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.
Then I walked out the door and discovered that the pain I'd been carrying for several days was gone, as was the stress of not being able to see and do everything I wanted to. I felt lighter with each step.
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.
"It's always been assumed," lead researcher Gwen Wyatt, a professor at the Michigan State University School of Nursing, said in a statement, that reflexology was "a nice comfort measure" for patients with cancer. "But to this point we really have not, in a rigorous way, documented the benefits. This is the first step toward moving a complementary therapy from fringe care to mainstream care."
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Research to date has found insufficient evidence of reflexology's benefits for several other conditions, including obstructive lung disease (COPD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), overactive bladder and the effects of menopause.
What Can It Do for You?
Reflexology practitioners claim that the technique can alleviate pain, improve circulation, increase vitality, release toxins, and relieve insomnia and migraines. It can therefore be a boon for people with arthritis, sciatica, sinus problems, high blood pressure, depression and general anxiety, says Michelle Ebbin, a certified reflexologist in Montecito, Calif., and the author of Hands on Sexy Feet.
"Even if you don't have a health issue, it's a great way to relax and feel better all over," says Ebbin, whose book also discusses how reflexology can boost libido and deepen partners' connection.
Liz Pyle, a certified reflexologist in Seattle, says the practice can aid people with a variety of pain-related conditions, because it alleviates stress, which is an underlying cause or exacerbating factor of many physical ailments.
"Most of my clients are so relaxed while I'm working on them that they almost fall asleep," Pyle says, "and some do."
Reflexology manipulation may cause some pain, much like a deep tissue massage can, says Ariel Talmor, who is on the faculty of the San Diego Pacific College of Oriental Medicine and is the author of Sole to Soul: How to Love and Heal. Still, you should feel comfortable with the person working on your feet. "You must feel safe," Talmor says. "If you tell the therapist the pain is too intense, he or she should stop immediately."
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If you're interested in trying reflexology, you can find a certified practitioner through the Reflexology Association of America or the American Massage Therapy Association. Health insurance generally does not cover reflexology. You can expect to pay from $40-$150 per session, Talmor says, depending largely on the length of the visit, which is usually 60 or 90 minutes. On average, he says, reflexology should cost about a dollar a minute. Many patients will experience benefits with six to 12 visits, and many practitioners will show you ways to execute some of the manipulations yourself at home.