Reiki is a form of alternative medicine that is, according to Wikipedia, built on the idea of “an inexhaustible, universal “life force” [or] spiritual energy”. Actually, this seems rather familiar – are most forms of alternative medicine reliant upon the idea of a vital force of some kind (there’s prana in ayurveda and yoga, acupuncture’s qi, and chiropractic was originally thought to work via “innate intelligence, a vital nervous energy or life force that represented God’s presence in man”) or have I just managed to randomly pick those that do?
Singh and Ernst mention the similarity between reiki and therapeutic touch in their book Trick or Treatment and point out that both are supposed to manipulate energy fields. They note that “nobody has ever properly defined what they mean by these human energy fields, demonstrated that they actually exist, or proved that they can be manipulated to improve health”. Therapeutic touch was actually investigated by Emily Rosa in 1996. The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1998 and concluded that “Therapeutic touch is grounded on the concept that people have an energy field that is readily detectable (and modifiable) by TT practitioners. However, this study found that 21 experienced practitioners, when blinded, were unable to tell which of their hands was in the experimenter’s energy field. The mean correct score for the 28 sets of 10 tests was 4.4, which is close to what would be expected for random guessing”. Of course, it was therapeutic touch rather than reiki that was being investigated but the two therapies do work on the same principle. We’ll look for evidence specifically relating to reiki later.
First, I want to see if I’m being unfair in characterising reiki as being a therapy that relies on the old-fashioned and discredited idea of a vital force and/or energy fields that have never been properly defined, never been shown to exist, and never been proved to be manipulable to improve health. The reiki.org FAQ section tells me that: “We are alive because life force is flowing through us. Life force flows within the physical body though pathways called chakras, meridians and nadis”; that “negative thoughts and feelings attach themselves to the energy field and cause a disruption in the flow of life force”; and that “reiki heals by flowing through the affected parts of the energy field and charging them with positive energy”. The UK Reiki Federation, meanwhile, informs me that “The Japanese word Reiki means ‘Universal Energy’. Eastern medicine has always recognised and worked with this energy, which flows through all living things and is vital to well-being. Known as ‘ki’ in Japan, ‘chi’ in China and ‘prana’ in India. Acupuncture, T’ai chi and Yoga are also based on the free-flow of this energy in a person” and goes on to state that “Reiki may be experienced as a flow of energy, mild tingling, warmth, coolness, other sensations, or nothing at all”. [All italics are mine.] Note that the last quote tells us that “reiki may be experienced as … nothing at all”, which is rather convenient if the recipient fails to respond to the flow of energy, or life force that is working through their energy field. I can almost imagine the conversation: ‘What did you feel?’, asks the practitioner ‘nothing’ replies the recipient. ‘Oh good, it’s working then’.
OK, it’s evidence time. A review by RM Peters concluded that “It is impossible to make any substantive claims at this time because there is limited published research and because many of the studies had significant methodological issues that could seriously bias the reported results.” A limited amount of research and methodological issues? If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve heard or read similar comments about other forms of alternative medicine. I’ve found complaints of this nature when looking at the evidence for chiropractic therapy in nocturnal enuresis and for acupuncture in smoking cessation.
So, Jiang and Qin, in a Cochrane review of touch therapies, found only three trials on reiki that met the inclusion criteria for their review. They concluded that: “Touch therapies may have a modest effect in pain relief. More studies on HT and Reiki in relieving pain are needed”, which sounds promising rather than overwhelmingly positive. I note that the authors state that “Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) or Controlled Clinical Trials (CCTs) evaluating the effect of touch on any type of pain were included. Similarly, only studies using a sham placebo or a ‘no treatment’ control was included”, so not all trials were placebo-controlled – in fact only 12 of the 24 trials included used a sham treatment as a control. Of the other twelve studies, it is not stated how many were comparing therapeutic touch to conventional treatment and how many to ‘no treatment’. Only twelve of the trials were randomized and of these ten had “adequate allocation concealment”, one an “unclear” method of blinding, and one “inadequate” blinding.
Lee, Pittler and Ernst conducted a systematic review and found that “The searches identified 205 potentially relevant studies. Nine randomised clinical trials (RCTs) met our inclusion criteria” and “Most trials suffered from methodological flaws such as small sample size, inadequate study design and poor reporting”. The authors concluded that “the evidence is insufficient to suggest that reiki is an effective treatment for any condition. Therefore the value of reiki remains unproven”.
One final point: I was pleased to see that the UK reiki organisations I looked at seemed to be fairly responsible. I didn’t find outrageous claims to cure named diseases, the Reiki Association website states that “Reiki practitioners are not trained in diagnosis and will not offer any diagnosis, prognosis or advice. If you are concerned about symptoms you should see your doctor”, and the UK Reiki Federation has a disclaimer that “Reiki does not take the place of conventional medicine. Always consult a GP for an acute or infectious condition, and problems of urgent concern”. I wish other forms of alternative medicine were that responsible.
David Colquhoun has had a piece published in the Financial Times magazine (as reposted by Jack of Kent here). It is a glossary of magic medicine and includes comments on reiki, acupuncture, and chiropractic (the three subjects I have so far written beginner’s guides on) as well as herbal medicine, homeopathy, reflexology, and other treatments. It’s also (in updated form) on Improbable Science here. Pass it on. Tell your friends. Tweet it, add it to delicious, link to it from your blog and digg it.