Reiki is a form of energy work, which is a collection of practices that are believed to enhance the free flow of life-force energy. Encouraging the flow of this invisible energy, sometimes called chi or prana, is also the basis of other, better-known energy work treatments such as acupuncture.

Although scientific research examining the benefits of Reiki is limited, many people say Reiki has helped them manage chronic pain ranging from fibromyalgia to migraines. It’s also believed to reduce depression and anxiety.

What is Reiki?

Reiki (pronounced ray-key) is a Japanese form of healing. The word translates roughly to “spiritually guided life-force energy,” according to the International Center for Reiki Training (ICRT).

The word is actually a combination of “rei,” which refers to the wisdom of a higher power, and “ki,” which means life-force energy. Ki is similar to the “chi” or “qi” (pronounced chee) referenced in ancient Chinese medicine, and is the same energy manipulated by acupuncture.

These ancient systems of medicine posit that disease comes from blockages, disturbances, or low levels of life-force energy. Reiki is unique in that people can learn to perform the technique on themselves, although many practitioners are available to provide treatments, as well.

Some Reiki treatments, known as distant healing, are even performed while the practitioner and person receiving treatment are not in the same room or even the same town. The reason this could work is that life-force energy knows no limits. No scientific proof for this energy exists, but the idea of it is the basis for nearly all Eastern healing modalities.

What happens during a Reiki session?

During Reiki, practitioners place their hands on or slightly above the person receiving treatment in specific places that vary depending upon the person and medical issue being addressed. It is believed that this laying of the hands facilitates the flow of energy between the person giving Reiki and the one receiving.

The energy system in Reiki is organized along the seven chakras, which are wheels of invisible energy lying along the spine. Each chakra has a distinct meaning, and in this form of energy work, some maladies can be linked to imbalances in specific chakras. To remedy an imbalance in a particular chakra, a Reiki practitioner would focus on the corresponding area.

Reiki treatments may also focus on acupuncture points, which are specific areas along meridians, or channels through which life-force energy flows. Each organ relates to a specific meridian.

Sessions typically last around an hour, although multiple sessions over time may be required to receive maximum benefit.

What are the benefits of Reiki?

While the benefits of Reiki haven’t been extensively studied, anecdotal benefits include diminished stress, relaxed muscles, and a reduction in pain. Some cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy have reported the treatment relieves their nausea, according to WebMD.

Reiki, along with many other energy-based systems of healing, emphasizes a lifestyle component. People receiving the treatment are encouraged to become active participants in their healing, and this active participation has been found in clinical trials to improve health outcomes.

In Reiki, it’s believed that healing the body requires healing the spirit, and healing the spirit requires adopting the mindset of gratitude and joy while diminishing worry, according to ICRT. Reiki’s founder, Usui Mikai recommended:

“The secret art of inviting happiness

The miraculous medicine of all diseases

Just for today, do not anger

Do not worry and be filled with gratitude

Devote yourself to your work. Be kind to people.

Every morning and evening, join your hands in prayer.

Pray these words to your heart

and chant these words with your mouth

Usui Reiki Treatment for the improvement of body and mind.”

What proof supports Reiki’s ability to reduce chronic pain?

Although only a limited number of studies have been conducted, a few do exist. A review of studies published in The International Journal of Behavioral Medicine found Reiki and other so-called biofield therapies demonstrate “strong evidence” for alleviating pain among those with chronic pain and “moderate evidence” for helping hospitalized patients manage pain and anxiety.

Researchers recommended that more research be conducted.

The studies that have investigated Reiki’s benefits paint a limited picture because they lacked important components. Most trials have been very small, didn’t compare the treatment with both a sham treatment and none at all, and compared a wide variety of conditions, giving almost no opportunity to corroborate results, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).

What are the potential dangers of Reiki?

While the proven benefits of Reiki are unclear, the treatment isn’t considered risky, according to NCCIH. The limited number of studies that have been completed didn’t reveal any concerning side effects.

The best option may be to try the treatment and see if it helps reduce pain.

Why is Reiki so controversial?

Although many people say Reiki has dramatically improved their lives, helping to reduce pain from conditions like fibromyalgia for which no good conventional treatment exists, many doctors remain skeptical. Critics say the belief that an invisible life-force energy exists is magic and not real medicine. Dr. Stephen Barrett, a former psychiatrist, tells the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

“What does it mean to have an energy you can’t measure with an instrument? Physics has a definition for energy. This is just magical thinking.”

However, acupuncture is also formed along the basis of releasing energy blockages, and many studies have proven that treatment’s effectiveness, according to Pain Doctor. Although some researchers advocate for further research into Reiki, others aggressively warn against it.

In 2014, a group of experts published a letter in the journal Trends in Molecular Medicine, advocating for a complete halt to all trials related to “highly implausible treatments” like Reiki.

Then, there are patients like Jane Thompson, a resident of Seattle’s Whidbey Island, who enjoyed so much benefit from Reiki that she ultimately stopped taking drugs for fibromyalgia. Thompson tells the Post-Intelligencer:

“You have to be open minded…I’d rather have a healing treatment than take drugs.”

Have you ever tried Reiki? What was your experience?

Image by Simon Berry via Flickr

Get Free Email Updates!

Weekly updates on conditions, treatments, and news about everything happening inside pain medicine.