Reiki and Therapeutic Touch

Author's note - I will be working on this page's format to fit with the rest of the site. For now, I have included an article that I wrote for a local skeptic's group based on a series of letters between me and the staff at my health care institution.

My Clash with Reiki in Quackedemia

Quackademic Medicine. This is a term often sited by David Gorski, MD, of Science Based Medicine fame. It describes the infiltration of nonsensical, pre-scientific practices into legitimate science-based institutions. Such infiltration gives these practice an appearance of legitimacy.

I am a primary care physician on staff at one of the largest health systems in my state. It has recently developed and marketed a “Department of Integrative Medicine”.  The directory in the lobby reads “Acupuncture/ Integrative Medicine”. This department was introduced with little notice among the community of academic physicians in our health care system. Indeed, I found that many did not know, understand or even seem to care what it was about. The new department offers services in Acupuncture, Homeopathy, and many other nostrums such as “Reiki”.

Many readers here are familiar with Acupuncture and Homeopathy. I find that most people are unaware of Reiki.  I myself was unaware until doing some research. The belief is that an experienced Reiki practitioner can sense, direct and manipulate a patient’s life-force energy to restore balance and health. It was invented in the 1920’s and comes from the Japanese roots of Rei (universal) and Ki (life force). The practitioner typically holds her/his hands over the patient and slowly moves them to and fro, correcting the flow of energy. Some practitioners actually touch the patient in a kind of massage. It is very similar (basically the same to skeptics) as “Therapeutic Touch”.

When reviewing my institution’s Reiki page on its website, I became amused and incensed at the claims being made. At the time, the web page read...

“Recent findings in the area of quantum physics have provided the scientific foundation for Reiki and other integrative modalities.”


“The Benefits of Reiki
  • Provide relief from pain
  • Strengthens the immune system
  • Helps clear toxins from the body
  • Promotes wound healing
  • Elicits deep relaxation
  • Promotes intuitive thinking
  • Supports those at the end of life
  • Encourages the body's self-healing efforts”

As someone with a background in Chemistry, this appeal to quantum physics intrigued me. I sent an e-mail to the “Naturopathic Doctor” in charge and requested the peer-reviewed, scientific data in support of these claims. She kindly forwarded links to a few published studies that touted modest benefits of Reiki therapy itself. When I asked again for scientific papers on Quantum Mechanics and Reiki / Energy Healing, I received no response.

I then sent a letter to our administrators, pointing out that the institution was committing a frank Federal Trade Commission violation.

The legal community considers professional websites to be advertising. As such, the guidelines for corporate websites fall under the guidelines for advertising. The Federal Trade Commission website states the following:

Under the Federal Trade Commission Act:
  • Advertising must be truthful and non-deceptive;
  • Advertisers must have evidence to back up their claims

According to the FTC's Deception Policy Statement, an ad is deceptive if it contains a statement - or omits information - that:
  • Is likely to mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances; and
  • Is "material" - that is, important to a consumer's decision to buy or use the product.

The first, most obvious violation is the claim that Quantum Physics can now explain the highly dubious practice of Reiki. This claim has been made by others in the equally dubious (and relatively indistinguishable)  field of Touch Therapy.  Quantum Physics has been invoked to explain  Homeopathy as well.  “Quantum Physics” has been misused to promote many types of practices without a shred of evidence.

Second, we are making specific claims about Reiki that are not supported in the scientific literature with the evidence-based standards that we demand of medical science. According to the FTC, we have to provide evidence that our claims are true. It is important to remember that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

The evidence for the claims above is scant or, at best, equivocal.  A review of the literature on PubMed reveals conflicting reports.

A systematic review in the Int. Journal of Clinical Practice concluded that...” the evidence is insufficient to suggest that reiki is an effective treatment for any condition. Therefore the value of reiki remains unproven.”

A Cochran Review concludes that...Touch therapies may have a modest effect in pain relief. More studies on HT and Reiki in relieving pain are needed.”

The National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine study on chronic pain concluded that...“The study showed that neither direct touch nor distant Reiki affected pain or any of the other outcome measures. The researchers concluded that adults with fibromyalgia are unlikely to benefit from Reiki.”

If one watches a Reiki therapy session, one can imagine that patients feel very relaxed in the procedure. They would, therefore, report less pain and an overall feeling of well-being. There is no convincing evidence that the effect is produced by anything other than a relaxing atmosphere, ritual and pre-existing beliefs. Why would average patients hold such beliefs? Because we are telling them that such practices are scientific on our website!

Similar effects can be obtained by other soothing techniques such as listening to music.  Reiki therapists and other energy healers claim to achieve results by manipulating “energy fields”. The true burden of proof for such claims should start with proving the existence of this undefined force of nature.

The most telling study was published in JAMA in 1988. It studied the concept of “Therapeutic Touch”, which appeals to the same claims as Reiki. This study did not look for subjective effects in patients. It looked to see if “energy healers” could actually detect mysterious energy fields in the first place. The beauty of this trial is in its simplicity; and it was done by a 9 year old girl.

Twenty-one practitioners with TT (Therapeutic Touch) experience for from 1 to 27 years were tested under blinded conditions to determine whether they could correctly identify which of their hands was closest to the investigator's hand. Placement of the investigator's hand was determined by flipping a coin. Fourteen practitioners were tested 10 times each, and 7 practitioners were tested 20 times each.”... “Practitioners of TT identified the correct hand in only 123 (44%) of 280 trials, which is close to what would be expected for random chance.”

“Their failure to substantiate TT's most fundamental claim is unrefuted evidence that the claims of TT are groundless and that further professional use is unjustified.”

JAMA TT Study (Emily Rosa)
Responses to JAMA study
Sci-Am testing TT (with Emily Rosa and Ray Hyman)
Emily Rosa’s Test on ABC

There is no effect. “Energy healers” do not have special powers. Quantum Physics has nothing to do with this pseudoscience. One cannot make conclusions by studying the effects of a force that does not exist in the first place (see “Tooth Fairy Science”, coined by Harriet Hall, MD).

After calling this to the attention of the administrators, the website no longer contains the appeal to Quantum Physics. A small victory for reason and skepticism.  You can still sign up for classes to become a Reiki master though. Got $825.00?

John Byrne, M.D.