Reflexology is based on the principle that by massaging one area of the body, you stimulate a reaction, or "reflex" in another, corresponding part of the body. It generally involves applying pressure or suction to the feet or hands.
A 1990 study showed that working on specific reflex points on the soles or palms brings an improvement in the circulation in corresponding parts of the body, along with a reduction in tension (American Health: Fitness of Body and Mind, April 1990; 9 (3): 22).
Although reflexology was used in ancient Egypt, it was introduced into Western medicine in the 1920s by William Fitzgerald. He found that by applying pressure to an area of the foot, he could anesthetize the ear, so enabling him to perform minor ear surgery.
At least two studies have validated the process by which reflexology actually works (The Neurobiologic Mechanisms in Manipulative Therapy, New York, Plenum Press, 1978; Rev Electroencephalogr Neurophysiol Clin, Oct-Dec 1974; 4 (4): 525-38).
Nevertheless, reflexology has been largely ignored by the scientific community. Those few studies that have been carried out have been conducted by nurses, mainly to determine its benefit as an adjunct to general nursing care. One study (Krankenpfl/Soins Infirm, November 1980; 73 (11): 552) highlights the benefits of reflexology and shiatsu in nursing practice. Another (Krankenppfl/Soins Infirm, November 1980; 73 (11): 549-52) shows its usefulness in inducing relaxation or targeting organs or areas of the patient's body.
Nevertheless, a few studies are now appearing to support its role as a primary therapy, particular in pain control in patients suffering from a wide range of conditions.
A study of 50 women found that reflexology was effective in alleviating the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (Obstet Gynecol Dec 1993; 82: 906-11). Those given reflexology manual pressure to the ears, hands and feet in areas that corresponded to the ovary, uterus, pituitary and adrenal glands, kidney and sympathetic nervous system reported significant reductions in symptoms of breast tenderness, bloating, anxiety, depression and irritation. Those given sham treatment stimulation of areas which do not correspond to appropriate internal organs reported less improvement.
In Canada, nurses used reflexology to bring pain relief to seven terminally ill cancer patients (Canadian Nurse, May 1986). The patients were five women, aged 52-73, and two men, aged 63 and 69, suffering from a range of cancers. All seven were in constant pain, despite taking pain relieving drugs, but reflexology was found to significantly alleviate discomfort in all cases.
The nurses also found that reflexology was of benefit to the morale of the families of the patients. In three cases, they taught the basic techniques of reflexology to close family members.
Harald Gaier is a registered naturopath, osteopath and homeopath.