What Does the Evidence Say About Reiki for Cancer?
By Christina M. Seluzicki, MBE, Stacie Corcoran, RN, MS, and Jun J. Mao, MD, MSCE
Reiki is a complementary health approach in which practitioners place their hands lightly on or just above a person to promote a sense of well-being. It was founded by the Japanese Buddhist and spiritual teacher Mikao Usui in the early 20th century and brought to the United States in the 1930s (https://reikiinmedicine.org/pdf/alt_therapies_reiki.pdf), where it has become increasingly popular.
Reiki has been investigated for its effects on cancer symptoms such as anxiety and pain as well as its impact on quality of life and well-being. A randomized controlled trial (RCT) of 110 presurgical patients with breast cancer found reduced anxiety and mood improvement in the Reiki treatment group (https://doi.org/10.21873/anticanres.11736). In another study of 24 participants randomized to receive a standard opioid plus Reiki or a standard opioid plus rest, the Reiki group reported significant reduction in pain (https://doi.org/10.1016/s0885-3924(03)00334-8) but no significant reduced opioid use. Furthermore, researchers from a prospective crossover trial of 16 patients with cancer-related fatigue randomized to Reiki or resting control reported reductions in pain, fatigue, and anxiety and improved quality of life in the Reiki group compared to the control group (https://doi.org/10.1177/1534735406298986).
Interestingly, in a double-blind RCT, both Reiki and placebo Reiki were statistically significant (https://doi.org/10.1188/11.ONF.E212-E220) in increasing post-therapy comfort and well-being compared to standard care in outpatients at a chemotherapy center. Also, researchers conducting a feasibility study reported that compared to usual care, Reiki or companion care led to greater improvements in quality of life (https://doi.org/10.1177/2156587214556313) and mood in patients with breast cancer. However, a pilot RCT of 54 men undergoing radiation therapy for prostate cancer randomized to Reiki, relaxation response therapy, or wait list control did not identify statistically significant improvements (https://doi.org/10.1002/cncr.25291) in anxiety or depression.
The mechanisms of action underlying Reiki’s benefits have not been elucidated (https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-2648.2001.01691.x), but researchers have attributed them to a relaxation response (https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2004.10.1077).
Use in Clinical Practice
Because Reiki does not require equipment and can be done at the bedside or during chemotherapy, it may be easily integrated into the oncology setting. Observational studies (https://doi.org/10.1177/1049909111420859) have evaluated such integration: In 118 patients undergoing chemotherapy, the 22 patients who received four Reiki sessions had significant reductions in anxiety and pain. As well, results of a mixed methods study of pre-/post-surveys evaluating first-time Reiki sessions in 213 patients with cancer indicated that self-reported distress, anxiety, depression, pain, and fatigue each decreased by more than 50% (https://doi.org/10.1177/1534735413503547). However, data from larger, well-powered and -designed studies (https://doi.org/10.3322/caac.21397) are needed to establish Reiki’s effectiveness for clinical recommendation (https://integrativeonc.org/docman-library/uncategorized/65-sio-guidelines-2009/file).
What Oncology Nurses Need to Know
Available evidence, although limited, supports Reiki for managing symptoms such as pain and anxiety and improving well-being and quality of life in people with cancer. In recent years, National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centers have begun offering Reiki (https://doi.org/10.1188/08.CJON.489-494). It is safe for people of all ages and is not associated with harmful effects.
From time of diagnosis through long-term follow-up or end of life, oncology nurses serve a significant role as patient educators and care navigators. Understanding health promotion strategies and symptom management options such as Reiki is essential for building an arsenal of tools to improve quality of life and prevent or mitigate treatment sequelae.