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Why we should abandon reiki

Until there is a plausible explanation for 'universal life energy', we should not continue to fund research into it says Professor Edzard Ernst

Reiki is a therapeutic modality developed in Japan in the mid-19th Century. It is now also used in many other countries.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine classified reiki as ‘energy medicine'. Reiki practitioners believe that the therapeutic effects of this technique are obtained from a ‘universal life energy' that provides strength, harmony, and balance to the body and mind.

‘Life energy' is thought to be transferred to patients when practitioners place their hands on or above the patient. The central claim of healers is that reiki promotes or facilitates self-healing in the patient. It is thus recommended for almost any condition.

We recently published a systematic review of all nine RCTs of reiki published to date. Three RCTs were of reasonably good quality indicating that the risk of bias in these studies was low. All of the three RCTs failed to show that reiki was different from placebo/sham treatment. Our conclusion: ‘the evidence is insufficient to suggest that reiki is an effective treatment for any condition' [1].

Why is that important? Reiki is one of many ‘energy medicines' with zero plausibility. The energy that practitioners believe in has not been verified. This raises the principle question: should we spend our scarce recourses on testing totally implausible treatments in expensive clinical trials?

Over the years I have become convinced that the answer is NO. The chances that we generate a reliable and positive result with such research is very close to zero. Conducting reiki trials could even have negative effects. Firstly, there is the already mentioned concern that it is wasteful. Secondly, there is a chance that some studies with a high risk of bias will produce (false) positive results. They would then perpetuate the myth that these energies and their alleged healing effects are real. Patients believing in unreal effects can easily get harmed.

If reiki enthusiasts insist on research, they should first produce a sound hypothesis. That would mean demonstrating the existence of the energy they are talking about and developing theories as to how exactly that energy (if it exists) improves health outcomes.

In CAM, research funds are scarce, more so than in other areas of medical studies. I believe we should use the resources we have to test the effectiveness and safety of treatments associated with higher than zero plausibility.

Professor Edzard Ernst is professor of complementary medicine at Peninsula Medical School

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