Reiki: A Subtle, Vibrational Energy Therapy

By Lynn Keegan, RN, PhD, HNC, FAAN

Reiki (pronounced ray kee), is a subtle vibrational, energy therapy most commonly facilitated by light touch. Reiki is believed to strengthen the body’s ability to heal itself and balance a person’s biofield.1 The biofield is "an energy field that suffuses living bodies and extends several inches beyond the body. There is no consensus on what the biofield is; some say it is spiritual energy, others say it is an electromagnetic field."2 Some use the term biofield interchangeably with aura, which is described as the human energy field (HEF) that surrounds and blends with the physical field. This HEF consists of distinctive layers of energy corresponding to physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and subtle aspects of the multidimensional human being.3 Reiki employs the gentle art of healing touch that is used as a complementary, energy-based healing modality.4,5

This ancient healing method has its roots in Chinese medicine.6 Traditional Chinese medicine is a complete system of medicine and health care based on the concept of balanced qi, or "life force," that flows throughout the body. Among the components of traditional Chinese medicine are herbal and nutritional therapy, restorative physical exercises, meditation, acupuncture, acupressure, and therapeutic massage.7


The technique of Reiki was developed in Japan by Mikao Usui (1865-1926). When people came to Usui, a practicing Buddhist, he placed his hands on them to offer healing as a part of his spiritual practice. He evolved the technique and initiated fewer than 20 Reiki masters before he died. One of Usui’s master students further refined the technique and subsequently trained a woman named Hawayo Takata (1900-1980), a first-generation American who was visiting family in Japan. She originally came to the Japanese clinic for health reasons, but upon regaining her health petitioned the master to teach her the technique. She then was granted permission to take the technique to the West.8 Reiki began to be used on the U.S. mainland in the early 1970s.6 Since that time many permutations have evolved, some having nothing to do with the original Usui teachings.4

Mechanism of Action

Practitioners and proponents of Reiki contend that we are alive because life force is flowing through us. Life force flows within the physical body though pathways called chakras (see Table 1), meridians, and nadis. It also flows around us in a field of energy called the aura. Life force nourishes the organs and cells of the body, supporting them in their vital functions. Theoretically, when this flow of life force is disrupted, it causes diminished function in one or more of the organs and tissues of the physical body.

Table 1: Chakra energy centers

The life force also is believed to be responsive to thoughts and feelings. It becomes disrupted when people accept, consciously or unconsciously, negative thoughts or feelings about themselves. These negative thoughts and feelings become attached to the energy field and cause disruption in the flow of life force. If the negative thoughts and feelings are not eliminated quickly, illness results. The negative thoughts and feelings lodged in the subconscious are the greatest problem, as we are not aware of them and thus hampered in changing or eliminating them.

Reiki is believed to offer healing by flowing through the affected parts of the energy field and charging them with positive energy. This causes the negative energy to break apart and fall away. In so doing, Reiki clears, straightens, and heals the energy pathways, thus allowing the life force to flow in a healthy and natural way.9 As this happens, the unhealthy physical organs and tissues become properly nourished with qi and begin functioning in a balanced healthy way, replacing illness with health. The intent of treatment is to gently balance and provide energy that supports the well-being of the recipient in a holistic and individualized manner.

Reiki also has been defined as a spiritually guided life force energy. This is a functional definition that parallels the experience of Reiki practitioners: According to many practitioners, Reiki energy seems to have an intelligence of its own, flowing where it is needed in the patient and creating healing conditions necessary for the patient’s individual needs. It cannot be guided by the mind; therefore, it is not limited by the experience or ability of the practitioner. In contrast to conventional thinking where anything that can offer help can also offer harm if applied inappropriately, Reiki practitioners espouse that the practice always creates a healing effect.9

Reiki Sessions

Reiki can be used as a complementary treatment to conventional medical protocols. A Reiki treatment generally runs 45-60 minutes. However, sometimes the sessions are given in shorter, more frequent increments of 3-5 minutes. Reiki hand placement positions typically are aligned with the main chakras, or energy pathways, with hands just above the skin surface. Hand positions customarily correspond to the body’s endocrine and lymphatic systems and major organs, focusing on the seven main chakras.10 The chakras are believed to begin at the base of the spine and ascend from there.

Reiki Training

There are four levels of Usui Reiki training (see Table 2), each level building upon the prior. Reiki training is designed to provide support for the practitioner of the therapy as well as benefit those receiving treatment.5,11 Reiki training programs abound throughout the world. For information on programs, retreat offerings, and continuing education access, see

Table 2: Four levels of Usui Reiki training

Reiki Research

Although Reiki practitioners and clients believe that the therapy produces positive results, there is little scientific research to substantiate this claim. Most data consist of case reports, descriptive studies, or randomized controlled studies with small numbers of participants.1

Twenty-four patients with cancer pain were compared for pain, quality of life, and analgesic use in a small study recently conducted in Canada.12 Participants received either standard opioid management plus rest (Group 1) or standard opioid management plus Reiki (Group 2). On days 1 and 4, participants either rested for 1.5 hours or received two Reiki treatments one hour after their first afternoon analgesic dose. Visual analogue scale (VAS) pain ratings, blood pressure, heart rate, and respirations were obtained before and after each treatment/rest period. Analgesic use and VAS pain scores were reported for seven days. Quality of life was assessed on days 1 and 7. Participants in the Reiki treatment group experienced improved pain control on days 1 and 4 following treatment compared to the control group, and improved quality of life, but no overall reduction in opioid use. The problem with this small study is that the benefits attributed to Reiki may have been due to human presence and touch.

A larger, more tightly controlled investigation was conducted at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York.13 The modified double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial with an additional historic control-condition design was implemented in the stroke unit of a major rehabilitation hospital. A sample of 50 inpatients with subacute ischemic stroke (31 male and 19 female) was involved. There were four interventions: treatment by a Reiki master, treatment by a Reiki practitioner, sham Reiki, and no treatment (historic control). Subjects received up to 10 treatments over a two-and-a-half-week period, in addition to standard rehabilitation. Outcomes included results of Functional Independence Measure (FIM) and Center for Epidemiologic Studies-Depression (CES-D) measure.

When the results were tallied, no effects of Reiki were found on the FIM or CES-D. Sham Reiki practitioners reported greater frequency of feeling heat in the hands compared to Reiki practitioners. There was no reported difference between the sham and the real Reiki practitioners in their ability to feel energy flowing through their hands. Post-hoc analyses suggested that Reiki may have had limited effects on mood and energy levels. The final conclusion was that Reiki did not have any clinically useful effect on stroke recovery in subacute hospitalized patients receiving standard care rehabilitation therapy.

Results of the most recent published Reiki investigation demonstrated that both hands-on and distance Reiki were effective in reducing symptoms of depression, hopelessness, and stress in 45 treated participants as compared with controls, and that the results were not due to placebo effects.14 This study supports the hypothesis that Reiki is an effective energetic healing modality treatment, rather than touch being the causative factor. Most importantly, the effects of Reiki were demonstrated to last at least one year after completion of just six hours of treatment.


The Reiki community contends that there are no negative effects of this therapy and no medical contraindication. A review of the research literature reveals no evidence of negative effects or contraindication. However, one research team did a related investigation.

A Canadian study examined the views of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) groups on the need to demonstrate the effectiveness, safety, and cost-effectiveness of their therapies and practices.15 Qualitative interviews were conducted with 22 representatives of three CAM groups (chiropractic, homeopathy, and Reiki). There were striking differences in the views of the three sets of respondents. The chiropractors agreed that it was essential for their group to provide scientific evidence that their interventions work and that they are safe and cost-effective. The leaders of the homeopathic group were divided on these points and the Reiki respondents showed virtually no interest in undertaking such research.


Both knowledgeable care givers and recipients alike seem drawn to the practice and the effects of Reiki. Anecdotal reports suggest clinical benefits in certain situations, and many people receiving Reiki experience positive results from the therapy. However, to date, precise scientific validation is lacking for this increasingly popular therapy. Regardless, practitioners must be aware of the various therapies available to their patients, including Reiki, to help guide them through the expanding maze of treatment options.


Reiki is an energy medicine therapy that may offer benefits to those who seek it. Given that it is a non-invasive therapy with no known deleterious effects, it seems reasonable to tell patients and clients about this CAM therapy, especially those experiencing severe pain or debilitating disease.

Dr. Keegan is Director, Holistic Nursing Consultants, Port Angeles, WA.


1. Miles P, True G. Reiki—Review of a biofield therapy history, theory, practice, and research. Altern Ther Health Med 2003;9:62-72.

2. Keegan L. Healing with Complementary and Alternative Therapies. Albany, NY: Delmar Thomson Learning; 2001:491.

3. Hover-Kramer D, Shames K. Energetic Approaches to Emotional Healing. Albany, NY: Delmar Thomson Learning; 1997:232.

4. Fleming D. Reiki: A gift and a skill anyone can learn. Beginnings 2003;23:12-13.

5. Gallob R. Reiki: A supportive therapy in nursing practice and self-care for nurses. J N Y State Nurses Assoc 2003; 34:9-13.

6. Nield-Anderson L, Ameling A. The empowering nature of Reiki as a complementary therapy. Holist Nurs Pract 2000;14:21-29.

7. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Available at: Accessed May 7, 2004.

8. Horrigan B. (Interview of) Pamela Miles Reiki Vibrational Healing. Altern Ther 2003;9:75-83.

9. Reiki XXX. Available at: Accessed May 7, 2004.

10. Nield-Anderson L, Ameling A. Reiki. A complementary therapy for nursing practice. J Psychosoc Nurs Ment Health Serv 2001;39:42-49.

11. Whelan KM, Wishnia GS. Reiki therapy: The benefits to a nurse/Reiki practitioner. Holist Nurs Pract 2003;17: 209-217.

12. Olson K, et al. A phase II trial of Reiki for the management of pain in advanced cancer patients. J Pain Symptom Manage 2003;26:990-997.

13. Shiflett SC, et al. Effect of Reiki treatments on functional recovery in patients in poststroke rehabilitation: A pilot study. J Altern Complement Med 2002;8:755-763.

14. Shore A. Long-term effects of energetic healing on symptoms of psychological depression and self perceived stress. Altern Ther 2004;10:42-48.

15. Kelner MJ, et al. Complementary and alternative groups contemplate the need for effectiveness, safety and cost-effectiveness research. Complement Ther Med 2002;10: 235-239.