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A Touch of Massage Therapy: Reiki Used for Cancer Patients


4 Star


A Touch of Massage Therapy: Reiki Used for Cancer Patients

Our Review Summary

We give the online version of this column credit for being merely descriptive in its headline: “Reiki used for cancer patients.” Yes. This method of light massage is indeed being used for cancer patients. But there isn’t much evidence to support it. The story tries to make this point clear, but the point is muddied by some of the more exuberant language in the piece. By referring to it as “a form of healing” and talking about how parts of the body are “treated” by “therapists,” the story legitimizes what is actually an uNPRoven form of massage that at times does not even involve contact between the massage therapist and the patient.


Why This Matters

Cancer patients often are in extreme pain and can feel deep depression about their condition. Stories about alternative therapies to relieve anxiety or pain need to present real evidence with a more clear focus on the weight of the evidence or lack thereof.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?


We give the story high marks here for at least addressing the costs at a couple of centers. It says, “At Memorial Sloan-Kettering, treatment for inpatients is available at no extra charge; outpatients pay $90 to $110 a session. At Norris Cotton, trained volunteers administer treatments free of charge—often while patients are at the hospital receiving intravenous chemotherapy treatments. Insurance typically doesn’t pay for Reiki.” That last sentence is crucial. The reporter might have asked an insurance company for what other sorts of pain relief or anxiety relief treatments insurance does cover and why Reiki didn’t meet the same bar.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

Another mixed bag.

But if we gave a barely satisfactory grade on “evidence,” we must balance the scale here and render this unsatisfactory.  Why?

  • 2nd sentence states, “Several studies suggest a benefit…” but that’s never quantified adequately in the piece.
  • When the first specific study is mentioned, the story states that Reiki reduced anxiety in 18 men with prostate cancer.  The story states that the benefit wasn’t statistically significant compared with a control group.  But the story has already suggested benefit.  What WERE the actual numbers in both groups?  And how was this “benefit” measured?
  • Then the story mentioned a much larger study that showed that “standard Swedish massage and foot massage” all helped a list of symptoms.  But is this different than Reiki – the basis of the story?  And by how much did all of these symptoms improve.  And how valid were the measures?  We’re told there was no control group, but again, benefits were not quantified.
  • Finally the story mentioned a 16-person study of Riki that “improved quality of life and general well being” but, again, results were not quantified and measures were not evaluated.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?


One of the selling points of Reiki is how harmless it may be (lack of efficacy notwithstanding).  The story could have addressed what might be the greater harm in people choosing Reiki for therapeutic benefit and forgoing other, proven treatment methods.

We’ll again give the column the benefit of the doubt.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?


This is a mixed bag.

The first reference to the evidence in this story is misleading. It says, “Several studies suggest a benefit to patients, but scientists say more large, rigorous studies are needed.” In fact, as the story goes on later to explain, there is no evidence that Reiki itself has any therapuetic value beyond the simple person-to-person contact that is a necessary part of the experience.

But since the story explains that the studies cited have size limitations or produced results that were not statistically significant or were not focused on Reiki – and because one independent expert says one theory is “absurd,” we’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.

In the future, we suggest that the evidence not be presented to readers in between enthusastic comments such as “How it works is a mystery, but we see anecdotally the amount of delight” it brings patients.”  Our heads were spinning at the “on-again, off-again, yes it does, no it doesn’t” nature of the column.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


No disease mongering of cancer or of side effects of chemotherapy.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?


The story quoted many experts.  Most, however, were used to at least hint at the idea that Reiki has some benefit. We do appreciate some of the candor, though. “Barrie Cassileth, chief of the Integrative Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, calls the energy theory ‘absurd’ but says light-touch therapy can have a ‘great relaxing effect’ on cancer patients ‘who are constantly poked, prodded and given needles.'”

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The column does not compare Reiki to any other alternatives. It mentions one study that looked at other massage techniques, but doesn’t explain how/if those approaches differ from Reiki. “A 2004 study of 1,290 cancer patients at Memorial Sloan-Kettering found a light-touch massage, standard Swedish massage and foot massage all helped symptoms including pain, depression anxiety, nausea and fatigue; the study didn’t have a control group.”

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The premise of the story is that this is a treatment that is “increasingly being used.” The story says, “Reiki, a therapy in which hands are placed lightly on the body or just above it, is increasingly being used to reduce cancer-related fatigue, anxiety, nausea and pain.” The story never goes on to prove that this is a method that is increasingly being used. All we are given are a few examples of treatment centers that do offer Reiki and then this: “Other centers don’t offer Reiki, citing insufficient evidence. “There isn’t a good evidence base for its utility in cancer care as of yet,” says Lorenzo Cohen, a professor in the departments of general oncology and behavioral science at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.”

Readers across the country may be left wondering just how widespread this practice is.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The story explains that Reiki originated in Japan in the early 1900s.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


The story did not rely on a news release.

Total Score: 7 of 10 Satisfactory


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