Reiki “cannot do harm” – or can it?

What would it be like to have world-class athletic ability, and to spend years of intensive training honing that ability, only to suddenly lose it all in the instant it takes your physician to utter a few words?

Hayden Roulston, a professional cyclist from New Zealand, has experienced this. After several seasons competing for the top-flight professional teams Cofidis and United States Postal Service, Roulston was diagnosed with arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia (ARVD), a rare and incurable heart disease known to cause sudden death in athletes. Notably, the prognosis is good for ARVD patients who refrain from exercise early in the course of the disease, which is why medical experts advise ARVD patients that they “should not do vigorous exercise.”[1]

Exercise simply does not get more vigorous than professional cycling. World-class racers commonly compete in six-hour nonstop events that cover over 150 miles, and completing six or seven of these events in a week is not unusual. Cyclists can maintain heart rates above 150 bpm for hours at a time, and during the most intense periods of a race they will push their heart rates to exceed 190 bpm, close to physiological limits, for a chance to win. Clearly, professional cycling and ARVD are incompatible, and so, following his diagnosis, Roulston reluctantly retired from professional cycling in 2006.[2] He was only 25 years of age and, under normal circumstances, could have expected the best years of his career to be ahead of him.

Not long after this, Roulston had a chance encounter in a pub[3] with a woman who claimed to practice “reiki”, an alternative medicine approach “based on the idea that there is a universal (or source) energy that supports the body’s innate healing abilities.” In reiki,

the client lies down or sits comfortably, fully clothed. The practitioner’s hands are placed lightly on or just above the client’s body, palms down, using a series of 12 to 15 different hand positions. Each position is held for about 2 to 5 minutes, or until the practitioner feels that the flow of energy—experienced as sensations such as heat or tingling in the hands—has slowed or stopped… typically, the practitioner delivers at least four sessions of 30 to 90 minutes each.[4]

The woman convinced Roulston that by doing this, she could cure his ARVD. Two months later, Roulston won New Zealand’s national road racing championship. Then, this summer, he capped his comeback when he took silver and bronze medals in cycling’s demanding pursuit events at the Beijing Olympics. “Reiki is the be-all and end-all for me,” says Roulston. It [ARVD] doesn’t even enter my mind now.”[5]

This sequence of events raises a question. If Roulston’s condition was so easily cured by some hand positions that channel universal healing energy, why did Roulston have to meet the supposed savior of his career in a pub? Why didn’t his physicians prescribe reiki? One possibility, of course, is that they had never heard of reiki at all, and so could not have had any medical opinion, pro or con, regarding the practice. Or, more likely, they may have known enough about reiki to know that it has no medical effects whatsoever,[5] such that prescribing it to a patient with a potentially fatal disease would be irresponsible, dangerous, and a clear violation of medical ethics. Perhaps they went even further and recognized that reiki has no medical effects because the “universal energy” on which it is based cannot possibly exist, for if it did, it would have to do so in contradiction of the conservation of mass-energy principle, and that is as well supported by scientific evidence as practically any principle that we know.[6]

So if reiki does not work – indeed, cannot work – how has Roulston managed to return to the top of his sport without a fatal result? Perhaps he was misdiagnosed, and never actually had ARVD. Or, possibly, Roulston did have ARVD previously, but has since experienced a spontaneous remission that is the result of natural bodily processes. Both of these possibilities are extremely unlikely given what we know about ARVD, but note that each of these is much more likely than the possibility that a person he met at the pub is in possession of magical curative knowledge and procedures that have been entirely missed by medical science. Ominously, though, the most likely explanation of all is that Roulston still has ARVD, but that it has not interacted with his strenuous training and competition to kill him. Yet.

Proponents of reiki are quick to assert that it “cannot do harm.”[7] (Apparently the life force energy on which it is based, which is otherwise so willing to be called on and directed by reiki practitioners, somehow knows when it is being summoned to do evil, and refuses.) But what if undergoing reiki causes you to be deluded? What if it blinds you to medical evidence? What if it causes you to ignore sound medical advice such that you return to the most demanding aerobic sport in the world, despite the fact that doing so is likely to cause heart failure and sudden death?

What if reiki, because it is nonsense, is only capable of doing harm?

Roulston is contracted to race alongside the current Tour de France champion as a member of the newly formed Cervelo Test Team in 2009.[8]

Christopher A. Moyer is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at University of Wisconsin-Stout, and a former competitive cyclist.


[1] Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2008). Arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia: Q & A. (2008). Retrieved October 5, 2008.

[2] Roulston retires for health reasons. (2006, August 31). Retrieved October 5, 2008.

[3] Olympics: Hayden Roulston lone rider. Sunday Star Times. (2008, July 27). Retrieved October 5, 2008.

[4] National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (2008, July). Reiki: An introduction. Retrieved October 5, 2008.

[5] Jarvis, W. T. (1999). Reiki. Retrieved October 5, 2008, from National Council Against Health Fraud Web site.

[6] Mook, D. (2004). Classic experiments in psychology. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

[7] Allison, J. (2008). My journey with reiki healing. Retrieved October 5, 2008.

[8] Hayden Roulston signs with Team Cervelo.
(2008, October 2). Retrieved October 5, 2008.

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