The energy therapy is now available in many hospitals. What its ascendance says about shifts in how American patients and doctors think about health care. By Jordan Kisner
“When i started it, they all just called it that crap. Like, ‘Oh, they’re over there doing that crap.’ ” This nurse, whom I’ll call Jamie, was on the line from a Veterans Affairs medical center in the Northeast. She’d been struggling for a few minutes between the impulse to tout the program she’d piloted, which offers Reiki to vets as part of their medical care, and the impulse to “tread lightly,” because some of the doctors, nurses, and administrators she works with still think that Reiki is quackery or—you know.
Reiki, a healing practice codified in the early 20th century in Japan, was until recently an unexpected offering for a VA medical center. In Japanese, rei roughly translates to “spiritual”; ki is commonly translated as “vital energy.” A session often looks more like mysticism than medicine: Healers silently place their hands on or over a person’s body to evoke a “universal life force.” A Reiki treatment can even, practitioners believe, be conducted from miles away.
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Reiki’s growing popularity in the U.S.—and its acceptance at some of the most respected American hospitals—has placed it at the nexus of large, uneasy shifts in American attitudes toward our own health care. Various non-Western practices have become popular complements to conventional medicine in the past few decades, chief among them yoga, meditation, and acupuncture, all of which have been the subject of rigorous scientific studies that have established and explained their effectiveness. Reiki is the latest entrant into the suite of common additional treatments. Its presence is particularly vexing to naysayers because Reiki delivers demonstrable salutary effects without a proven cause.
Over the past two decades, a number of studies have shown that Reiki treatments help diminish the negative side effects of chemotherapy, improve surgical outcomes, regulate the autonomic nervous system, and dramatically alter people’s experience of physical and emotional pain associated with illness. But no conclusive, peer-reviewed study has explained its mechanisms, much less confirmed the existence of a healing energy that passes between bodies on command. Nevertheless, Reiki treatment, training, and education are now available at many esteemed hospitals in the United States, including Memorial Sloan Kettering, Cleveland Clinic, New York Presbyterian, the Yale Cancer Center, the Mayo Clinic, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
When Jamie introduced Reiki at the VA center 10 years ago, she overrode the objections of some colleagues who thought it was pseudoscience and out of step with the general culture of the VA, where people are inclined to be suspicious of anything that might be described as “woo woo.” But she insisted that the VA—which also offers yoga, acupuncture, massage, clinical hypnosis, and tai chi—should explore any supplementary treatment for chronic pain and PTSD that doesn’t involve pharmaceuticals, especially narcotics. The veterans started coming, slowly, and the ones who came started coming back. Jamie didn’t promise anything other than that it might help them feel calm or help them with pain. The Reiki practitioner she hired was a local woman, somewhat hard-nosed, not inclined to offer anyone crystals. Soon after the program began, Jamie was getting calls from doctors and nurses: “Hey, is the lady here? Someone wants that crap.”
The effects were startling, Jamie told me. Veterans who complained that their body had “forgotten how to sleep” came in for Reiki and were asleep on the table within minutes. Others reported that their pain declined from a 4 to a 2, or that they felt more peaceful. One patient, a man with a personality disorder who suffers from cancer and severe pain, tended to stop his normal routine of screaming and yelling at the staff when he came in for his Reiki sessions.
Popular though her program has become, Jamie still hears from colleagues who dismiss the results of Reiki as either incomprehensible or attributable to the placebo effect. As we talked, a little noise of frustration came through the phone line. We take people seriously when they say they’re in terrible pain, even though we can’t measure that, she said. “Why do we have a problem accepting when somebody says, ‘I feel better; that helped’?”