the University of Arizona, and the University of California–San Francisco, to name just a few, offer a panel of unproven therapies, such as reiki, reflexology, and qigong. That’s right—the same institutions that can genetically modify your immune cells to fight leukemia also offer to replenish your life force energy through the laying on of hands.
I’m sympathetic to the challenges that cancer centers face. Oncologists are often accused of insensitivity to their patients’ psychological and spiritual needs, and integrative care is a response to that criticism. Most integrative care centers also offer evidence-based programs, such as exercise classes, that aren’t strictly medicinal. Nevertheless, reiki, reflexology, and their ilk are unproven to treat any disease or ameliorate symptoms. They are far beneath the dignity of a great cancer center.
Reiki is a form of energy healing developed in Japan the late 19th or early 20th centuries. The reiki master waves his hands over the patient, scanning for problems. He then places his hands on areas to be healed, transferring his life-force energy to the patient, which supposedly promotes recovery. If you’re having trouble formulating a mental picture, YouTube is littered with reiki masters working their clients’ auras and chakras. (David Gorski, an oncologist and vocal opponent of integrative care, has also detailed some of the fantastic claims of reiki masters on his blog Science-Based Medicine.)
Does reiki work? It’s unfortunate that this even needs to be asked. We’re talking about energy healing. Still, medical research has answered the question with an unsurprising and unambiguous “no.” The laying on of hands is not an effective medical treatment.
Examine the data. Don’t just pick up any study in PubMed, though. Too many peer-reviewed studies are badly constructed and poorly analyzed. Even a well-designed study is weak in isolation, since normal statistical techniques concede a 1 in 20 chance that the results are inaccurate. It’s much better, especially for a layperson, to look to review articles, which compile, rate, and analyze groups of studies that have investigated the same issue. A good review article represents the state of the evidence.
Here is a smattering of conclusions from review articles on reiki: “The existing research does not allow conclusions regarding the efficacy or effectiveness of energy healing.” “The serious methodological and reporting limitations of limited existing reiki studies preclude a definitive conclusion on its effectiveness.” “The evidence is insufficient to suggest that reiki is an effective treatment for any condition.”
Most reiki studies either don’t include control groups or don’t randomize the distribution of patients between the test and control groups. In most cases the…
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