The Key Differences Between Reiki and Massage Therapy

Do you live with chronic pain and want to know how best to conquer it while avoiding taking pills? Then consider complementary healing practices, like Reiki and massage therapy, as alternative ways to relieve various types of pain and reconnect with your body. You may wonder, though, which is better?

Reiki and massage therapy are different in that the former is a spiritual form of healing that realigns the universal force within the body through energy channeling. At the same time, the latter is a physical form of therapy. Similarities exist between the two, but their differences complement each other.

When we mentioned pain, we weren’t just talking about physical discomfort, as pain has many faces, including psychological ones. Continue reading to learn more about how massage therapy and Reiki can help take away pain in various forms. To help you choose the right therapy, we’ve consulted various sources to distinguish between these two modalities.

What Is Reiki?

Reiki (aka energy healing, hands-on healing, or palm healing) is an alternative therapy that focuses on channeling energy for optimum health and well-being. Mikao Usui, a Japanese Buddhist, improved its ancient form to produce the modern version in 1922. He allegedly passed his knowledge on to 2,000 followers and 16 Reiki Masters, who, in turn, practiced it and taught it to others as Usui Reiki.

Americans got wind of the practice in the ’40s; Europeans, in the ’80s. Numerous branches of Reiki have evolved since. There is now a hybrid called Reiki massage, a combination of Reiki and massage therapy. In its basic form, Reiki is used for stress reduction, relaxation, and the facilitation of healing.

Two Japanese words form the term Reiki: “Rei,” referring to “God’s power,” and “Ki,” referring to “life force energy.” Collectively, Reiki means “life force energy guided by God.” Reiki is regarded as a kind of spiritual healing founded by a Buddhist, but it is not connected to any religion.

Reiki ideology revolves around the theory that a natural life force energy—aka Japanese Ki; Chinese Qi (pronounced “chi”); Indian Prana—flows within and around all living creatures. This energy affects the functioning of the human body, mind, and spirit. Reiki’s goal is to ease tension and heal physical and psychological ailments by enabling the free flow of energy within the body.

Free circulation of Ki ensures optimum health. However, if Ki is blocked, this affects the equilibrium of bodily systems, leading to physical illness or psychological ailments.

How Does It Work?

Reiki, as a form of energy therapy, involves the transfer of energy from practitioner to the patient using light touching—or the hovering of hands without touching—and the ‘laying on’ of hands over specific body parts. Reiki is a healthy solution to resolving physical, mental, and emotional issues without drugs.

Reiki healers channel positive energy through their hands to relax the body, flush out pollutants, and clear blockages that cause diseases and psychological imbalances. They believe that when energy stagnates in the body, physical injury or psychological pain may occur. Other energy-related holistic therapies, such as acupuncture or acupressure, follow the same philosophy and laws of physics in that they realign the body’s energetic properties.

What to Expect in a Session

Fully clothed clients receive treatment seated or lying down. The healer uses gentle hand pressure and varying hand shapes while chanting mantras or blessings to encourage energy flow.

The practitioner focuses on particular parts of the head, chest, and limbs—up to 20-plus different spots—for two to five minutes each. After the heat or energy is gone from their hands, they will move on to another body part. Sessions last between 15 minutes to 1.5 hours. Subsequent sessions will differ depending on patient goals.

Hands hover above, never touching burns and wounds. Healers never touch sensitive or private areas. While under treatment, patients report feeling the energy as sensations varying from “static but relaxing” to warm, tingling, glowing, cooling, electric, or pulsating.

The treatment room may be silent or with music or white noise in the background. Although, as a rule, Reiki does not need instruments apart from practitioner input, some healers use chakra healing wands to speed up healing and guard against negative energy or crystals to sustain energy vibrations and transport them over a distance.


As a holistic healing practice, Reiki treats medical and psychological conditions, balancing body, mind, and spirit. Practitioners claim it’s safe without contraindications so that it can be performed on everyone.

Reiki is used for:

  • Headache relief
  • Pain management
  • Disease management
  • Stress and anxiety management
  • Correcting sleep disorders
  • Treatment of mental health disorders
  • Restoration of emotional balance
  • Boosting mental clarity
  • Relaxation aid
  • Weaning patients off addictive prescription pain medicine
  • Energy revitalization
  • Establishing a better outlook on life
  • Improvement of wellbeing

Diseases Reiki claims to treat include:

  • cardiac disease
  • Crohn’s disease
  • anxiety disorders
  • depression
  • chronic fatigue syndrome
  • cancer
  • neurodegenerative disorders
  • chronic pain
  • infertility
  • autism

Potential Side Effects

Post-treatment, some clients say they feel worse at first. Some feel drained or disoriented; others experience physical symptoms. But these are common and will pass after the energy flows freely again. The symptoms are a normal part of the cleansing process, which involves flushing out toxins from the body and correcting imbalances in the energy system.

How Does One Learn Reiki?

Aspiring healers learn the skill from Master Teachers, but anyone can learn it. This is one of the basic tenets of Reiki ideology. It can even be performed on oneself so that neophytes can practice it themselves.

Reiki is passed on from practitioner to practitioner through “attunement,” a process whereby the student learns how to recognize and transmit Ki. Students go through various levels of mastery.

Slow Entry Into Mainstream Medicine

Reiki falls into the spiritual practice or energy healing modality category and is not regulated. There is no standardized testing, training, or credentialing for Reiki practitioners. As Reiki’s effectiveness is difficult to prove scientifically, controversy still surrounds it. Detractors have criticized its practitioners for claiming to cure diseases without scientific evidence.

In Britain, the Advertising Standards Agency rejected claims that Reiki can cure diseases. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) stated that Reiki had not proven its health-related usefulness. (It acknowledges, however, that Reiki does not seem to be harmful.)

Because of this, the medical community has a problem welcoming it into its fold. Reiki has not been accepted as acupuncture, acupressure, reflexology, and chiropractic.

Reiki has made some headway here, though. They now have licensing requirements, which differ per state. The International Association of Reiki Professionals, the professional organization of the global Reiki community, oversees these. The Reiki Licensing Board for Reiki Masters and Healers has called for stricter standards of training and award designations for practitioners. The levels range from a couple of days to several years of training.

Though some European and American hospitals now offer Reiki therapy as an adjunct treatment, most insurance policies don’t cover it.

Massage Therapy

What Is Massage Therapy?

It is the scientific manual manipulation of the skin, soft tissues, muscles, ligaments, and tendons using hands to relieve stress, pain, or muscle tension. It is the go-to treatment for physiotherapists, sports medicine practitioners, and traditional healers. Techniques include muscle and joint kneading, rubbing, light stroking, and deep, fixed, or movable pressure.

Eastern and Western cultures have practiced massage therapy throughout history. It is one of the earliest medical methods of relieving pain. The first recorded massage treatment in China was 2,000-plus years ago. Its modern form is accepted in the medical community as part of integrative and complementary medicine. It is gradually being combined with standard treatment for numerous medical conditions.

Types of Massage

The most popular kind is called Swedish or classical, on which most massage training is based. It employs deep, circular movements, kneading, long strokes, tapping and vibrating.

Other types include clinical massage, sports massage, trigger-point massage (treats tight muscle fibers from overuse or injury), and those of Eastern origin, like Shiatsu, reflexology, and Tuina.

Shiatsu is a Japanese massage whose principles are based on acupuncture. Reflexology is a massage system rooted in the theory that reflex points on the head, hands and feet are connected to each part of the body. Tuina massage regulates the flow of Ki. It’s like acupuncture in that it targets critical points, but healers use fingers, not needles, to apply pressure.

How Does It Work?

Massage therapy rids the body of impurities and toxins. Therapists apply pressure and five strokes to manipulate muscles and escalate blood flow.

A first-rate massage session simultaneously relaxes and invigorates because it lowers stress-causing cortisol levels, slackens muscles, and intensifies blood and oxygen circulation, stimulating energy flow.


Massage therapy is indicated for:

  • Pain management—various types, including head, neck, shoulder, back, knee, fibromyalgia (rheumatic musculoskeletal pain), and myofascial pain syndrome
  • Relief from inflammation
  • Joint injury and sprain treatment
  • Circulation improvement
  • Tackling gastrointestinal disorders
  • Treating sports injuries, including soft-tissue
  • Anxiety management
  • Stress reduction
  • Correcting sleep disorders
  • Energy restoration

Disease control aside, some appreciate massage because it brings intangible benefits like solace, comfort, and connection with healers.

Potential Side Effects

Treatments are generally not uncomfortable or painful, but adverse reactions can arise, including soreness resulting from intense pressure. It can sometimes be painful when therapists work out kinks or knots. Speak up if you find the pressure too much or want a particular spot left alone.

The risks associated with massage therapy are low. However, in rare cases, serious adverse effects arose, such as nervous system injuries, fractures, and clotting, as reported to the NCCIH. Some of these involved vulnerable patients (the elderly) and vigorous massage.

Massage therapy is relatively safe, but the Mayo Clinic says you shouldn’t have one if you have any of these conditions:

  • injuries with fractures, wounds, burns, torn ligaments, dislocations, muscle splinting, or frostbite
  • bleeding disorders
  • osteoporosis (brittle bones)
  • thrombocytopenia (blood platelet deficiency)
  • pain of unknown cause
  • advanced coronary disease
  • high blood pressure
  • vein inflammation, arterial obstruction, or blood clots
  • kidney failure
  • cancer involving tissue damage or that which has spread
  • infectious disease, including colds and skin conditions
  • acute inflammation
  • hernias
  • hemorrhagic issues
  • psychological disorders with impaired cognition
  • thyroid dysfunction

What to Expect in a Session

Legitimate providers will do a health assessment before providing treatment. This involves discussing your medical history (especially allergies), current medical symptoms, objectives for the massage, and the treatment type and techniques your therapist will use on you. They will also do a touch evaluation to pinpoint tight or painful spots and determine the pressure level.

Wear loose clothes or strip down to your underwear, depending on your comfort level. You receive treatment either lying down, covered with a sheet on a table, or seated, fully clothed. You can choose from powder, oil, or lotion for the medium. Inform your therapist of allergies to ingredients in these substances.

Depending on the massage type, sessions usually last 10 minutes to 1.5 hours. Regardless, it would be best if you always emerged from your session relaxed and tranquil.

Which Is Better?

It can be either, as both have their foundations in the ideology of self-healing, balance, and energy management. Both stimulate blood and oxygen circulation to expel toxins from the body and restore vitality. Both offer natural healing with positive effects on the body and soul. Patients’ emotional responses and physical reactions to each modality vary.

Main Distinction

The primary difference is that massage therapy offers healing through physical manipulation, while Reiki offers spiritual healing with energy manipulation. Massage therapy evaluates the physical self, while Reiki recharges mental and emotional spheres.

Despite their difference, both hands-on systems complement each other. Reiki, combined with massage therapy, helps banish negative emotions and relieve physical ailments. Together, they address physical and psychological pain. Massage therapy schools now also teach Reiki to maximize the healing methods of both systems.


Massage therapy employs vigorous movements, while Reiki uses a gentler touch, often with hands just hovering above the body’s auric field to generate healing warmth by harnessing Ki. Reiki balances the energy field, while massage therapy balances the physical body.

Reiki healers’ hands are spread flat during treatment. Reiki therapists use 12 to 20 standard hand positions but employ minimal to no pressure. Massage therapists use hands, thumbs, elbows, feet, or knees to apply pressure to main energy lines. They also move joints around and extend limbs. Practitioners of Shiatsu massage use fingers to apply pressure on key points to stimulate immune systems and improve circulation.

Traditional massage increases blood flow by rolling and kneading muscles until they become relaxed. Improved blood flow brings essential nutrients to all organs. Reiki does the same, except on a spiritual level using non-invasive and non-manipulative techniques.

Massage therapy employs different strokes at various pressure levels to manipulate muscles and tissues. These include:

  • effleurage—circular strokes using the palm
  • petrissage—kneading
  • tapotement—quick, repeated striking

Practitioner Education and Licensing

Since Reiki focuses on manipulating spiritual energy, practitioners are not required to undergo formal scientific training. However, certain organizations offer certification for different types of Reiki, including Karuna, Urevia, Lightarian, and Shamballa Multidimensional Reiki.

Usui Reiki healing techniques can be learned only from a teacher who is a direct descendant of the 16 masters taught by either Makao Usui or Hawaiian Reiki Grand Master Teacher Hawayo Takata.

On the other hand, massage therapists must attend accredited massage schools that take extensive courses on anatomy, physiology, biological processes, and massage techniques to secure their licenses. The program duration ranges from six months to two years.

Massage therapy schools have stricter certification standards and more licensing laws. Many states require passing a massage certification exam for practitioners to be licensed.


While massage therapy and Reiki have excellent health benefits, they should not be substituted for standard medical care but instead viewed as adjunctive therapies. Don’t stop seeing your primary care physicians because you’re receiving massage or Reiki treatments. Worse, don’t use Reiki or massage to postpone seeing a doctor about a medical problem.

Always check with them before receiving any alternative therapy, especially if you have serious health issues that can lead to complications. Cancer patients and pregnant women should get approval from their primary physician before undergoing massage therapy.

Before visiting alternative therapy clinics, research the credentials of the therapist you are considering and call ahead to find out the cost of treatment, the number of sessions needed, and if insurance covers these.

Final Thoughts

Reiki and massage therapy help restore vitality even in the most withered bodies. When you submit to their healing power, you give your system a safer method of recovery and rejuvenation. Both practices regard each aspect of the human condition with the utmost care and focus on the whole person, not just the pain. They formulate techniques specific to your needs.

Now that you know the distinction between Reiki (spiritual healing) and massage (physical therapy), plus their pros and cons, you can choose which is appropriate for you. If you can’t decide, try both and double the benefits.

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