White Coat Underground

Reiki: still stupid after all these years

It’s not like we haven’t had this discussion before. I have, on previous blogs, written about the fantasy that is reiki, as have my colleagues. In fact, the very same colleague turned me on to a recent news piece out of Cleveland. Here’s my problem with reiki—it’s bullshit, pure and simple.

“But how can you be so dismissive?,” a credulous reader might ask. My answer comes in two parts.

Absurdist ridiculousity

OK, so I made up that phrase—which is exactly what I have in common with the founder of reiki. In 1922 Mikao Usui (JSG) fasted on a mountaintop in Japan and “received” the revelation of reiki. In other words, he made it up. Of course, the concept of qi was not foreign to Japanese culture, so it’s not like he made up the very idea of life energy, just the entire system of so-called energy healing. Still, life energy as a concept is a horrid anachronism, dating back to a time before we understood biology. There is no such thing as “life energy”. Since it is immeasurable, unobservable, and exerts no measurable effects, it is almost by definition non-existent. (Note, one of the key words there is “measurable”, but more on that in a minute.) Reiki is really nothing more than vitalism, the discredited ancient idea that there is an immaterial life force separate from the physical body. Of course, this vitalism infuses some other modern idiocies as well, such as Michael Egnor’s mind-body dualism. Once you’ve let one implausible medical practice in the door, you’ll let anyone in.

One of the reiki websites says something that pretty much sums it up:

Its use is not dependent on one’s intellectual capacity or spiritual development and therefore is available to everyone.

First of all, just about everything in some way depends on one’s intellectual capacity, but that’s perhaps being pedantic. But really, human medicine is a pretty intellectually demanding field. Applying it properly demands not only an expertise in human biology, but also an ability to read and understand the evidence supporting various practices. Evidence?

Evidence—there isn’t any

Really, there isn’t. Every once in a while, I skim the literature to see what may be new regarding various cult medicine practices. There are dozens of pilot studies and case reports, which are basically useless, but most of the controlled trials have failed to show any benefit to reiki above that of placebo. (The pilot studies mostly evaluate the safety of reiki, which shouldn’t be in doubt given its inert nature.) For example, an article in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (not exactly hostile ground for reiki) published a randomized controlled trial of reiki for fibromyalgia pain. The conclusions?

Neither Reiki nor touch improved the symptoms of fibromyalgia. Energy medicine modalities such as Reiki should be rigorously studied before being recommended to patients with chronic pain symptoms. (J Altern Complement Med. 2008 Nov;14(9):1115-22.)

If reiki is so damned promising, it shouldn’t be all that hard to measure an effect.

Same as the old boss

Reiki is no different from any other cult medicine practice. There are charismatic leaders, credulous believers, and a lot of folks who want to make sure no one is peeking around to see how money is being separated from suffering patients. You see, the reiki folks want it both ways: they don’t want to be seen as health care providers and subjected to licensing and oversight, but they are also claiming to be able to positively affect a person’s health. Which is it? Are you a healer or not? If so, you shouldn’t be afraid to be licensed. After all, if you can manipulate body energies for good, who says you can’t also do it for ill? Shouldn’t we have a board to investigate the improper use of reiki to put a mojo on people?

Reiki is no different from any other woo. It is an unproven and unproveable practice based on discredited ideas about the human body, and those who practice it are often looking to make a buck at the expense of those in need. For shame.

Comments

  1. #1 perceval
    March 11, 2009

    Full disclosure: Reiki Level II here. (Yes, I know.)

    The active ingredient, if there is any, is not energy – it’s good old fashioned rest and relaxation. The “recipient”
    is comfortable on a chair / on a table in a nice room with low relaxing music. They take time out, slow down, attend to themselves. May slip into a meditative state. They get the feeling of being the object of somebody’s full loving and kind attention. Guided visualisations may be used to deepen the relaxation.

    But then “Relaxation” doesn’t have quite the same aura, does it?

  2. #2 perceval
    March 11, 2009

    Sorry for the double comment – of COURSE Reiki practitioners are “regulated” (ahem), albeit not by traditional medical councils, instead they are regulated by adherence to schools / masters. In fact, a very fine piece of regulation occurred early on in the movement, when Reiki III (Masters) had to pay thousands of dollars to receive the transmission. Add in break away mavericks and people who spread the word for free, and you have a nice spectrum of control ranging from rigid to non-existent.

  3. #3 Massimo
    March 11, 2009

    There are probably bigger problems facing human-kind that we need to worry about. That is a really easy target to pick on.

  4. #4 PalMD
    March 11, 2009

    There are probably bigger problems facing human-kind that we need to worry about. That is a really easy target to pick on.

    Please, when I tell you this, take into account the fact that my back is really acting up.

    :You can always go over to wordpress and get your own blog and then you can determine the content all by your own self.

  5. #5 Whitecoat Tales
    March 11, 2009

    Broadly speaking, I’d say protecting people from themselves, and people trying to take advantage of them is pretty important.

  6. #6 Larry Ayers
    March 11, 2009

    I once had a rural neighbor who had quite a thriving foot reflexology practice. A very nice woman and I just didn’t have the urge to discuss the complete lack of evidence for her beliefs with her.

    As Perceval said above, the personal attention and the massages kept her customers coming back. I suppose there are worse ways of interacting with people.

  7. #7 Cuttlefish, OM
    March 11, 2009

    The problem with Reiki
    Is simple: it’s fakey.
    It might have appeal
    If it only were real.
    I’d try in a snap,
    Except… Reiki is crap.

  8. #8 Alex Besogonov
    March 11, 2009

    >Please, when I tell you this, take into account the fact that my back is really acting up.

    Try to take some reiki with a course of homeopathy, maybe?

    Ok, ok. Now I deserve to be banned from this blog.

  9. #9 Art
    March 11, 2009

    I think your holding the wrong end of the stick. Reiki is, by my estimation, a healing technology that works by manipulating the placebo effect. All the stuff about energy flow, and manipulation, and even the indoctrination of the practitioner, are all part of providing the patient with an excuse and supporting logic that allows them to heal themselves, or at least feel better.

    MDs use sugar pills but that is placebo leveraging 101. Pretty amateurish and elementary manipulations that mostly benefits the MD by getting a difficult patient out of the doctors face. Reiki uses an entire interlocking construct that includes cosmology, a self-referential logic system, postulated energies and energy flows, and throws in the possible belief of the practitioner themselves to boot. This is placebo leveraging of a much higher order.

    The make believe energy flows that Reiki references are objectively false but subjectively real. People experience their bodies as having these energy flows, blockages. Most everyone I know that works with their hands has, at times, felt as if energy was coursing from their cores, down their arms and out their fingers. Yes, vaguely reminiscent of the tales of wizards that project energy and Gods throwing lightning bolts. It is all part of the subjective experience. Part of what it means to be human.

    Access to, and control of, the placebo effect is another tool for you to use, or not. Belief is only a part of it to the extent that your not able fake it. The desired result is to effect the patient’s subjective experience of their body and health.

    Of all the methods of placebo effect manipulation Reiki is one of the least hazardous and destructive. Mostly because the manipulation doesn’t involve direct manipulation or introduction of physical agents. The only real danger is that Reiki may delay more substantial medical help but unlike many herbal practices and high colonic abuse, just to cite two of many, far less likely to do direct harm.

  10. #10 LionDancer
    March 11, 2009

    Obviously you’re unaware of the placebonic field manipulation effect (PFME). Send $5 and I’ll tell you everything.

  11. #11 Dr Benway
    March 12, 2009

    Once you’ve let one implausible medical practice in the door, you’ll let anyone in.

    Oh yes. You must. To do otherwise would indicate that the evidential standard is arbitrary, which is anti-science.

    If the rules of evidence permit us to grant merit to Reiki, we must grant a similar level of merit to body thetans and demon posession, as the evidential basis for all three is the same.

    “What’s the harm?” or “what’s the big deal?” are the wrong questions. Those are questions about human desire.

    Before deciding what we want, we ought to ask, “what is true?”

  12. #12 The Perky Skeptic
    March 12, 2009

    I am extremely sorry your back is acting up… but I really love the posts you do when you’re in pain. *lol*

  13. #13 DLC
    March 13, 2009

    Reiki.. Rake in the dough.
    Reiki. . . rake the practitioners over the coals.

  14. #14 perceval
    March 13, 2009

    Dr Benway, it’s not a question of granting Reiki merit, rather of looking at what it does, so that the effects (placebo / relaxation) can be achieved in a safe environment.

    I see Reiki as an entry-woo for both practitioners and clients. As such, it is often associated with various more pernicious forms of woo, especially new age thinking a la Louise Hay, “the patient is to blame for the disease”. Stuff like Brennan healing science is far more pernicious.

    The cosmology etc isn’t unique to Reiki – it’s often taught as a mishmash of pop yoga / east-west / alternative spirituality. I wonder whether we could weave similar stories for modern medicine … after all, there’s nothing more fascinating than reality.

  15. #15 Dr Benway
    March 14, 2009

    By “merit” I mean confidence in the truth of the claims. Merit ought to be proportional to the quality of the evidence in support of those claims.

    Therapies are compared to no-treatment or to sham controls. Do we have any studies of Reiki compared to fake Reiki?

  16. #16 PalMD
    March 14, 2009

    Actually, i’m pretty sure the study i cited had a fake reiki (sic) arm…you’ll have to double check me

  17. #17 emr
    March 23, 2009

    Well , they say the human mind is a very powerful instrument, capable of just about anything. There are a lot of experiences that can not be explained and remain a mystery.

  18. #18 PalMD
    March 23, 2009

    The human mind is capable of just about anything? Like what? Hammering a nail? Cuz i can’t recommend that. Boiling water? Not so much…

  19. #19 JLP
    May 7, 2009

    I’m wondering if you are aware that the developer of Brennan Healing Science is a former NASA scientists with very high credentials. Have you read Lynn McTagart’s ‘The Field’ or the work of Dr Rupert Sheldrake? All highly informed and educated people in the field of science who acknowledge an energy field beyond the physical body.

  20. #20 Jacquard
    July 28, 2009

    “All highly informed and educated people in the field of science who acknowledge an energy field beyond the physical body. ” – JLP

    Just because a smart fucker believes it doesn’t mean it is true. Invisible energy fields are about as firm a foundation to build a theory on as, say, a god, or the bogeyman.

    I have an idea – try using evidence for medicine, and let Reiki work the carnival circuit.

  21. #21 Zach
    October 14, 2009

    You bash something that you personally know NOTHING about. I am not saying whether reiki is real or bogus but there are many scientific topics still hanging on this idea. For example, anti-matter. It is the idea that something has to fill the vast voids of nothingness that linger in space or else the voids could not exist themselves. It seems at first glance like someone is trying to sell a bunch of B.S. but when pondering the idea, there seems to be legality to it. Just think about the possibilities before saying ‘if science cant prove it, it isnt real’. Gallileo was a dreamer and was ridiculed for it, but he was true in his ideas.

  22. #22 MonkeyPox
    October 14, 2009

    No troll is that unsophisticated..Lance, is that you?

  23. #23 CM
    November 14, 2009

    Holistic therapies like Reiki can teach people how to take responsibility for their own well being. However, in my experience, many people would rather believe in a miracle cure delivered by some divine being rather than look at how they can make positive changes in their lives (far too much effort). I feel that Reiki has become its own religion. If only human beings would stop making up facts to fill in the gaps and just accept that there are some things that we just don’t know. I would like to know what it is about Reiki that makes it so powerful for so many people – I suspect that it is the chance to sit in silence for an hour or so – how often to we get the chance to do that these days?

  24. #24 Frank
    January 6, 2010

    Let alone the fact that anybody who can prove anything about Reiki (energy fields, effectiveness, etc) would be eligible to claim the 1 million dollar from the JREF, and they can’t do it. I love what another poster said.. if you accept Reiki, you also have to accept monsters, the bogeyman and santa claus because the proofs for Reiki are just as weak as the proofs for any other bogus stuff.

  25. #25 bill
    January 7, 2010

    proove that jesus and any other religious person or entity ever lived…ora god or GOD…LIFE THERFORE IS ALL BULLSHIT

  26. #26 Vicki
    January 7, 2010

    Bill @25:

    Any religious person? That’s an easy one: the life of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., is very well documented. As are those of many others.

    They aren’t what gives meaning to my life, although Dr. King can be an inspiration sometimes. My work, my loved ones, the world around me are why life matters, not whether or not Dr. King, or Buddha, or Mother Ann Lee, or any other religious person lived and wrote the works attributed to them.

  27. #27 Su
    January 24, 2010

    Does it matter? If people get pleasure and feel benefit from reiki, if it works or doesn’t work what does it matter? It is not hurting or harming anyone.

    There are those that abuse Reiki and use it as a way to make money/get rich but look at any profession and the same will happen.

    People choose by their own free will to receive Reiki, noone forces them to have it done. The same as you are all free to choose not to have Reiki, or to not believe in it’s benefits.

    All any one of us can do is look to our own experiences and form our own beliefs from that, not because anyone has told us to believe or disbelieve.

  28. #28 Andy Miles
    February 1, 2010

    Full disclosure. Qi gong teacher, acupuncturist, herbalist and martial artist.

    Medicine isn’t mystical, it only seems that way when you don’t understand it or if you want to sell it at a higher price. In allopathic medicine diseases are given ancient Greek names, often for little reason other than to confuse the patient.

    Qi doesn’t exist as a medical construct in Chinese medicine. Qi is divided into many specific categories, all of which have a direct biological equivalent. For instance herbs and therapies (such as acupuncture, moxabustion and qi gong) which are said to boost “wei Qi” or protective energy also increase white blood cell counts.

    Qi gong has been studied within China on human and animal subjects….but here is the thing, other than increasing local atp, its not super effective to project qi onto others. Its more effective on causing changes in the body when people do it by themselves. That is the kicker, in China its called doing morning exercises/stretching with deep breathing. Studies have been done on the effects of massage on piezoelectricity and wound healing.

    People who can control their bodies so well that they can balance hormonal networks and increase their own electrical fields and direct blood flow to different areas of the body do so after years of hard practice. Perhaps I am a philistine, but it took me ten years. Just think how long it takes someone to wiggle their ears and the fallacy of instant McEnergy becomes evident.

    Qi gong done incorrectly is bad for you and can make you worse. Anything that has effects on the body is a two way street. A keen understanding of medicine is a prerequesite for effective qi gong techniques. Otherwise you are applying medical techniques blindly.

    Reiki claims that all of this is meaningless.
    Why is reiki popular? Its easy and you get a title. People get attention in a culture in which many feel increasingly alienated. As there is no medical contruct or diagnostic system I consider it a religious ritual, which, like prayer or laying on hands does sometimes work because of the effects on ones mind on their immune system. A look into psyconeuroimmunology can sum it up quite well. Living in the East and being friends with Tibetan and Daoist qi gong teachers, I can tell you that the general consensus her is that Reiki is the product of a Mcworld where convenience is put ahead of substance.

  29. #29 C J
    June 19, 2010

    Could I just ask you one thing – have you experienced reiki for yourself? Have you explored it and tried to understand it? If not, then you are not in a place to pass judgement on whether it is real or not. Just because it cannot be proven by science does not mean that it is not real!! If you go outside on a windy day, do you discredit the existence of the wind because you cannot see it? You can feel the wind of course and see the effects it has on the surrounding environment. You can also feel and experience reiki energy!

    By the way, there is no separate life force to the human body – that life force energy is part of me and you. That is why reiki works! Why does healing have to be ‘intellectual’ as you put it? It is actually very simple but I suppose simplicty towards healing would not help you to justify your massive student loan repayments for medical school. No wonder you want to discredit reiki so much. It is just too much to bare isn’t it? All that money paid out and a simplistic healing approach called reiki comes along! lol

    My husband has fibromyalgia and M.E and reiki is doing him the world of good. Since he has been treated, his symptoms have improved and he isn’t in so much pain. He feels much better. I also have a friend who managed to heal a breast cyst. Her doctor told her that she would have to get it examined more closely and then drained. She did a series of reiki treatments over a period of three weeks before her appointment and guess what – when she went to the hospital, the doctor could not find the cyst – it had completely disappeared and apparently the doctor was absolutely dumbfounded! I love that story. I suppose you’ll just find some other way to discredit the fact that reiki could have helped.

    I suppose if people realise they have the power to heal themselves, the medical profession couldn’t sell their drugs could they? (That actually do more harm than good a lot of the time). Deepak Chopra also talks about the quantum connection to healing in his book ‘Perfect Health’ -you should really read that. The mind has the ability to heal the body and any illnesses in the body can also affect the mind.

    I have trained as a reiki master/teacher and believe me, I am not out to make a buck at the expense of those in need. What a terrible thing to say. Shame on you. I practice reiki regularly everyday and I had achieved fantastic results with the people I have worked with and I will continue to do so. I am certified and insured and I am not out to scam people. Perish the thought. That wold be completely against the ethics of reiki in the first place. You sound extremely ill-informed and as a doctor, you should really be much more opened minded if you actually want to help your patients.

  30. #30 Chris
    June 19, 2010

    C J:

    Just because it cannot be proven by science does not mean that it is not real!! If you go outside on a windy day, do you discredit the existence of the wind because you cannot see it? You can feel the wind of course and see the effects it has on the surrounding environment.

    The big difference is that you can measure the wind objectively using several types of tools. The results can be repeatedly replication.

    Come up with an objective test, and then you might have something. If it is real energy it can be measured. It is not just your perception.