There are few conditions that affect your quality of life and ability to function as much as persistent back pain. Surgery, pain medications, or lifestyle changes may offer some relief, but they can come with potential risks or side effects and may just be short-term solutions. If you’ve struggled to find the right treatments to improve your back pain, you may want to consider trying the Japanese healing technique Reiki.
“Chronic back pain can take you down and color your whole world in a way that makes you feel miserable — it’s not a fun time,” says Victoria Bodner, a Reiki master who practices at the Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
“People with chronic back pain can get caught up in a pain cycle,” says Bodner. “They come in, and they’ve been in pain and taking pain relievers or using hot and cold to relieve it, but those things may actually excite the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ nervous system,” she says. “That can keep people in a continuous pain spiral.”
Reiki: Breaking the Cycle of Pain
“When a person gets on the Reiki table, it can take some time for them to close their eyes, relax, and be able to break the pain cycle,” she says. “I start by putting my hands on the person’s feet while I ground myself. I connect with that person while I’m connecting with the earth and allowing the energy to flow through me,” says Bodner. “At some point I’ll hear them say, ‘Ahhh,’” she says.
A typical Reiki session begins at the head or feet and involves very light touch or even no touch, with the practitioner’s hands a few inches above your body, according to the International Association of Reiki Professionals.
“In all the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never had anyone get off the table where they haven’t had some benefit,” says Bodner. Sometimes people fall asleep, and that can be restorative as well, she adds.
The hands can provide warmth and comfort, says Bodner. “If you’re in pain and you don’t often get touched, just those hands on the feet can be very powerful.”
But it’s not just the human touch that makes Reiki work. It can also be practiced when the client and practitioner are in separate parts of the country or even the world by an “energetic link” between the two people. These sessions are often done over the phone.
Is There Scientific Evidence That Reiki Can Ease Back Pain?
Reiki can definitely be used as complementary therapy to treat back pain, says Martha Lacy, MD, a hematologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and a Reiki master.
“I wouldn’t recommend Reiki instead of Western medicine, but I think it could be used as an adjunct or a complement to those therapies,” says Dr. Lacy. “Reiki can improve quality of life, and it has a proven role as a useful adjunct for pain control, anxiety, stress relief, and relaxation,” she says.
There isn’t a great deal of research on Reiki, but there are studies that suggest it can improve back pain. A study published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine in 2018 looked at 60 people with herniated spinal disks and found that Reiki reduced the severity of back pain and improved people’s ability to perform activities of daily living as well as a course of physical therapy.
A small meta-analysis published in May 2018 in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice examined the effect of Reiki on different kinds of pain through the visual analog scale (sometimes numbered 0 through 10), a self-reported measure that ranges from “no pain” all the way to “unbearable pain.” In the four studies analyzed, people who received Reiki treatment had a significant decrease in their pain score compared with the control group, which did not receive Reiki.
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Do We Know Why Reiki Works for Chronic Back Pain?
Reiki experts point to a few possible explanations of what Reiki may be doing in the body to relieve pain. One theory is that Reiki may trigger the vagus nerve to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls mood, digestion, heart rate, and even the perception of pain, according to a review published in October 2017 in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
Another hypothesis, based on the ki theory of energy therapy, says Reiki removes energy blocks and balances points of the energy system, also known as chakras. According to the theory, this clearing can improve the body’s ability to heal and gives a sense of well-being.
“We all have energy fields, and I think most people recognize that to varying degrees, we are sensitive to other people’s energy fields,” says Lacy. “If you walk into a room with a very angry person, you can almost feel it. The same if you walk into a space with a very happy, joyful person: You can feel a difference even if you can’t describe it,” she says.
Western medicine recognizes that electrical energy is very much part of our system, Lacy says. “That’s the whole basis for an EKG (electrocardiogram). An EKG is a test that measures the electrical activity of the heartbeat. MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) use the magnetic fields of energy within people,” says Lacy.
These examples show Western medicine recognizes that energy exists within us on some level, but it hasn’t connected that with the notion that people have an overall energy system, she says. “Eastern medicine healing techniques such as Reiki, acupuncture, and qigong all work directly with interacting with these energy systems,” Lacy says.
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What to Know if You’re Considering Reiki
There’s very little you need to do before receiving Reiki, but here are some pointers:
Wear comfortable clothes. You should wear loose-fitting and comfortable clothes to a Reiki session; you’ll remain fully clothed throughout the process. In most cases you will be semi- or fully reclined on a massage table.
Have an open mind … or not. “I suspect patients who are ‘ready, willing, and able’ to receive Reiki might have better outcomes,” says Lacy. “I’ve also had many people that sort of just humored me and let me try it on them, and I can say that all those people were pleasantly surprised to find out that it works — my husband included,” she says.
Be consistent about going for Reiki. There hasn’t been enough research about Reiki and back pain to know the optimal way to use it, says Lacy. “Most trials are fairly short and look at one session of Reiki per week for four to eight weeks; there’s really no trial that I know of that’s assessed the long-term benefits. My guess is the more consistent you are with Reiki treatments, the better it works,” she says.
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