Reiki (pronounced raykey) is a form of “energy healing,” essentially the Asian version of faith healing or laying on of hands. Practitioners believe they are transferring life energy to the patient, increasing their well-being. The practice is popular among nurses, and in fact is practiced by nurses at my own institution (Yale).
From reiki.org, we get this description:
Reiki is a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing. It is 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.
Reiki is therefore a form of vitalism – the pre-scientific belief that some spiritual energy animates the living, and is what separates living things from non-living things. The notion of vitalism was always an intellectual place-holder, responsible for whatever aspects of biology were not currently understood. But as science progressed, eventually we figured out all of the basic functions of life and there was simply nothing left for the vital force to do. It therefore faded from scientific thinking. We can add to that the fact that no one has been able to provide positive evidence for the existence of a vital force – it remains entirely unknown to science.
But the discarded science and superstition of the past is the “alternative medicine” of today. There are many so-called “CAM” modalities that are based on vitalism, including Reiki. Reiki, in fact, is very similar to therapeutic touch, another energy healing modality that was popular among nurses, and although it continues to be used it is much less popular after 9 year old girl (Emily Rosa) performed an elegant experiment to show that it was nothing but self-deception. Reiki nicely moved in to fill the void.
The research on Reiki, and energy healing in general, is similar to that of many similar modalities – those with very low scientific plausibility that are not taken very seriously by medical scientists. The research is of generally low quality, poorly controlled small studies that seem designed to justify Reiki rather than see if it actually works. The most recently published study, for example, looks at anxiety levels and self-reported well being in cancer patient and finds, unsurprisingly, that patients feel better when they receive the kind attention of a nurse. The study is completely uncontrolled, and therefore of dubious value. One might consider such a study a complete waste of time and effort, as the results were never in doubt.
A 2011 review of reiki studies concluded:
The existing research does not allow conclusions regarding the efficacy or effectiveness of energy healing. Future studies should adhere to existing standards of research on the efficacy and effectiveness of a treatment, and given the complex character of potential outcomes, cross-disciplinary methodologies may be relevant. To extend the scope of clinical trials, psychosocial processes should be taken into account and explored, rather than dismissed as placebo.
In other words – existing research is a such poor quality we cannot draw any useful conclusion from it. I disagree, however, that this necessarily means that more research is needed. The low plausibility of using magical energy that has never been demonstrated to exist by medical science argues otherwise. Further, the last sentence is odd – it suggests the authors are trying to spin placebo effects into real effects. This is increasingly the strategy of alternative medicine advocates as it becomes clear that most of the modalities they favor do not work any better than placebo (which means they don’t work).
Reiki is now squarely in that camp.
Also See: Full of Energy « Science-Based Medicine