Mythbusters: Complementary and Alternative Treatments in Cancer

Victoria Stern, MA


September 02, 2014

In This Article


Proposition: Reiki can diminish cancer pain and stress.

What the science says: The ACS, Cancer Research UK, and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine agree that there is no clinical or scientific evidence to suggest that Reiki can effectively treat any condition, including cancer.

Some studies do suggest that this ancient Japanese form of spiritual healing, which purportedly works through the transfer of spiritual energy, or Qi, from the practitioner to the patient, may help relieve stress and reduce pain, but most of these studies are poorly designed.

One systematic review analyzed data from 9 RCTs exploring the effects of Reiki on a range of conditions, including depression, pain, anxiety, and stress, and found mixed results.[36] Several RCTs reported greater pain relief and lower anxiety in the true Reiki group compared with the sham control, but others found no differences in anxiety or pain. A 2014 literature review, which looked at 7 RCTs, 4 of which studied cancer patients, found some evidence to suggest that Reiki therapy may help relieve pain and anxiety, but it concluded that further study was required to reach a definitive conclusion.[37]

One recent RCT, which looked at whether Reiki therapy could improve patients' well-being, came to a rather compelling conclusion.[38] In the study, 189 patients undergoing chemotherapy in an outpatient center were randomly assigned to receive Reiki therapy, sham Reiki placebo therapy, and standard care. Patients in both the Reiki therapy and sham groups reported significant improvements in their comfort and well-being after a therapy session. The authors found that it was the one-on-one support during chemotherapy that was the key to their enhanced quality of life, regardless of whether Reiki was used.

What the expert says: According to Dr. Gorski, "The evidence for the efficacy of Reiki, and energy-based medicine in general, is weak to nonexistent. Training yourself to relax, on the other hand, can be evidence-based, but a lot of other modalities get thrown into the mind-body wastebasket. The claim that Reiki practitioners can manipulate patient's energy field is nonsense."

Verdict: Plausible for reducing anxiety and improving relaxation, though the effects are not necessarily better than any other relaxation technique. "Busted" for the claim that Reiki reduces pain and anxiety by channeling a person's energy field.


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