Reiki Is Nonsense

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Reiki is one of several nonsensical methods commonly referred to as "energy healing." These methods are based on the idea 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 [1].

In a traditional reiki session, the client lies down or sits fully clothed. The practitioner's hands are placed lightly on or just above the client's body, palms down, using a series of 12-15 positions. Each position is held for about 2 to 5 minutes, or until the practitioner feels that the flow of energy—said to be experienced as sensations such as heat or tingling in the hands—has slowed or stopped. Typically, the practitioner delivers at least four sessions of 30 to 90 minutes each. The techniques include "centering," "clearing," "beaming," "extracting harmful energies," "infusing," and "smoothing and raking the aura," all of which are claimed to influence the imaginary "energy" that Reiki advocates postulate.

Reiki can also be self-administered or administered to others at distant locations. Some practitioners say that "spirit guides" help them produce the proper flow of energy.

Background History

The word "reiki" is derived from two Japanese words: rei (universal) and ki (life energy). Current reiki practice can be traced to the spiritual teachings of Mikao Usui in Japan during the early 20th century. Usui's teachings included meditative techniques and healing practices. One of his students, Chujiro Hayashi, further developed the healing practices, placing less emphasis on the meditative techniques. An American named Hawayo Takata learned reiki from Hayashi in Japan and introduced it to Western cultures in the late 1930s [1]. During a recent national survey, about 0.5% of participants said that they had used an "energy healing" therapy during the previous year [2].

In 2009, the Web site of the International Centre for Reiki Training (Kent, England) stated:

Reiki is both powerful and gentle. In its long history of use it has aided in healing virtually every known illness and injury including serious problems like: multiple sclerosis, heart disease, and cancer as well as skin problems, cuts, bruises, broken bones, headache, colds, flu, sore throat, sunburn, fatigue, insomnia, impotence, poor memory, lack of confidence, etc. It is always beneficial and works to improve the effectiveness of all other types of therapy. A treatment feels like a wonderful glowing radiance and has many benefits for both client and practitioner, including altered states of consciousness and spiritual experiences. . . . Reiki will improve the results of all medical treatment, acting to reduce negative side effects, shorten healing time, reduce or eliminate pain, reduce stress, and help create optimism [3].


No special background or credentials are needed to receive reiki training. To become a practitioner, one must receive an "initiation" or "attunement" from a Reiki Master. This ceremony makes one "attuned" to the "universal life energy" and enables one to serve as a conduit for it. There are said to be three different levels of attunement (some teach that there are four). At the higher levels, one can allegedly channel reiki energy and effect healings at a distance, without physical contact. Training for the lower levels typically takes 1 or 2 days and begins with an attunement. Training to become a Master is said to take years. The techniques taught can vary greatly among reiki schools and teachers. Many practitioners are massage therapists. However, no licensing or professional standards exist for the practice of reiki itself. Whether reiki can be considered the unlicensed practice of medicine varies from state to state.


The most comprehensive review of reiki research was done by Edzard Ernst, M.D., Ph.D. and his colleagues at the University of Exeter. After surveying studies published through January 2008, they concluded that most were poorly designed and "the evidence is insufficient to suggest that reiki is an effective treatment for any condition." [4]

In 2009, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops concluded that "reiki therapy finds no support either in the findings of natural science or in Christian belief" and urged Catholic health-care facilities and clergy not to promote or support it. It further stated:

Reiki lacks scientific credibility. It has not been accepted by the scientific and medical communities as an effective therapy. Reputable scientific studies attesting to the efficacy of Reiki are lacking, as is a plausible scientific explanation as to how it could possibly be efficacious. The explanation of the efficacy of Reiki depends entirely on a particular view of the world as permeated by this "universal life energy" (Reiki) that is subject to manipulation by human thought and will. Reiki practitioners claim that their training allows one to channel the "universal life energy" that is present in all things. This "universal life energy," however, is unknown to natural science. As the presence of such energy has not been observed by means of natural science, the justification for these therapies necessarily must come from something other than science [5].  

In the mid-1990s, at ages 9 and 10, Emily Rosa demonstrated that 21 therapeutic touch (TT) practitioners could not detect her alleged "energy field." During the tests, the practitioners rested their arms on a flat surface, about a foot apart. Emily then hovered her hand, palm down, a few inches above one of the subject's palms. A cardboard screen prevented the subjects from seeing which of their hands was selected. The practitioners correctly located Emily's hand only 122 (44%) out of 280 trials, which is no better than would be expected by guessing [6]. After the Journal of the American Medical Association published the results, TT leaders called the study a "parlor game," but they refused to suggest an alternative experimental design or to undergo similar tests themselves [7]. It might be interesting to investigate whether reiki practitioners can actually sense or transmit "energy," whether reiki "attunements" actually enhance anything, and whether feelings of warmth are accompanied by any measurable change of skin temperature. Researchers at Scripps Institute (San Diego) recently used a Magnes 2500 WH SQUID device to measure the electromagnetic fields from the hands and heart of three reiki masters when they were (a) not practicing reiki, (b) purportedly transmitting reiki to a distant person, and (c) purportedly transmitting to a person in the room. Similar measurements were made on four reiki-naive volunteers before and after they received a reiki training/attunement enabling them to self-administer reiki. No high-intensity radiation attributable to reiki was found [9].

British Regulatory Action

The British Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has objected to reiki claims at least five times:

The Bottom Line

Reiki has no substantiated health value and lacks a scientifically plausible rationale. Science-based healthcare settings should not tolerate its use, and scarce government research dollars should not be used to study it further [8].


  1. Miles P, True G. Reiki: Review of a biofield therapy history, theory, practice, and research. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 9:62-72, 2003.
  2. Barnes PM and others. Complementary and alternative medicine use among adults and children: United States, 2007. National Health Statistic Reports, No. 12, Dec 1-0, 2008.
  3. Experiencing reiki. International Center for Reiki Training Web site, accessed April 18, 2009.
  4. Lee MS and others. Effects of reiki in clinical practice: A systematic review of randomized clinical trials. International Journal of Clinical Practice 62:947-954, 2008.
  5. Committee on Doctrine. Guidelines for evaluating reiki as an alternative therapy. U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, March 25, 2009.
  6. Rosa L and others. A Close Look at Therapeutic Touch. JAMA 279:1005-1010, 1998.
  7. Sarner L. Therapeutic touch: Responses to objections to the JAMA paper. Quackwatch, April 11,1999.
  8. Barrett S. Why NCCAM should stop funding reiki research. NCCAM Watch, June 23, 2009.
  9. Baldwin AL and others. Practicing reiki does not appear to routinely produce high-intensity electromagnetic fields from the heart or hands of reiki practitioners. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 19:518-526, 2013.
  10. ASA adjudication on the International Reiki and Healing Centre, 15 Aug 2001.
  11. ASA adjudication on the International Reiki and Healing Centre, 20 July 2011.
  12. ASA adjudication on Christina Moore, 29 June 2011.
  13. ASA ruling on Jackie Howchin, 4 Jan 2012.
  14. ASA ruling on A Better Being, 3 Oct 2012.

This article was revised on August 22, 2015.

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