The Soothing Power of Reiki

Reiki and other complementary approaches to wellness, such as art therapy, aromatherapy and meditation, are gaining acceptance among doctors and patients alike



ILLUSTRATION BY kristina rowell

In the 21st century, we are fortunate to have technological innovations and medicines that can save lives and ease pain. But these days, an increasing number of doctors and patients are recognizing that supplementing the modern with more organic approaches can make the latest medical advances work even better.

Reiki (pronounced “ray-kee”) and other complementary approaches to wellness, such as art therapy, aromatherapy and meditation, might at first glance seem like strange bedfellows for modern medicine’s gadgets. But not only are integrative therapies now more accepted by doctors and patients, they have become sought-after treatments. Indeed, sometimes the morning list of patients who are waiting for Reiki grows so long, “we can’t get to everyone that day,” says Pauline MacKay, a therapeutic arts and activities assistant and facilitator of Reiki volunteers at Concord Hospital. “So many people want it.”

Reiki originated in Japan and is based on the idea that energy exists in everything and affects our body’s functioning. “Universal life energy is all around us,” MacKay says. “Everything has it. The ground, a light bulb, a stick — all have energy.” By placing their hands in positions that correlate to Reiki’s identified body energy centers or “chakras,” Reiki practitioners serve as conduits of sorts that channel universal energy to enhance and balance energy in the recipient’s body.

Reiki, which is offered free of charge at many hospitals, can be performed hands-off or hands-on; patients who do not want to be touched or whose condition precludes touching experience Reiki through a practitioner whose hands hover but never make contact with the patient’s body. Reiki recipients remain clothed — in fact, in hospitals, Reiki is often performed over the patient’s bed blanket — and even when Reiki does involve contact, the practitioner’s touch is extremely light. “Sometimes the patients don’t even feel our hands on them, but they do feel the heat from our hands,” says Sylvie St-Jean, a Reiki practitioner at Portsmouth Regional Hospital.

"A relaxed environment helps relax the mind, and a relaxed person heals much more quickly than a person who’s stressed out."

Although a full, traditional Reiki session might last 60 to 90 minutes, hospital sessions typically last only 20 minutes or so, and focus on areas such as the head, shoulders, feet and knees while bypassing most of the torso. But even Reiki that is limited in this fashion will be beneficial because “Reiki goes where it needs to go,” says St-Jean, meaning that the energy automatically flows to the body area most in need of it.

Whether or not you buy into the energy-based theory behind Reiki, there’s no denying that the practice brings comfort to many people. It helps them relax, and that can be a true gift to patients who are terrified of the cancer diagnosis they have received, or are so anxious about their upcoming heart surgery that they haven’t slept for days. And that’s really what hospital-based Reiki is all about, says Ana Drexler, RN, director of Integrative Care at Portsmouth Regional Hospital. “The Reiki we provide in the hospital is primarily for relaxation and stress reduction,” which has been proven to lessen pain and improve healing by boosting the immune system while also lowering blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones, says Drexler.

To that end, most Reiki practitioners in hospitals — often a mix of volunteers and staff members — try to create an atmosphere conducive to relaxation by dimming lights in the patient’s room and playing soft music. “A relaxed environment helps relax the mind, and a relaxed person heals much more quickly than a person who’s stressed out,” MacKay says.

Reiki can be used on anyone, regardless of the person’s age or medical condition, and it carries no risk. At Portsmouth Regional Hospital, Reiki was first offered to pre-operative patients, “but it’s now all over the hospital,” Drexler says, from behavioral health to maternity, oncology, the emergency room and the ICU. “Our practitioners will work with anybody,” she says, even positioning themselves alongside equipment in the mammography department so that they can administer Reiki to women who are undergoing a biopsy. Reiki can be performed on patients who aren’t even awake, and can also benefit visitors of patients, who, knowingly or not, affect the patient’s emotional state, Drexler says.

Although more patients today are open to the idea of Reiki than in the past, skeptics are well-represented among the patient population. In some cases, the stress of constant anxiety or pain leads them to set aside their doubts, however, and give Reiki a try, MacKay says. “It happens all the time. They do it because their nurse or doctor suggested it. We come in and explain it and they’ll say [unenthusiastically], ‘Yeah, alright. I’ll try it.’ They’re almost resigned. Then after the session, I’ve had people say, ‘Thank you so much. This has been so helpful. I had such doubts and I don’t know why it works, but it works.’” More often than not, MacKay says, they want it again the next day.

In fact, a bit of a Reiki revolution seems to be taking place. “People used to be sort of scared of it. They didn’t know what it was,” Drexler says. “But complementary care and energy healing is becoming really mainstream, and I think now people are expecting some of these services when they go to the hospital.”

Patients’ increasing openness to Reiki appears to be part of a huge surge of interest in all things natural and complementary, from healing crystals to mindfulness and yoga. “Our Reiki practitioners often go to local health fairs and they’re never not busy,” Drexler says. “There’s always a line for the Reiki.”


Bringing Comfort to Newborns

As Reiki and other complementary therapies gain acceptance at hospitals throughout the country, their use is expanding across a greater variety of situations. Sadly, one of those applications now includes babies born to mothers who used drugs while pregnant — an increasing occurrence. Soon after birth, the babies go into withdrawal and are “inconsolable,” says Alice Kinsler, manager of therapeutic arts and activities at Concord Hospital. “They have a poor appetite, won’t sleep and are constantly crying. They’re just really struggling,” Kinsler says.

In an effort to lessen the newborns’ discomfort, some hospitals apply Reiki to the babies. Reiki offers an alternative to administering morphine as way to ease withdrawal symptoms and can have dramatic effects, says Kinsler, even calming days-old babies who have been crying nonstop and enabling them to fall asleep at last.

“If you’re tense and worried and your muscles are tight, everything bad, including pain, is amplified,” Kinsler says. By bringing a sense of tranquility, she says, Reiki triggers a release of feel-good hormones, reduces heart rate and blood pressure, lessens perceived pain and aids the healing process.

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