Reiki: The Inefficacy of Alternative Therapeutic Touch

May 20, 2010

It is a truism that two common reactions from individuals faced with exotic and unknown propositions are abject fear and irrational acceptance. Interestingly, both responses appear not only to be oppositional but also omnipresent in at least a couple of rather unfortunate belief systems; cases of xenophobic classification as well as instances of blind faith in alternative or unproven medical techniques. A great many of us shun cultures and individuals whose background and appearance differs from our own while, simultaneously, a certain number of our group wholeheartedly embrace the differences, to the point of ascribing invalid meaning and purpose to their mystery. In the case of alternative medicine, many profess ignorance. The sight of hundreds of acupuncture needles pressed into flesh is certainly fear-inducing, energy fields that radiate from bodies perhaps even more so. And yet there is no lack of Western therapists and patients who accept scientifically-wanting practices such as homeopathy and Reiki and cite the ancient nature of these Asian healing techniques as sole reason for their efficacy. These treatments, some argue, are far beyond the purview of modern science and can operate in areas where science is limited. As always, such an outlook comes with real risk. While a healthy middle ground should be sought in reconciling cross-cultural differences and care should be taken not to skew to either extreme, such respect should not be given to pseudoscientific claims, regardless of their point of origin.

Certainly the alien nature of a practice such as Reiki is, for some, part of the allure. Yet effectiveness can be tested and results can be plotted regardless of who performs the procedure or where it is undertaken. Discounting the argument that “unknown or mysterious is beyond understanding and therefore better”, alternative medicine can be scrutinized under similar conditions and with similar results in Beijing and Boston. For simplification purposes, the focus of this paper will be on dismantling the positive claims made for Reiki, or Japanese therapeutic touch. However, it should be noted that similar or identical reasoning can be used, at least in part, to question the legitimacy of other Asian alternative practices or systems. This is due to the fact that Reiki is primarily concerned with the transference and manipulation of ki, a loosely defined concept which roughly translates as “energy” or, in verb form, “energy flow”. Ki or Qi (Chinese) figures heavily in various martial arts and yoga, as well as modern feng shui, the questionable “art” of furniture arrangement to achieve life balance and acupuncture. Both of these traditional Chinese practices have yet to prove effective under strict scientific scrutiny.

Reiki translates loosely as “all-encompassing energy”. It can be administered in a wide variety of ways but traditionally consists of the patient lying or reclining while the practitioner rests their hands on or above the patients body in an effort to “balance” the patient's ki field. The lack of any strict standard of practice or uniform result is only the beginning of Reiki's numerous ambiguity problems. On average, no additional attempts are ever made by Reiki adherents to further qualify the meaning of “balance”, “all-encompassing energy” or “ki” beyond the circular definitions already noted. Regarding treatment procedures, no distinction is made by many practitioners between human and animal therapy techniques. Some even provide service for plants. Additionally, Reiki has been claimed to be effective on ailments as diverse as the common cold and cancer.

In fact, Reiki as a practice is itself so vague that this form of healing is not even taught but “passed on” in specialized classes using a process called “attunement”. During attunement, a Reiki master encourages a student to tap into their own unlimited supply of ki as a healing source. Distance often fails to pose a boundary as the amount of space between practitioner and clients or students for healing sessions and attunements in most cases may be limitless. A fully realized concept of infinity comes easy to the Reiki master it would seem, as evidenced in their dismissal of genuine space (energy travels indefinitely) and embracement of limitless ki (energy is eternal). Those of a more literal mind would rightly question such an assertion and it remains incumbent upon the believer or practitioner who wants to be taken seriously to address serious logical inconsistencies in their claims.

The obvious problem with vagaries is the inability to pin them down, the better to obtain any empirical data regarding Reiki's efficacy. Tests designed to determine the ability of therapeutic healers through the construction of a blind trial in which one individual endeavors to sense another's energy are not useful here. Reiki is much too slippery to fall into the category of “energy transference”. Many adherents disregard the idea of a complete and irrefutable shared event. The more subtle “energy balancing” does not require the Reiki master to sense anything. On top of this, a Reiki session will often openly include the assertion that the experience is different for everybody. During the treatment one usually feels relaxed (recall, of course, clients are sitting or lying down) but any added sensations, such as warmth, light-headedness or alleviation of pain are added, if perhaps unexpected, benefits. These benefits are acknowledged and supplied by the patient, of course, not directly administered by the practitioner. This differs from traditional medicine, in which certain substances can be prescribed for a specific and well-known effect and, therefore, tends to say more about the effectiveness of Reiki as a placebo than as a valid treatment practice.

Stories abound, often anecdotal, of skilled practitioners' ability to impart a genuine feeling of vigor or vitality, ease prolonged symptoms or erase disease entirely. But in fact, most supposed instances of Reiki treatment effectiveness can be attributed to two common fallacies of reasoning. The post hoc and regressive fallacies fit the majority of cases where expected or unexpected effects occur after the Reiki experience or when reoccurring aches or pains are diminished as a result. A professional athlete would be committing a post hoc error in believing a pair of socks worn during a winning game to be the ultimate source of continued success, for example. He or she would also be wrong regressively in assuming the low point or “trough” associated with the peaks and valleys of pain experience, the result of an injury, for example, should be credited entirely to one particular and unproven treatment. Either the client is erroneously convinced that later benefits are attributable to Reiki when nothing, in fact, guarantees the second event is a result of the first, or the person goes through the inevitable lull in recurring pain shortly after a treatment session. Both examples involve a failure by the subject to recognize coincidence.

Advocates will counter that any benefits, even those from a placebo, are worthwhile and so treatments which produce such benefits should be considered. It is here where the real dangers of Reiki, and all unproven alternative medical treatments are revealed. There exists a real possibility that a patient with a serious medical condition will forego traditional medicine in favor of alternative treatment. In regards to subject health and well-being, the danger in such an omission is obvious. Advocates will often continue to refute this by saying responsible Reiki practitioners emphasize their treatment as complementary to traditional therapy and not as replacement. Yet, one would imagine a complementary treatment regime to a disease such as cancer, which requires intensive radiation and chemical therapy, to focus primarily on relaxation and relief. Something along the lines of a massage, for example, provides genuine momentary relief to the body and mind but does not suggest itself to be actually combating the illness. The Reiki practitioner, in general, will stress the comfortable benefits of his own treatment but then continue by asserting Reiki can be curative. So while the outlying principals may continue to be vague, this is one area where Reiki is recklessly unambiguous. By “cleansing meridians” and “harmonizing energy levels”, adherents sincerely believe they can prevent and cure disease while science maintains that this is just not so.

Granted, few Reiki healers would go so far as to admit that Reiki cures or even assists in preventing a disease like cancer. Reiki has much more success with minor illnesses and ailments with multiple traditional treatment options. Still, Reiki will claim its usual achievements of stress relief, relaxation as well as elimination of stomach upset and nausea among cancer victims. All of these gains can of course be attributed to the fallacies mentioned previously. It is a simple and unfortunate fact that people in dire circumstances will often succumb to misguided or faulty reasoning; errors in judgment that the less scrupulous will readily take advantage of. To do so under the guise of providing a therapeutic service is unconscionable. Therefore, along with acknowledging the legitimate dilemma of Reiki providing false hope and security for individuals already facing trying times, we should also consider these parties' loss of time and income as instances of theft and real crimes.