MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

Reiki is a Japanese technique administered by “laying on hands” and is based on the idea that an unseen “life force energy” flows through us and is what causes us to be alive. If one’s “life force energy” is low, then we are more likely to get sick or feel stress, and if it is high, we are more capable of being happy and healthy (because it is such a clear-cut case of nonsense, we have discussed Reiki regularly; see for instance here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

But nonsense does not stop researchers from conducting trials. In this new clinical trial, conducted in Physiotherapy Clinic of Khatam Al-Anbia Hospital in Iran, 60 patients with pain due to inter-vertebral disc herniation (IVDH) were randomly assigned to one of three groups.

  1. The Reiki group received three 15-minute Reiki sessions on consecutive days by a master of Reiki plus Indomethacin and Methocarbamol (as in group 3).
  2. The physiotherapy group underwent 7 to 10 sessions of physiotherapy of 60 to 90 minutes (heat therapy, TENS, pelvic traction, and physical exercises) plus Indomethacin and Methocarbamol (as in group 3).
  3. The drug group received Indomethacin capsules 75 mg and Methocarbamol tablets 500 mg every 8 hours daily for one week.

The severity of pain and the activities of daily living (ADL) were measured using visual analogue scales (VAS) and ADL-Instrumental ADL questionnaire before and after the intervention. A significant difference was found in pain intensity and ADL improvement between Reiki and the drug therapy. No significant difference between the Reiki and physiotherapy groups were noted.

The authors concluded that Reiki and physiotherapy are effective methods in managing pain and improving ADL in patients with IVDH; however, Reiki is more cost-effective and faster treatment method than physiotherapy.

This RCT seems fairly well-panned and conducted, and its results are straight forward. My only problem with it is how the findings are interpreted.

The study design was such that there was no blinding or control for placebo effects. Therefore, the observed outcomes can be interpreted in more than one way. In my view, by far the most plausible explanation is that Reiki (being an exotic, impressive intervention that generates plenty of expectation) produced a powerful placebo effect. Physiotherapy (being entirely normal and routine), on the other hand, was only marginally successful. It is regrettable that the authors do not even consider this interpretation of their results. They should have remembered that a clinical trial test the null-hypothesis (the experimental treatment is not better that the comparator) which can be rejected only, if there is no other reasonable explanation for the results produced.

If I am correct, the conclusions should be re-written as follows:

The addition of Reiki to drug treatment generated better outcomes than drug therapy alone. Physiotherapy was only marginally effective. The effects of Reiki are most likely not due to the treatment per se but to a classical placebo response.

16 Responses to Is Reiki effective? The researchers say yes, but I am far from convinced

  • Surely this trial was unethical. Should patients with IVDH not first be referred to a chiropractor or an osteopath?

  • Assefi, Nassim: Reiki for the Treatment of Fibromyalgia: A Randomized Controlled Trial (in: The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicin. Vol. 14, Nr. 9, S. 1115-1122 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3116531/) demonstrated that in Reiki – similar to acupuncture and sham acupuncture – the effects of “real healers” corresponded exactly to those of actors who “performed” the setting. Perhaps this result should be “disproved” with the new work…

  • This reminds me of the British scammer- later jailed- who sold thousands of pounds’ worth of ‘bomb- finding’ devices to the Iraqi security forces before being rumbled.
    A filmed test was carried out, in which the machine succeeded in detecting explosives in front of a panel of military men.
    Not surprising, since the ‘ bomb’ was in full view of everyone, including the person using the device to do the ‘searching’.
    I believe it could also detect rogue elephants and, for all I know, bags of chips, depending on what setting one had chosen.
    It was based on a joke ‘golf ball finder’ which was originally sold as a ‘ ‘joke’ item.
    How many people were blown to pieces by suicide bombers carrying explosives through checkpoints using these devices is not, as far as I’m aware, known.

    • Wasn’t there at least a trial by the British Army as well?

      You could probably argue that it might work on the same principle of the polygraph. If the bomber believes it works, he panics, the golf ball bomb finder operator sees this and yells “bomb”. Another success for high tech.

  • Why do people design studies with inappropriate placebo control arms? They must surely know their hard work becomes all but useless.

  • My comments in the past have been Yes and No.
    What do I mean, The general comments that are made about Reiki that it is Spiritual are wrong/ incorrect and any other negative comment that you could make, however if you take a different approach to what it is then you have to look at a scientific when it is suggested to be Energy/ Frequency & Vibration created from language of words and or symbols that are written as sentences and they are applied through the physical into the Psychic/ Mental/ Emotional Chakras (These are invisible) and that applied energy is retained. The applied energy can be tested. (Hands over a Crown, the energy if held shows as Warmth/ Heat or just not being able to enter the Crown, if there is movement down into the body the the applied vibrations are not held. This test can be done with a proxy with similar results.
    The general attitude with Reiki is it is false but I can assure you that correctly done it does work. The problem is that many experts will comment without any knowledge or understanding.
    As far as trials about Reiki unfortunately the majority who claim to have Reiki do not, they cannot pass the simple test as the do not hold the energy of the Affirmation.
    Criticize all that you like but before you do have some idea as to what you criticize

    • Can a Reiki enthusiast help us please?
      Given this ‘energy’ is said to ‘work’, what evidence is there of side effects?
      A hand held just a tad off the ‘correct’ position; a selected Reiki charm (given to level II practitioners) just not quite right?
      Any harm caused? How do we know?

      The energy is so powerful that Reiki Masters can send it over distances. That is what they are taught to do when ‘attuned’ to level II – so level III Reiki Masters (which some NHS institutions employ, or to whom some NHS patients are referred) are responsible for very powerful energies indeed.

      If no side effects are reported, why is that? Is Reiki 100% safe?
      But how do we know?
      (Even homeopaths admit there may be nocebo effects from ‘aggravations’.)
      NHS institutions are not supposed to introduce innovative treatments unless and until ethical approval has been obtained. And that will entail the ethics committee looking at side effects.

      Can anyone who endorses the use of Reiki in the NHS point me to any ethics committee which has considered Reiki?
      If not, why not?
      The BMA is considering the issue of Reiki in the NHS as we speak – I’d like to contribute constructively.

    • Leonard Thomas,
      please send some of your Reiki energy (or mind-altering drugs?) to me, so that I can understand what the heck you are trying to say. (“Yes” or “No” answer is completely sufficient).

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