By Heather Larson
Originally Posted On July 11, 2013
I experienced reflexology for the first time in March while on a trip to Sun Valley, Idaho, for a writing assignment. Although I had been taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, arthritis was my constant companion and I was always looking for other ways to ease the pain. It affected my feet, knees and hips, making it difficult to enjoy the sights of that beautiful mountain locale. While I was taking a tour of a spa, the director noticed I was limping and suggested I try something offered there.
I sat in a comfortable chair, fully clothed, while a reflexologist applied pressure to various spots on the bottom of my bare feet using his thumb and fingers. It felt a little like a foot massage to me, perhaps with more pressure. Nothing changed right away, though, and I began to wonder if reflexology's supposed health benefits were real.
Who Can Benefit?
Reflexology's roots go back thousands of years; there is evidence that the technique, or something like it, was practiced in ancient China, Egypt and Greece. The core theory is that areas of our feet, hands and ears correspond and are connected to certain other organs, glands and muscle groups, via energy pathways within the body, also called meridians, and that properly applied pressure to specific points can relieve pain and stress and improve the body's functions. Practitioners rely on foot charts to guide them in applying pressure to treat particular concerns.
At a session, you'll remain dressed and remove only your shoes and socks. (Some reflexologists soak your feet in a foot bath prior to therapy.) You'll sit back in a chair or lie on a massage table while the practitioner performs small muscle movements, primarily with the thumb and fingers, typically on the bottom of your feet. The movements should promote a response from an area far removed from the tissue being stimulated.
An intriguing study of reflexology's ability to blunt pain was published in the Journal of Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice this spring by researchers at Britain's University of Portsmouth. In two separate sessions, the team asked the same participants to submerge their hands in ice water to gauge how long they could do so before experiencing pain. In one session, subjects received a reflexology treatment immediately before submerging their hands. In the other, they got a sham treatment. When participants had reflexology before the test, they were able to keep their hands in the ice water 45 percent longer than when they didn't.
"It is likely that reflexology works in a similar manner to acupuncture by causing the brain to release chemicals that lessen pain signals," Dr. Carol Samuel, the lead researcher, told The Independent. "More work will need to be done to find out about the way reflexology works," she said. "However, it looks like it may be used to complement conventional drug therapy in the treatment of conditions that are associated with pain, such as osteoarthritis, backache and cancers."
Several studies have explored the use of reflexology as a palliative treatment for cancer patients. One, financed in part by the National Cancer Institute and published last fall in the journal Oncology Nursing Forum, found that reflexology appeared to help cancer patients better manage the symptoms of the illness and perform daily tasks. The study involved 385 women, all undergoing treatment for advanced-stage breast cancer. The subjects were divided into three groups: One received a series of reflexology treatments, another got standard foot massages and a third had no such treatments.
After 11 weeks, the patients who'd had reflexology reported feeling far less shortness of breath than the other patients, which enabled them to more successfully execute tasks like climbing stairs, getting dressed or shopping for groceries. Researchers were surprised to find, though, that the group that had received standard foot massages reported less fatigue than the others, a possibly encouraging indication that friends and family members could aid such patients by giving them massages at home.