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Reiki - Now Proven for Heart Attacks

A recent paper on Reiki purports to show effectiveness in heart attack patients. Let us delve deeper and see whether it lives up to its billing.

I have a standing Google update running which delivers news of the CHNC to me. Last week, I received a link to another Reiki practitioner registering with the CNHC, which was in itself not very exciting.

However, on their website they linked to a study billed as evidence that Reiki was effective in the treatment of heart attacks. This is a serious, acute illness - very unlike the usual litany of low-level, subjective, self-limiting conditions that most alternative treatments are directed at.

This study was published in 2010, in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, entitled "Effects of Reiki on Autonomic Activity Early After Acute Coronary Syndrome". This didn't sound like a typical Alternative Medicine journal, so it was worth a further look.

First of all, this is not a peer-reviewed paper, it is a letter to the editor, published in the correspondence section. This isn't necessarily a red flag, but it's not a confidence booster.

The study does not attempt to measure actual primary outcomes after a heart attack, such as mortality and moribundity, but instead uses a secondary outcome, heart rate variability, as a surrogate.

This is linked with outcomes in this scenario, and use of beta blockers that reduce variability also improve outcomes. The hypothesis is that if Reiki can reduce variability, then it should also improve the primary outcomes.

Study Methodology

The forty-nine experimental subjects in the study were all selected from patients who were suffering from Acute Coronary Syndrome, and were treated within 72 hours of admission.

The subjects were randomized into three arms. The experimental group were treated with Reiki, using standardized positions for the hands of the practitioner. For the two control arms, the patient was in the same position for the same amount of time, but either rested in silence or listened to relaxing music.


The results were analysed both using heart rate and variability. The music control fared worst, with no significant change. The silent control reduced heart rate, and had no significant effect on variability. The Reiki trial did best, with significant effects on both.

In addition, the subjects were asked to rate their feelings before and after the treatments. The music control and the experimental group had some positive effects, but the silent control revealed no significant change.

So, clear evidence that Reiki helps heart attack patients.

Problems with the Study

But wait, this study has some significant problems.

The first thing that springs to mind is the way this study has been billed. It does not show any reliable evidence that Reiki is useful for patients with heart attacks. Even if we take the results as read, all it shows is an improvement in an associated measure, that had been shown to be correlated with improvements.

The biggest problem in the study itself is that, despite being randomized, the blinding was non-existent. The subjects were easily able to tell the difference between the Reiki treatment and the others.

The Reiki arm was the only one in which a practitioner was present and active. It's quite possible that the results were down to the additional relaxation caused by confidence in the procedure, a classic placebo effect.

There are other problems, too, such as the assumption that the correlation between heart rate variability and outcomes is causal.

But, the lack of blinding is enough to invalidate the whole study.

Fixing the Test

It's necessary to use a sham intervention which is, as far as possible, indistinguishable from the practice under test.

Designing a suitable sham Reiki intervention should be relatively easy, as Reiki's proposed mechanism of action requires specific training and manipulations. By using random touches and fake manipulations, we can isolate the effect of the practitioner's presence from the supposed action.

Similar studies in acupuncture have used sham techniques, and when this is done, the effects disappear. It will be interesting to see if the same thing happens for Reiki.