Reiki: Hype or Help?

Have you ever looked for information about the origins of reiki or asked the question, "What is reiki?" Neurosurgeon Clinton Miller viewed Reiki (pronounced RAY-KEY) with skepticism several years ago. That skepticism eroded after Miller experienced Reiki therapy for himself. "I went from high personal excitation to feeling like I was floating in the ether," says Miller.

Today, Miller prescribes Reiki for his patients. And he's not alone. Many healthcare professionals and others are beginning to incorporate Reiki in their treatment of illnesses ranging from asthma to cancer to depression. Reiki sessions are being used for pain management, to accelerate recovery from surgery and reduce medication side effects.


Chaplain Laurie Garrett often performs Reiki on dying patients. "I strive to bring a sense of peace about the dying process and to help patients become less resistant [to death]," says Garrett, a therapist at the Institute for Health and Healing, San Francisco.

What Is Reiki?

Simply put, Reiki — also called energy medicine — is an ancient hands-on healing practice which harnesses what believers call the Universal Life Force — the energy field that surrounds all beings, including humans.

The term Reiki is a combination of the Japanese words "Rei "(spiritually guided), and "Ki" (energy or force). The practice dates back more than three thousand ago to ancient Tibet. In the late 1800s, the healing method was rediscovered by Dr. Mikao Usui in Japan and later introduced into the western world by Hawayo Takata, an American from Honolulu, Hawaii.

Despite its increasing acceptance by the healthcare community, Reiki has its share of critics. Chief among them is Eric Krieg with the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking, whose 150 members include scientists and educators who seek to "provide a rational response to such energy field work claims."

"Reiki practitioners can't seem to prove that this energy field exists," contends Krieg. "Reiki seems to be a cult, and its practitioners are way out there in la-la land." Most diseases go into spontaneous remission, he continues. "Even if you had a witch doctor lay his hands on you, chances are you'd think it worked."


How Does Reiki Work?

A Reiki practitioner holds his or her hands in one of 12 positions designed to bring energy into the recipient's body. There is no massaging, kneading or any other intense motion. These positions are grouped into three portions of the body: On or near the head, on the front torso, and on the back torso. While there are standard positions, practitioners will often adapt or add new ones depending on a patient's needs.

Practitioners receive the energy first, says Patricia Alandydy, who heads the Reiki program at Portsmouth (NH) Regional Hospital. The practitioner's body then acts as a conduit for the energy to be drawn through and delivered to the recipient.


"The result is rejuvenating, rather than draining, for the practitioner," says Alandydy. "I'm never drained of my own personal energy, because the Universal Life Force comes through me and into the person. If I'm working on someone who is highly emotional or anxious, I don't absorb those feelings."

The Health Benefits of Reiki

The recipient, meanwhile, generally feels a warm flow or tingling sensation in his or her body, but the feeling varies with each person, says Connie Hoy, executive director of The Reiki Alliance. "Sometimes people feel sleepy and relaxed, while others may nap through a session and wake up energized. Reiki brings about what the person's body needs," says Hoy.

Stephen Sinatra, a cardiologist and head of the New England Heart Center in Manchester. CT, recommends Reiki when he believes an energy block is hindering a patient's ability to heal. An experienced Reiki practitioner can pick up on the part(s) of the body that may be blocked energetically and emotionally, he explains, which is "valuable feedback for the patient."

Reiki advocates stress that the length of a Reiki treatment is not the issue; it is the touch that counts. Ann Ameling practices Reiki on herself daily, sometimes for just five minutes at a time to regroup during the day. The professor of Psychiatric Nursing at Yale University started practicing Reiki four years ago after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"There is nothing like a cancer diagnosis to make you feel out of control. Reiki helped me gain personal power," says Ameling, who feels that Reiki allows her to slow down, relax, and think positive, healthy thoughts.

Connecting with Patients

Reiki is a way for healthcare professionals to stay connected with patients, says Alandydy. Patients "feel that someone is focused solely on them, and it allows [them] to feel cared for in a hospital setting [where] they sometimes feel lonely and disconnected from all of the commotion."

At Portsmouth Hospital, a Reiki session may last 15 minutes or longer and is often offered in a preoperative care room or at the patient's bedside. Since starting its Reiki program two years ago, Portsmouth has conducted 2,500 Reiki sessions for free. The hospital has 20 employees trained in Reiki. An additional 2,000 sessions have been provided to patients who want to continue receiving treatments at an offsite rehabilitation clinic for a small $10 donation. The hospital also offers its Reiki treatments to caregivers.

While Reiki is not covered by insurance, a grassroots movement of 19 hospitals called The Alliance for Integrative Medicine of Northern New England is trying to change that. The group is seeking to create a baseline standard of care for various complementary therapies, including Reiki. "We want insurance providers to feel confident that we're delivering something well organized, so that...reimbursement will follow," reports Alandydy. 


What Research Reveals

Limited Research Shows Reiki Promotes Relaxation

Given the dearth of data to prove Reiki's benefits, it's no wonder the therapy has vocal critics. "Many medical practitioners are troubled by the fact that no one has a clue of the mechanism. It's energy healing, but that sometimes infuriates people with a scientifically oriented mind. Often, when such people take Reiki classes, they have trouble learning it," says Ameling.

Although there are no large population studies to back up the benefits of Reiki, researchers are making small strides. An unpublished study of 23 people who received one Reiki touch session focused on the biochemical and physiological changes Reiki produces. The study was conducted in 1996 by Diane Wordell, Ph.D., and Joan Engebretson, Dr.P.H., associate professors at the University of Texas Houston Health Science Center.


The 23 participants were hooked up to machines that measured their skin temperature, blood pressure, and muscle responses before, during, and immediately after one 30-minute Reiki session. The results showed that a person's skin temperature increased, indicating relaxation. "When a person is stressed, the circulation goes to major organs instead of the skin. If a person's skin is warm, that indicates relaxation," says Wordell.

In addition, participants experienced a significant drop in blood pressure; saliva levels also rose significantly, indicating good immune functioning and anxiety levels dropped, says Wordell.

To help capture information on Reiki's benefits, Ameling and Pamela Potter, a Ph.D. student at Yale, are setting up a pilot study that will track 20 women with breast cancer. Ten of them will use Reiki as part of their treatment. The information will be used for a larger study on Reiki's benefits that Ameling and Potter are planning.

As for the critics, Hob Osterlund, an energy practitioner and nurse at The Queens Medical Center in Honolulu offers this advice. "Just try it and see what you feel. It's like a restaurant — until you go there and put the food in your mouth, you don't know if it'll appeal to you."