Reiki Part Two: What does the Research Say

This is part two of a three part series on the ancient biofield healing modality of Reiki.  The parts are:

Here we will talk about the research on the topic.

But first let me explain – in scientific research an individual study is not seen as strong support of anything much.  Interesting, yes, good argument for more research, yes: but absolute proof of something – no.

The scientific approach depends on repeat-ability of findings, which clearly in just one study can’t be argued.  Hence if you don’t have several weeks or months to review all the literature on your topic of interest focus on those with the words ‘review’ or ‘meta-analysis’ in the title.  A review is a bit of a summary of the research up to that point in time. Methods can still vary; from horrible to stupendous.  A meta-analysis on the other hand is  “a quantitative statistical analysis of several separate but similar experiments or studies in order to test the pooled data for statistical significance” (according to Miriam Webster).

In other words It’s like squeezing different but similar studies together and throwing some statistics and a few magic potions at it and getting a better, more reliable finding than one study (again methods vary).

So let’s look at a few reviews on Reiki.

2008 Review

A review of Reiki was published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice (Lee, Pittler, & Ernst, 2008).  205 potentially relevant studies were found.  However after assessing each for rigorous criteria only nine studies remained to be reviewed.  Criteria included: was there a control? Where participants randomly selected? And was there some blinding (i.e. do some people not know if they are receiving the treatment or getting a placebo)?  The authors concluded that their findings did not discredit the notion of Reiki as a potential useful therapy. However they described the evidence as “by no means compelling”.  Their work did more to point out that there is a lack of scientific rigor in existing Reiki studies.

2009 Review

Another review was undertaken a year later (VanderVaart, Gijsen, de Wildt, & Koren, 2009).  My first disappointment was noticing it did not reference (refer to) the above work at all.   As with the 2008 review a series of guidelines were used to exclude studies.  This study had 12 studies after exclusions.  Although many of the studies pointed to positive outcomes, the authors were suspicious that this could be due to the poor methods they observed or the “file drawer syndrome”.  This means that studies that don’t show much, (or worse show opposite effects to those predicted) get put in the researchers ‘bottom filing cabinet draw’ and never see the light of day; this biases all research in the area.  This is a problem research wide; it is not unique to Reiki.

But wait there is more

A 2014  (Thrane & Cohen) review focused specifically on Reiki for pain and anxiety.  Again only a small number of studies were considered after certain exclusion criteria were applied; in this case Seven.  Like the previous studies the authors were critical of the lack of Reiki studies with consistent, rigorous methods.   However they were more positive in terms of feeling the small number of good studies they found, showed good results with good effect sizes.  ‘Effect size’ is a funny statistical term meaning the size of the difference (say between the group being treated and the group not being treated).   The authors conclude more (good) research in Reiki is justified.

Reiki and Heart Rate Variability

I also wish to discuss one interesting individual study as it uses Heart Rate Variability (HRV) as its success measure.  This is my area of research and you can find a four part blog in it starting here.    Briefly HRV is a measure of the ‘health’ of your autonomic nervous system (well maybe, maybe not but that is another story).

In terms of this studies methods, let’s just say there are a few things I would have done differently with the techie HRV stuff.  But it is a funky area and I would not necessarily be right.  Also the people were not randomly assigned to ‘treatment’ or ‘control’.  Another concern is the small size – just 27 people; half assigned to a rest period (control) and half to Reiki (treatment).  HRV was measured before and after in both groups.  HRV increased in the control group, but it increased more in the Reiki group. This study is small and even the authors describe it as a ‘pilot’ (Pizzinato et al., 2012), however seeing objective physiological measures coming to the table is exciting.  Although my excitement was tempered when I used favorite website of mine to see how much impact this journal has, a bit abut how good it is like, and well it does not look good.  If you want to know more put the Journal name in here.

There is much more besides, google scholar shows nearly 900 articles with Reiki in the title since 2000.

What does all this mean?

Well it looks like there might be something in Reiki…or maybe not.  The main heads up is those researching Reiki need to raise the bar on their methods.  Of course I have done a “quick and dirty” review here. It would take many moons to do something thorough.

What it means to me

For now I am going to keep up my daily practice.  Given one thing is clear, no harm has been shown from Reiki.  Despite at least one mad internet raver I read that said it would suck my soul out my bum and send me straight to hell, or something equally insane. As you may know – my mission in (blogging) life is to get less people reading sites like that (hence no link is attached).


Lee, M. S., Pittler, M. H., & Ernst, E. (2008). Effects of reiki in clinical practice: a systematic review of randomised clinical trials. International journal of clinical practice, 62(6), 947-954.

Pizzinato, E., Muller, J., Lingg, G., Dapra, D., Lothaller, H., & Endler, P. C. (2012). Heart rate variability in a study on Reiki treatment. Open Complement Med J, 4, 12-15.

Thrane, S., & Cohen, S. M. (2014). Effect of Reiki therapy on pain and anxiety in adults: an in-depth literature review of randomized trials with effect size calculations. Pain Management Nursing, 15(4), 897-908.

VanderVaart, S., Gijsen, V. M., de Wildt, S. N., & Koren, G. (2009). A systematic review of the therapeutic effects of Reiki. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 15(11), 1157-1169.




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