Reiki, which originated in Japan in the nineteenth century and has been practiced in the West since the 1970s, is one of several alternative therapies known collectively as energy healing. These therapies (including acupuncture, qi gong and homeopathy) share the belief that sickness and disease result from an imbalance of the body's energy fields. Correct the balance, heal the patient, goes the theory.

A 2004 survey published by the National Center for Health Statistics estimated that 1.1 percent of U.S. adults -- or roughly 2 million people -- had undergone a Reiki treatment at some point in their lives.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), part of the National Institutes of Health, says "rigorous scientific research does not support claims that reiki and similar therapies can boost the immune system and the body's ability to heal itself, as well as reduce stress, allergies and chronic pain. Overall, these therapies have impressive anecdotal evidence, but none has been proven scientifically to be effective," reports an NCCAM overview of energy medicine, published last year. Several medical institutions are engaged in research to see if claims can be scientifically validated.

Quackwatch.com, a Web site run by retired psychiatrist Stephen Barrett that is critical of many complementary and alternative therapies, calls Reiki "an integral part of the massage therapy marketplace. None has a scientifically plausible rationale or has been shown to favorably influence the course of any physical ailment. Reiki practitioners claim [to] harness and transmit 'universal life energy' by placing their hands in specific positions on or near the body; or they can visualize special symbols that supposedly enable them to send 'healing energy,' even from far away. . . . The existence of 'universal life energy' has not been demonstrated."

At George Washington University Hospital's Center for Integrative Medicine, Reiki "master" Luann Jacobs (www.reikipartners.org) begins hour-long sessions by dimming the lights, turning on music and offering an eye mask filled with aromatic herbs. She then moves her hands lightly over a patient's clothed body. Unlike massage, there's no pressure or muscle manipulation. Patients often reports feeling a slight sensation of heat at the contact point.

-- Matt McMillen