What is reiki?

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Spiritual healing that involves holding hands in certain positions over parts of the body to improve energy flow.
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The Japanese word reiki can be translated as “life-force energy.” The term refers to a form of spiritual healing that involves holding one’s hands above another’s body. Many people have taken training in Reiki, and the service is provided in a variety of settings. However, there is no scientific foundation in support of Reiki’s effectiveness for any purpose.

History of Reiki. There are two principal stories regarding the origin of Reiki. In both versions, the method was invented in Japan by Mikao Usui. Many Reiki practitioners in the United States believe that Usui was a Christian monk who invented the technique in the mid-nineteenth century. However, according to the more traditional Japanese schools of Reiki, Usui was a member of a Japanese spiritual organization called Rei Jyutsu Ka, and he developed the technique around 1915. (The story that he was a Christian may have been invented to facilitate the acceptance of Reiki in the West.) Both versions of Reiki’s history agree that Usui based his technique on methods and philosophies drawn from numerous traditional Asian healing methods.

After Usui’s death, various forms of Reiki continued to be taught by his students. One of these students, Chujiro Hayashi, systematized Reiki into three levels and added many hand movements to the technique. In turn, one of Hayashi’s students, Hawayo Takata, brought Reiki to the United States.

In the early 1980s, Takata’s granddaughter, Phyllis Furumoto, took on the mantle of Hayashi and Takata’s line of Reiki and popularized it widely in the West. However, many other forms of Reiki continue to exist, descending through different lineages of teachers. There are considerable differences between the various approaches, and certain groups strongly challenge the validity of others.

What is Reiki? Most types of Asian medicine make use of the concept of qi, a form of vital energy that flows through the body. Free-flowing, abundant qi is said to create health, while stagnant or deficient qi is thought to lead to illness. Reiki practitioners believe that they can improve this energy by holding their hands in certain positions over parts of a person’s body; advanced practitioners believe they can produce this effect from a distance. The net result, according to the theory, is accelerated healing and increased wellness.

In many ways, Reiki resembles therapeutic touch, except that the instructions given to its practitioners are more specific. A certified practitioner of Reiki has spent time learning specified hand movements and positions and has also undergone an “attunement” to an already-certified Reiki practitioner. This chain of attunements goes back to Usui, the method’s founder.

In its most popular Western form, Reiki is learned in three stages. The first stage involves an attunement that permits physical healing. The second stage grants the ability to carry out healing over a distance. The third degree of training allows the practitioner to perform healing on a spiritual level and to give attunements to students. Generally, each level is obtained by paying a fee and completing a weekend course.

Uses and Applications

Reiki is promoted as a treatment that can accelerate physical, emotional, or spiritual healing in every conceivable situation. It is used as a support for conventional medical care, rather than as a replacement for it.

Scientific Evidence

The only truly meaningful way to determine whether a medical therapy works is to perform a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. For hands-on therapies such as Reiki, however, a truly double-blind study is not possible; the Reiki practitioner will inevitably know whether he or she is administering real Reiki rather than fake Reiki. The best that can be hoped for is a single-blind study in which participants do not know whether they received real or fake Reiki and in which the medical outcome is evaluated by an observer who also does not know who is or is not receiving real Reiki and is, therefore, “blinded.”

In a 2008 review of nine randomized-controlled trials on the effectiveness of Reiki for various purposes, researchers stated that no firm conclusions could be drawn from any of these studies. In a subsequent controlled trial, one hundred persons with fibromyalgia received Reiki or direct-touch therapy from either a true Reiki master or an actor posing as a Reiki master. There was no difference in symptom improvement between the two groups. In one review of three Reiki studies, researchers found that more experienced practitioners appeared to have a greater effect on pain reduction. This observation could not be explained.

A simpler study design compares Reiki to no treatment. However, studies of this type cannot provide reliable evidence about the efficacy of a treatment: If a benefit is seen, there is no way to determine whether it was caused by Reiki specifically or just by attention generally. (Attention alone will almost always produce some reported benefit.)

Finally, there are many case reports in which people are given Reiki and then seem to improve. Such reports do not mean anything scientifically; numerous people receiving placebo in placebo-controlled studies also seem to improve. Thus, such reports cannot say anything about whether Reiki itself offers any benefit.

In one study, female nursing students received either real Reiki or a placebo form of the treatment called mimic Reiki. Before-and-after tests failed to find any improvement in general well-being attributable to Reiki treatment.

In another study, researchers evaluated the effectiveness of Reiki (with a related technique called LeShan) in twenty-one people undergoing oral surgery for impacted wisdom teeth. Each participant received two surgeries, one with Reiki and the other without (in random order). People reported less pain when they received Reiki than when they received no treatment; however, because of the lack of a fake treatment group, the results mean little.

Choosing a Practitioner

There are several competing organizations that issue certifications to Reiki practitioners. These include the Reiki Alliance, the Reiki Foundation, and the Awareness Institute.

Safety Issues

There are no known or proposed safety risks with Reiki unless a person chooses to use Reiki instead of, rather than as a support to, standard medical care.


Assefi, N., et al. “Reiki for the Treatment of Fibromyalgia.” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 14 (2008): 1115-1122.

Lee, M. S., M. H. Pittler, and E. Ernst. “Effects of Reiki in Clinical Practice.” International Journal of Clinical Practice 62 (2008): 947-954.

Richeson, N. E., et al. “Effects of Reiki on Anxiety, Depression, Pain, and Physiological Factors in Community-Dwelling Older Adults.” Research in Gerentological Nursing 3 (2010): 187-199.

So, P. S., Y. Jiang, and Y. Qin. “Touch Therapies for Pain Relief in Adults.” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2008): CD006535. Available through EBSCO DynaMed Systematic Literature Surveillance at http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed.

Thornton, L. C. “A Study of Reiki, an Energy Field Treatment, Using Rogers’ Science.” Rogerian Nursing Science News 8 (1996): 14-15.