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Is a Reiki treatment just placebo?

Written by Dawn Mellowship

The placebo effect is unquestionably a powerful phenomenon. A placebo is a substance given to an individual as a medicine or therapy, which itself has no therapeutic effect. In medical studies it allows drugs to be tested against controls for efficacy. Although, is not intended to have any medicinal effect, it does, purely because the patients taking it believe that it is a genuine drug and expect that it will produce the desired outcome. The patient’s belief produces effects and natural chemicals in the brain and body as if they were actually taking the anticipated drug. As scientists wrote in a review of the placebo effect published in the journal Annual Review of Psychology,

Placebo factors have neurobiological underpinnings and actual effects on the brain and body.

In fact, the placebo effect is so powerful that the Harvard Placebo Study Group was founded in 2001, as part of a Mind-Brain-Behavior Initiative at Harvard University. The group is made up of neuroscientists, psychologists, a behavioural geneticist and an anthropologist. Research carried out by Fabrizio Beneditti (of the Harvard Placebo Study Group) and his colleagues found that the placebo response in terms of pain relief is triggered by the release in the brain of endogenous opiates – our bodies’ natural painkillers, produced when the individual expects pain relief.

Once the individual is told that they have been administered a placebo, which is not causing a physical effect, the therapeutic effect stops, confirming that it was the patient’s belief causing biochemical changes in the body.1

It is said that around 33 per cent of patients with a range of clinical pains respond to placebo, although in some studies up to 100 per cent of individuals have responded.

Below are just a few studies demonstrating the powerful effects of placebo.

  1. The placebo effect has improved numerous medical conditions, Parkinson’s Disease being one of them. Researchers at the University of British Columbia discovered in one study that the placebo effect produced the same results as pharmaceuticals on 12 patients suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. Those suffering from Parkinson’s Disease do not produce enough dopamine in the area of the brain which affects physical movement. Patients who received placebo injections in the study exhibited natural dopamine releases in the brain, which the authors of the study concluded was associated with “expectation of reward.” The researchers also looked at whether the placebo effect may enhance the effects of the active drugs, but to the contrary, this proved not to be the case. In fact the study’s author’s stated “in some patients most of the benefit obtained from an active drug might derive from a placebo effect.”2
  2. In 1988 researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Bethesda, USA, conducted a trial on the effects of the drug ‘Acyclovir’ on 27 adults suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Three patients suffered from nephrotoxicity (poisonous effect on the kidneys) as a result of taking Acyclovir and dropped out. Of the 24 remaining patients 11 taking the drug experienced improvements and 10 taking the placebo experienced improvements. Any improvements to the patient’s condition were attributed to spontaneous remission or the placebo effect.3
  3. Research conducted in 1996 on the steroid hydrocortisone as a potential treatment for CFS found that around half of the study participants reported improvements after taking the placebo.4,5

It is not only being given a placebo unknowingly instead of an active drug that is important, but the practitioner’s enthusiasm for the treatment being administered. In 1987, 200 patients were given one of four consultations:

  1. One conducted in a positive manner, with a placebo (where the patient was told confidently that they would get better in a few days), or without a placebo (where the patient was told they required no prescription), and
  2. One conducted in a more negative manner (where the doctor stated “I cannot be certain what is wrong with you”), with a placebo (where the doctor also stated “I am not sure that the treatment I am going to give you will have any effect”) and without a placebo (where the doctor added to this “And so I will give you no treatment”).

Two weeks after the consultation 64 per cent of those receiving a positive consultation got better, only 39 per cent of those receiving a negative consultation got better irrespective of what treatment they got.6 Thus, the effects of a drug or indeed placebo are enhanced or not depending on how positive the practitioner is.

What we are told by the health professionals or anyone we put our trust in can have an impact on us physiologically and psychologically. 

With regards to Reiki, the placebo effect will undoubtedly be a factor in many cases where the patient believes that Reiki will have a positive impact and where the practitioner adopts a positive approach about the benefits of Reiki. This is the same whether it's a complementary therapy or a medical drug being used. However, Reiki can be used on animals and very young children, who have no belief in or understanding of Reiki or expected outcomes, and the Reiki treatment will still give a positive effect. Reiki can also be used on those in a coma and distantly on individuals who are not aware of receiving a treatment (although we do not recommend doing Reiki without permission) and it will have an impact. 


[1] Glannon, W. et al. Bioethics and the Brain. New York: Oxford University Press. 2007. p. 93-94.

[2] de la Fuente-Fernandez, R. et al. Expectation and Dopamine Release: Mechanism of the Placebo Effect in Parkinson’s Disease. Science. August, 2001;293(5532):1164-116.

[3] Straus, S.E. et al. Acyclovir Treatment of the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Lack of Efficacy in a Placebo-controlled Trial. The New England Journal of Medicine. December, 1988;319(26):1692-1698.

[4] Demitrack, M.A. et al. Evidence for Impaired Activation of the Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal Axis in Patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. 1991;73:1224-1234.

[5] ‘Steroid Fails to Adequately Relieve Symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.’ National Institutes of Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Bethesda, MD. 13 October, 1996; online at:

[6] Thomas, K.B. General Practice Consultations: Is there Any Point in Being Positive. British Medical Journal. May, 1987;294:1200-1202.

Last Updated on 28 April 2010
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