MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Reiki is a form of  healing which rests on the assumption that some form “energy” determines our health. In this context, I tend to put energy in inverted commas because it is not the energy a physicist might have in mind. It is a much more mystical entity, a form of vitality that is supposed to be essential for life and keep us going. Nobody has been able to define or quantify this “energy”, it defies scientific measurement and is biologically implausible. These circumstances render Reiki one of the least plausible therapies in the tool kit of alternative medicine.

Reiki-healers (they prefer to be called “masters”) would channel “energy” into his or her patient which, in turn, is thought to stimulate the healing process of whatever condition is being treated. In the eyes of those who believe in this sort of thing, Reiki is therefore a true panacea: it can heal everything.

The clinical evidence for or against Reiki is fairly clear – as one would expect after realising how ‘far out’ its underlying concepts are. Numerous studies are available, but most are of very poor quality. Their results tend to suggest that patients experience benefit after having Reiki but they rarely exclude the possibility that this is due to placebo or other non-specific effects. Those that are rigorous show quite clearly that Reiki is a placebo. Our own review therefore concluded that “the evidence is insufficient to suggest that Reiki is an effective treatment for any condition… the value of Reiki remains unproven.”

Since the publication of our article, a number of new investigations have become available. In a brand-new study, for instance, the researchers wanted to explore a Reiki therapy-training program for the care-givers of paediatric patients. A series of Reiki training classes were offered by a Reiki-master. At the completion of the program, interviews were conducted to elicit participant’s feedback regarding its effectiveness.

Seventeen families agreed to participate and 65% of them attended three Reiki training sessions. They reported that Reiki had benefited their child by improving their comfort (76%), providing relaxation (88%) and pain relief (41%). All caregivers thought that becoming an active participant in their child’s care was a major gain. The authors of this investigation conclude that “a hospital-based Reiki training program for caregivers of hospitalized pediatric patients is feasible and can positively impact patients and their families. More rigorous research regarding the benefits of Reiki in the pediatric population is needed.

Trials like this one abound in the parallel world of “energy” medicine. In my view, such investigations do untold damage: they convince uncritical thinkers that “energy” healing is a rational and effective approach – so much so that even the military is beginning to use it.

The flaws in trials as the one above are too obvious to mention. Like most studies in this area, this new investigation proves nothing except the fact that poor quality research will mislead those who believe in its findings.

Some might say, so what? If a patient experiences benefit from a bogus yet harmless therapy, why not? I would strongly disagree with this increasingly popular view. Reiki and similarly bizarre forms of “energy” healing are well capable of causing harm.

Some fanatics might use these placebo-treatments as a true alternative to effective therapies. This would mean that the condition at hand remains untreated which, in a worst case scenario, might even lead to the death of patients. More important, in my view, is an entirely different risk: making people believe in mystic “energies” undermines rationality in a much more general sense. If this happens, the harm to society would be incalculable and extends far beyond health care.

21 Responses to Reiki: neither plausible, nor effective, nor harmless

  • Guy Chapman says:

    Energy is measured in Joules. My first question for any quack discussing energy: what instrument do you use to measure the energy, and how many Joules are typically required?

    Of course, if this form of energy did exist, it would violate the laws of thermodynamics and conservation of energy, so the first good study that proves it exists is a slam-dunk for an all expenses paid trip to Stockholm.

  • Guy Chapman says:

    Incidentally, the big tragedy of this is that those who practise alternatives to medicine such as reiki are often terribly nice people and really desperately sincere. I consider it amassive failing of our education system that we turn out otherwise intelligent people who lack basic critical thinking skills and simple fundamental knowledge of science. There really is no excuse in the 21st Century for not understanding the fact that energy is a measurable quantity which is conserved in all interactions. It is not even remotely difficult to grasp, as a concept.

    • Edzard says:

      absolutely! and some of the comments by alt med enthusiasts provide embarrassing evidence of this lack of critical thinking.

      • Pete 628 says:

        While my car was being repaired recently, I had a wonderful conversation with the Service Manager about the difference between customer understanding of problems and the solid evidence-based science used by all of the workshop personnel.

        Never once have the personnel suggested that a vehicle fault/problem: is due to the customer’s past life or an imbalance of the customer’s energy; can be cured by reiki, homeopathy, or the plethora of “magic devices” offered for sale on Websites.

        The reason that automobiles (and all other electronic and/or mechanical devices) cannot ever be repaired by a reiki master is simply because these devices have zero reaction to placebo.

        Modern cars are made of many recycled materials therefore they have had “past lives” and have had “drivers with negative energy” so I can’t wait to see the comments from reiki masters who are able to demonstrate their critical thinking skills.

        Transistors (which form part of most modern appliances, especially transportation) operate at the quantum level. It never ceases to amaze me that there are so many proponents of quantum quackery for animal health yet none of the proponents are able to influence something as basic as the photon capturing physics of a digital camera.

        My camera has developed a few warm pixels so does it need a replacement part to solve the problem or should I send it to a reiki master, a faith healer, a homeopath, or a quantum healing guru?

        As above, I can’t wait to hear answers that demonstrate critical thinking…

        • edzard says:

          i know of an energy healer who once tried to heal the engine of a bus that had broken down [i am not making this up]. the bus was full of like-minded people who watched in anticipation as she did her healing over the open bonnet. eventually they tried to re-start the engine….and it did not work. they had to be picked up by another bus.

  • Kausik Datta says:

    It’s amazing how closely similar this Reiki business is to the supernatural Japanese anime series of cartoons and graphic novels, such as Yu Yu Hakusho or Dragonball Z. Those, too, have a lot of “energy” generation and energy throwing and so on. Just like the way Biblical creationists seem to consider the Flintstones to be a documentary, I wonder if these Reiki practitioners and believers think the same of these anime shows?

  • Pete 628 says:

    Reiki becomes highly plausible and effective to the practitioner (via self-delusion and business success). The prospective client may be easily seduced by it especially due to initial positive placebo reaction reinforced by the allure of becoming a ‘healer’. It has a strong element of victim blaming i.e. it plays on nocebo reactions (good for practitioner, harmful to client).

    Is it effective? Obviously not. If it was effective it would be medicine rather than a branch of CAM.

    Is it harmless? Absolutely not. All practitioners of panacea CAM are indoctrinated to believe that every negative outcome is a positive sign of the healing process. If after months of experimenting on the client the symptoms are still getting worse a practitioner will either covertly dismiss the client or overtly refer them to their GP. Furthermore, Reiki practitioners must (by definition) have very strong spiritual beliefs (they pay directly or indirectly in an attempt to master their spirituality, which is a never-ending process) and must instil as least some of these beliefs into their clients — otherwise they wouldn’t be performing proper Reiki healing.

    Reiki is one of many branches of CAM that claims to be a panacea, however, what makes it unusual (therefore of possible interest to discuss) is its business model.

    It has a three-tired hierarchy of degrees: First, Second, and Master/Teacher. The client can be ‘cured’ of their ailment(s) just as effectively by a Reiki Master as by visiting a homeopath, but one’s local Reiki Master will likely obtain more income than would one’s local homeopath because the former is allowed to coerce the client into additional spending on training courses with the practitioner whereas the latter practitioner is not allowed to do so.

    The Reiki healing process encourages the client to learn how to heal themselves, for which one or more training courses is essential. From the client perspective this is very tempting because not only does it offer the client the ability to self-heal, it also offers the client the opportunity to become a healer of others and to make money by so doing. This is an alluring triple reward for the client. (For some clients it’s a quadruple allure due to the self-esteem gained from having their first meaningful framed certificate of achievement/accreditation.)

    Reiki, it seems to me, is a lucrative multi-level marketing scheme whereas most other branches of CAM stick to using institutions for practitioner qualification. Vendors of supplements seem to be divided between the two business models. I have obviously avoided naming the many franchise schemes used in other branches of CAM.

    Despite having personally witnessed a myriad of different CAM conjuring tricks over the decades I’m still somewhat fascinated by them. They remind me of the Venus flytrap: this type of predator doesn’t need to get smarter, it relies on the abundance of prey that makes no effort to outwit its predator.

    Attempting dialogue with Venus flytraps in order to elicit evidence for efficacy in curing the diseases of flies is as pointless as attempting dialogue with CAM practitioners to elicit evidence for efficacy in curing the diseases of humans (and other animals). Venus flytraps and CAM practitioners already have enough food on their tables to survive therefore they don’t need to provide further evidence for their efficacy.

    The CAM definition of efficacy is exactly the same as ours: the ability to produce a desired or intended result.

    Our stumbling block is that we expect their desired or intended result to be the same as ours. We cannot overcome this block until we realize, accept, and learn to work with these totally different paradigms.

    If critical thinking skills had been incorporated into the national curriculum, as had been agreed over a decade ago by many world leaders, quackery would be heading towards extinction rather than expanding.

    The JREF has demonstrated that quackery can be a very useful teaching aid to developing critical thinking skills. Perhaps this is the best method to combat what has become “The CAM disease, which is in desperate need of a cure.”

  • Peter says:

    Dear Mr. Edzard

    I have a question.

    There was a scientific experiment that it generated data, ending that there were improvements in several well-being situations with significant percentages.

    Then I read his comment saying that researching causes a mistaken impression of the people about Reiki. Only that.

    I didn’t read any objection really plausible and effective exposing mistakes in the method of research nor that the data were badly collected.

    With the title of PhD, you well know that cannot simply write “I didn’t like” on the results, you need to convince us that the research was badly done in technical terms and it didn’t prove anything.

    Thanks.

  • Guy says:

    @Peter

    The thing is, the study wasn’t placebo-controlled. If you got a random guy (not a Reiki user) off the street and asked him to pretend to be a Reiki practitioner, the patients would still report improvement. Without placebo controls, the study is irrelevant because because *anything* (even sugar pills) can make people feel better.The question is not whether Reiki can help people, but whether it can help people more than placebo (i.e. sham Reiki.)

  • Caroline says:

    Recently the Confederation of Healing Organisations has funded research by University of Northampton Professors Chris Roe and Elizabeth Roxburgh which has shown that distant healing actually does WORK http://nectar.northampton.ac.uk/4671/ The researchers have also shown that such effects are also useful in a mental health setting and recommend psychologists and psychotherapists be trained and supervised in this http://www.bial.com/imagem/Bolsa8210_07022013.pdf

  • Caroline says:

    The study cited (Roe, Sonnex & Roxburgh: 2012) is quite clear in its statement that such healing processes DO WORK. After a thorough review of all the evidence the authors conclude that:

    “Findings with the non-whole human database suggest that subjects in the active condition were observed to have a significant improvement in wellbeing relative to control subjects under circumstances that do not seem to be susceptible to placebo and expectancy effects. Findings with the whole human database gave a smaller mean effect size but this was still significant”

    Roe, C. A., Sonnex, C. and Roxburgh, E. C. (2012) Two meta-analyses of distant healing studies. Parapsychological Association 55th Annual Convention, Durham, North Carolina, 09-12 August 2012. Durham, North Carolina, USA: Parapsychological Association.

    http://nectar.northampton.ac.uk/4671/

    • Edzard says:

      I do not dispute what you are saying about one single study. however, if you take ALL the available evidence into account, you arrive at a different conclusion. cherry-picking your data is misleading.

  • Gonçalo says:

    What I saw here is just false. Just because you didn’t get to explain it, it doesn’t mean that is not real. And yes, I value the scientifically method and believe it will get soon to clearly explain the so called esoteric field of energy that is still a transcendental issue. Well, Reiki is real, is physical and spiritual, and works, simple and effective, simple energy flowing. No detailed studies can place the simple fact of experience felt in your own body. And yet, everyone is free to have an opinion, even empty opinions. Don’t get me wrong, I am not offending you. But you are telling lies here.

    Peace

    • Björn Geir says:

      @Gonçalo
      Try reading Pete 628 ‘s comment a bit further up. He explains very clearly how and why and what you are experiencing

      The esoteric field of transcendental energy may well be real to you, but only as an idea in your own head.
      The liars in this game are the ones who take money from people promising to cure an ailment with something that only exists in their own head.

      • Alison Cockerill says:

        Complementary Therapies do not claim to cure an illness, rather support a person and make them feel better able to cope with it. However if Reiki is all in the head like you say, I am grateful to have it and a wonderful gift to receive. Have you heard the saying ‘you could cut the atmosphere with a knife’ when First walk into a room, you cannot see the tension you just sense that it is there.

        • Alan Henness says:

          Alison Cockerill said:

          Complementary Therapies do not claim to cure an illness

          That’s a rather sweeping statement and, other than being pedantic that it’s the practitioners of ‘complementary’ therapies who make the claims, it is trivially refuted.

          rather support a person and make them feel better able to cope with it.

          There may well be some therapies that make someone feel a bit better, but that’s not all they claim to do, is it?

          However if Reiki is all in the head like you say, I am grateful to have it and a wonderful gift to receive.

          Perhaps you could provide some good evidence that reiki does, indeed, work?

          Have you heard the saying ‘you could cut the atmosphere with a knife’ when First walk into a room, you cannot see the tension you just sense that it is there.

          Yes, but what do you believe that has got to do with the evidence for reiki?

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