The Science of Reiki

by Nikki Mackay BSc, MSc, Oona McFarlane
Originally from – given to The Healing Pages by kind permission

The following is an article written by Nikki and Oona about the research carried
out at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow. Nikki designed and carried out
the study as part of a postgraduate qualification, and Oona was the primary Reiki
practitioner in the study. This article was published in ‘Connections magazine’,
a further version will appear in a 2005 issue of ‘Reiki News’ magazine,
and the details of the original study’s publication in ‘The Journal
of Alternative and Complementary Medicine’ are also detailed below.

One of the biggest challenges faced by complementary therapists today is the
need to bridge the gap between science and “New Age” beliefs. While
public perceptions of the benefits of a more holistic approach to health, and
to life in general, have shifted significantly in recent years, there is still
much to be done to ensure that those who might benefit most have both awareness
of, and access to, therapies and services which can be literally life-changing.
For those of us already convinced of the potential benefits of alternative remedies
and treatments, through personal experiences and those of clients and students,
the lack of scientific research to back up, and in particular to explain the
efficacy of complementary and alternative medicine, can often be frustrating.

This is perhaps particularly true of Reiki. Like many energy healing systems,
it is a safe, gentle and effective complementary therapy, which can benefit
almost any condition, from emotional stress to chronic pain. Reiki is a non-invasive
treatment that can complement existing allopathic treatment, carries no side
effects and no contra-indications, and appears to reduce stress, help boost
the immune system and stimulate the healing process within the body. The benefits
of treatment are often felt immediately, and a weekend training course can provide
all the necessary techniques and information for participants to treat themselves,
family and friends. Having worked with Reiki and other energy systems for years,
and witnessed the extent of the healing brought about on many levels for so
many people, it is our belief that this therapy should be available to everybody.
To become available to everybody, ideally through mainstream medical and therapeutic
channels, it has to first be proven to be effective, beneficial and safe. For
this to be proven we need to employ accepted rigorous scientific methods and
move away from the more anecdotal research that relies upon the impression of
the patient and/or healer on their progress rather than measurable parameters.
A tall order, perhaps, but we believe we have just taken another step towards
that possibility.

I first heard about Reiki and energy healing in general when I was training
to be a clinical physicist with the North Glasgow National Health Service (NHS)
trust in the UK. I was fairly sceptical when I first heard about it, but after
I experienced it and felt it for myself I became convinced of its value as a
healing and spiritual tool. I became convinced that something that causes you
to feel relaxed, to improve your health (I was suffering from M.E at the time
and Reiki helped dramatically) and wellbeing in such a positive and tangible
way must have some physiological effect within the body. I was certain that
this couldn’t just be due to a psychological belief. I came to the conclusion
that if there was an actual physiological effect of the energy healing that
this would be triggered within the nervous system, and more specifically, the
Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The ANS is concerned with the functions of the
body that we ourselves cannot control directly such as respiration, blood pressure,
sweating and vaso-dilation. It permeates every part and every organ of the body
with both sensory and motor pathways, and plays a part in the regulation of
our essential functions. I started to investigate previous research into energy
healing to see if anyone else has come up with this link. I discovered that
there have been several attempts to study the mechanism of effect in touch therapies
such as Reiki, however most have been anecdotal in approach and few studies
have used a rigorous scientific approach for the measurement of biological outcomes.
A literature review of previous studies shows an apparent link between Reiki
treatment and the autonomic nervous system. One of the most commonly reported
effects of Reiki is that of relaxation or a reduction in stress. The ANS is
the motor system for emotion; if Reiki were to ameliorate stress it would therefore
also have some effect on the ANS. A paper authored by Ramnarine-Singh (1999)
states that the physiologic system sensitive to energy-based therapies is the
ANS, as it affects the body’s physiological response to stress, and suggests
that physiologically Reiki and Therapeutic Touch (TT)—a therapy similar
to Reiki—can be measured by recording blood pressure, pulse, respiratory
rate, electroencephalography, electrooculography, galvanic skin response, and
hand temperature. Wardell and Engebretson (2001) measured the biological

effects of Reiki on the ANS and found significant reduction of anxiety and
systolic blood pressure, and a significant increase in salivary immunoglobulin
A (IgA) levels, using healthy volunteers for their study. Anxiety was assessed
through muscle tension measurement using electromyography as well as monitoring
of salivary IgA levels. Vaughan (1995) also investigated the ANS looking at
systolic and diastolic blood pressure, heart rate, and skin response, and found
a definite trend towards the lowering of diastolic blood pressure. Turner et
al. (1998) investigated the use of TT for reducing anxiety levels in burn patients,
finding a significant reduction in the TT group in comparison with a placebo
group. Evanoff and Newton (1999) found that energy-based therapies significantly
reduced pain in a randomized control trial of patients with osteoarthritis of
the knee. TT/Reiki has also been investigated within the field of cutaneous
wound healing. Ramnarine-Singh (1999) highlights the apparent link between energy-based
therapies and the ANS, stating that the previous “psychological”
research is difficult to interpret because of the subjectivity involved. It
calls for new studies measuring physiological responses within the ANS. Work
by Quinn (1984) and Vaughan (1995) support this hypothesis.

At this point I had just finished a rotation period working in the Institute
of Neurological Sciences at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow, a world
class centre for research of this type. I contacted my supervisor at the institute
to discuss my ideas about energy healing and the ANS and to propose a plan for
a research study. He was as curious as I was, and so we began to put together
a proposal. It took considerable time, effort and energy on our part before
we were finally given approval to go ahead with the study, which we entitled
“An investigation into the effect of Reiki on the Autonomic Nervous System”.
The aim of our study was to investigate if some indices of autonomic function
would show any significant differences between Reiki treatment, a placebo treatment
and a control group. The study was a blind trial with subjects assigned at random
into the three groups. 45 Healthy volunteers were recruited from colleagues
and associates, 15 subjects assigned into each group. The study used parameters
for which there are reliable, quantitative measures such as heart rate (HR),
cardiac vagal tone (CVT), blood pressure (BP), cardiac sensitivity to baroreflex
(CSB), breathing activity and hand skin temperature. These parameters are controlled
by the cardiovascular and respiratory centres in the brainstem but are modulated
by higher functions of the nervous system. The novel aspect of our study was
the real-time measurement of brainstem autonomic function by monitoring cardiovascular
regulation carried out by the medullary nuclei.

During the study itself the Reiki group received rest and Reiki treatment,
the placebo group received rest and placebo treatment, and the control group
only rest. On arrival the subject was positioned on a couch and the electrodes
and transducers were attached. Baseline data were recorded during a rest period
for 15 minutes. There then followed a 30 minute treatment period (Reiki or placebo
or rest) followed by another 10 minute rest period.

The Reiki treatment consisted of the placement of the practitioner’s
hands over the subject’s body in a series of six hand positions chosen
to correspond with key points in traditional energy healing systems, over clothing,
for a thirty-minute period. The hands were placed over the volunteers’
eyes, temples, occiput, chest, knees and the soles of the feet. The only point
at which the practitioner touched the volunteer was to place their hands underneath
the head to reach the occiput. The placebo treatment was carried out by a person
with no knowledge of Reiki, who simply mimicked the hand positions of the Reiki

Eight different physiological parameters were recorded: heart rate; systolic
blood pressure; diastolic blood pressure; mean blood pressure; cardiac vagal
tone; cardiac sensitivity to baroreflex; skin temperature and respiration rate.
From the statistical analysis of the data we found that there were no significant
differences present in the control group, this was as expected. However we did
find statistically significant differences between the Reiki and placebo groups,
namely changes in heart rate and blood pressure. For those who received Reiki
treatment, there was a significant reduction in heart rate and diastolic blood
pressure that did not appear in either the placebo or the control group. We
have linked the observed reduction in heart rate with the increase in CVT, indicating
increased parasympathetic Autonomic activity. There was also an observed increase
in skin temperature which could be caused by increased blood flow to the skin,
enabled by the reduced vaso-constriction, indicating a reduction in sympathetic
activity of the ANS, though the observed change was small. Blood pressure showed
a significant reduction in the Reiki group. The blood pressure reduction can
perhaps be explained by the increase in CSB that we witnessed. However, higher
centres are able to set the level at which the blood pressure should be defended
by the autonomic control system. In the placebo group the CSB also increased,
although to a lesser degree, but with no corresponding blood pressure reduction.
This suggests that perhaps the difference in blood pressure has been caused
by higher centres within the nervous system setting a different control level
in Reiki but not in placebo.

So what does all this actually mean? Scientifically, what we can say after
carrying out this study is that there appear to be significant differences between
the Reiki group and placebo and control groups. The nervous system appears to
be responding differently to Reiki than to placebo Reiki which strongly indicates
that Reiki has some effect on the autonomic nervous system. We cannot conclusively
say that “Reiki works”, as this was a relatively small study, but
it certainly does justify further research, such as a larger study either looking
in more detail at the ANS and its response to Reiki, or investigating the symptom
profile of a disease during and after Reiki treatment. What we can say after
completing this study is that the body, and the ANS specifically, responds to
Reiki or energy healing and that this response is not purely a psychological
effect or wishful thinking on the part of practitioner and/or patient. This
scientifically sound conclusion represents a significant step towards bringing
energy healing as a whole into the mainstream and, with luck and more hard work,
ultimately into general medical practice.


The research is published in full in the following Scientific peer reviewed
journal: Autonomic Nervous-System-Changes During Reiki Treatment:

Volume 10,Number 6.

For more information on the research or to study Reiki with Nikki Mackay and
Oona McFarlane please contact them at Tir na nOg.

Telephone 01360 449300


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