Why NCCAM Should Stop Funding Reiki Research

Stephen Barrett, M.D.
June 23, 2009

Reiki is one of several nonsensical methods commonly referred to as “energy healing.” These methods are based on the notion that the body is surrounded or permeated by an energy field that is not measurable by ordinary scientific instrumentation. The alleged force, said to support life, is known as ki in Japan, as chi or qi in China, and as prana in India. Reiki practitioners claim to facilitate healing by strengthening or “balancing” it. Looking for evidence that this force exists or affects health makes no more sense than searching for ghosts. Yet the NIH National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has funded five studies intended to test reiki’s effectiveness.

Three of the studies have been completed. In June 2009, I searched PubMed using the principal investigator’s name and the word “reiki” and learned that only one of the studies had been reported. Searches with Google for the two other completed studies uncovered no signs that their results had been published. Here’s a summary of what I found. (The links connect with descriptions on the clinicaltrials.gov Web site.) The NCCAM Press Office supplied the funding amounts.

Efficacy of Reiki in the treatment of fibromyalgia (NCT00051428): $304,808
  • Plan: 100 fibromyalgia patients with no previous reiki use were recruited from a chronic fatigue referral clinic to participate in an 8-week trial. Patients were randomized into one of two reiki groups (direct-contact and distant reiki) or one of two control groups (sham and placebo). Patients received either reiki or placebo 16 times during the course of the study.
  • Status: Completed in 2005. The researchers reported that neither reiki nor touch improved the symptoms of fibromyalgia [1].
The use of reiki for patients with advanced AIDS (NCT00065208): $169,692
  • Plan: 146 patients with advanced AIDS were to be enrolled and randomized into two groups to receive a total of three 1-hour reiki sessions over a period of 6 weeks. Participants in both the reiki and control groups would be assessed at two times during the study period to compare changes in participants’ anxiety, depression, pain, quality of life, and spiritual well-being.
  • Status: Completed in 2003. No report was published.
Effects of reiki on painful neuropathy and cardiovascular risk factors (NCT00010751): $1,893,411
  • Plan: The study was intended to test whether reiki would reduce pain, improve blood-sugar control, improve cardiac autonomic function, and increase exercise tolerance in diabetic patients..
  • Status: Completed in 2004. No published report is apparent.
Effects of energy healing on prostate cancer (NCT00064208): 372,500
  • Plan: The study is intended to evaluate whether reiki affects anxiety and disease progression in 120 newly diagnosed patients with localized prostate cancer who are candidates for radical prostatectomy. The patients will be randomized to one of 3 groups: reiki, another touch therapy, or guided imagery. No untreated control group is mentioned in the online protocol. Why not compare to talking with the patient about their anxiety?
  • Status: Still recruiting.
Reiki and physiological consequences of acute stress (NCT00346671): $570,299
  • Plan: The primary research questions are to determine whether various physiological changes are induced during reiki sessions and whether a reiki session affects responses to a subsequent acute stressor. Secondary research questions include assessing whether any benefits result from placebo or unique abilities of “attuned” reiki practitioners and looking for background characteristics of recipients that are associated with acceptance and responsiveness.
  • Status: Still recruiting.
The Bottom Line

Reiki is unsubstantiated and lacks a scientifically plausible rationale [2]. There’s no logical reason to believe that studying it will have any practical benefit. So far, NCCAM has spent $3,311,000 on five studies. Scarce government research dollars should not be used to study it further.

  1. Reiki for the treatment of fibromyalgia: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 14:1115-1122, 2008.
  2. Barrett S. Reiki is nonsense. Quackwatch, April 19, 2009.

This article was revised on June 23, 2009..