reiki placebo versus actual Reiki therapy to enhance comfort and well-being in a chemotherapy infusion center. Catlin A, Taylor-Ford RL. Oncology nursing forum, 2011, Sep.;38(3):1538-0688. And further 2012 research suggested that Reiki sessions were helpful in improving relaxation, pain relief, and sleep quality and reducing anxiety in hospital patients. The effects of Reiki therapy on pain and anxiety in patients attending a day oncology and infusion services unit. Birocco N, Guillame C, Storto S. The American journal of hospice & palliative care, 2011, Oct.;29(4):1938-2715.
There is much anecdotal evidence that this form of energy healing relieves pain, stress, anxiety, and depression, says Susan Payrovi, M.D., an anesthesiologist at the Stanford Integrative Medicine Center. “Patients often report a sense of calm and relaxation, with more restorative sleep.”
But this is largely chalked up to the placebo effect. “A positive outlook and the belief that you’re being healed is big,” says Niket Sonpal, M.D., assistant clinical professor at Toro College of Medicine. “If you believe you’re going to get better, you have better outcomes.”
And it’s important to recognize that even though a placebo effect is generally tied to a patient’s expectations, studies have demonstrated actual physical changes as a result, Payrovi notes. “The placebo effect is real, and its power should not be underestimated.” Several studies have shown a very real release in dopamine and endorphins when a placebo drug is administered. Neurobiological mechanisms of placebo responses. Zubieta JK, Stohler CS. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2009, Apr.;1156():1749-6632.
Still, since “the force” that Reiki provides isn’t quantifiable, it’s designation as an effective treatment is quite doubtful. As Sonpal puts it: “Whether or not there’s an actual benefit is very, very questionable.”
To date, there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that Reiki is a reliable—or even unreliable—cure for any condition. In fact, a 2011 review of Reiki studies concluded: “The existing research does not allow conclusions regarding the efficacy or effectiveness of energy healing.” Energy healing for cancer: a critical review. Agdal R, von B Hjelmborg J, Johannessen H. Forschende Komplementärmedizin (2006), 2011, Jun.;18(3):1661-4127. Others feel more strongly: Remember the study that found Reiki improved cancer patients' well-being? One physician-slash-author argued it as proof that "genuine Reiki is no better than sham Reiki, thus it does not work."
What’s more: Reiki is not recognized by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine as an effective treatment option and is classified as a complementary healing approach.
Whether or not you believe in the possibility of Reiki’s power or the placebo effect, the real harm is done when Reiki becomes a sole treatment. "The concern is that we don’t want patients to substitute proven curative treatments for this," Sonpal says. "That can be incredibly dangerous."
Another thing to keep in mind: There are currently no certified licensing or professional standards for becoming a Reiki practitioner. So an individual holding a certificate does not have proof of a particular level of training. (A quick Google search for "become a Reiki master" turned up a host of online courses of varying credibility.)
The bottom line? If you’re willing to give the forces of Reiki a shot, go for it. Just remember, it's best used as a complementary treatment—so never rely on it alone.