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reflexology

Reflexology

Key Terms

Reflexology, Lymphedema Treatment, Ingham Method, Alternative Medicine  

What is Reflexology?

Reflexology is an alternative treatment therapy which deals with the principle that there are reflex areas in the feet and hands which correspond to all of the glands, organs and parts of the body. Stimulating these reflexes properly can, according to practitioners help many health problems in a natural way, a type of preventative maintenance.

The treatment consists of using different massage and pressure techniques to relax and loosen muscles in the feet and hands. Treatment is done with the patient lying down on a treatment bed with foot massage the main focus and hand massage after that.   According to the British Reflexology Association, “In the feet, there are reflex areas corresponding to all the parts of the body and these areas are arranged in such a way as to form a map of the body in the feet with the right foot corresponding to the right side of the body and the left foot corresponding to the left side of the body. By having the whole body represented in the feet, the method offers a means of treating the whole body and of treating the body as a whole. This latter point is an important factor of a natural therapy and allows not only symptoms to be treated but also the causes of symptoms.”(1)

Brief Background of Reflexology

Modern Reflexology is based on the work of two American physicians, Dr. William Fitzgerald and Dr. Joe Shelby Riley of the 1920's and on that of physiotherapist Eunice D. Ingham who developed Fitzgerald and Riley's knowledge into a usable therapy, calling it Foot Reflexology and took it to the public in the late 1930's through the early 70's.(2)

Does Reflexology Work for Lymphedema?

In the website Reflexology Presents, there is a section on forty-five clinical studies done on this treatment concept. However, none of them involve lymphedema. I have also not been able to locate any controlled studies anywhere, so there is nothing that conclusively demonstrates this is beneficial to lymphedema patients as far as their lymphedema is concerned.

There is a slight bit of evidence that reflexology may be useful in pain management,and in some limited types of dementia, but even then the below studies indicate more research is needed.

I was unable to find a single article that supports the efficacy of using Reflexology in the treatment of lympheddema.

Pat O'Connor

June 23, 2008

As of this update of Jan. 15, 2012, there are no independent clinical studies or evidence based medical news to substantiate the claim that reflexology is beneficial for lymphedema. Thus, this continues to be a supposed tretment method that I can simply not support or encourage anyone to have. Pat

History of Reflexology

This information is provided by Reflexology USA, a website dedicated to the use of this alternative treatment.

The origins of Reflexology evidently reach back to ancient Egypt as evidenced by inscriptions found in the physician’s tomb at Saqqara in Egypt. The translation of the hieroglyphics are as follows: “Don’t hurt me.” The practitioner’s reply:- ” I shall act so you praise me. ” We cannot determine the exact relationship between the ancient art as practiced by the early Egyptians and Reflexology as we know it today. Different forms of working the feet to effect health have been used all over the ancient world. Dr. Riley maintained that this form of healing spread from Egypt via the Roman Empire.

The Zone Theory was the precursor to modern Reflexology which began with Dr. William H. Fitzgerald, M.D. whom Dr. Edwin Bowers, M.D., encouraged to publish the many articles he had written on the subject of Zone Analgesia. In the forward to their combined book, “Relieving Pain At Home” published in, 1917, he wrote, “Humanity is awakening to the fact that sickness, in a large percentage of cases, is an error - of body and mind”. How true this has proved to be. Dr. Fitzgerald, was an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist working at the Boston City Hospital, as well as at St Francis Hospital in Connecticut. He called his work Zone Analgesia where pressure was applied to the corresponding bony eminence or to the zones corresponding to the location of the injury. He also used pressure points on the tongue, palate and the back of the pharynx wall in order to achieve the desired result of pain relief or analgesia. He made use of the following tools: elastic bands, clothes pegs and aluminum combs, on the hands, surgical clamps for the tongue, nasal probes and a regular palpebral retractor for the pharynx, He was responsible for formulating the first chart on the longitudinal zones of the body.

Dr. Fitzgerald discovered a very interesting fact, that the application of pressure on the zones not only relieved pain but in the majority of cases also relieved the underlying cause as well. The same result is experienced through Reflexology today, which is based partially on the Zone Theory.

Dr. Shelby Riley, M.D. worked closely with Dr. Fitzgerald and developed the Zone Theory further. It seems that he added horizontal zones across the hands and feet, together with the longitudinal zones and thus determining individual reflexes according to the Zone Theory. He, like Fitzgerald, espoused continual pressure on the reflex or point of contact.

Eunice D. Ingham, a Physical Therapist, worked closely with Dr. Riley and was fascinated by the concept of Zone Therapy and started developing her foot reflex theory in the early 1930's. She had the opportunity to treat hundreds of patients where each reflex point of contact had been carefully and thoughtfully checked and rechecked until with all confidence she was able to determine that the reflexes on the feet were an exact mirror image of the organs of the body. Dr. Riley encouraged her to write her first book entitled “Stories The Feet Can Tell” where she documented her cases and carefully mapped out the reflexes on the feet as we know them today. This book was published in 1938 and was later translated into seven foreign languages which spread the benefits of Reflexology way beyond the borders of the States. The confusion between Reflexology and Zone Therapy started at this point because the foreign publisher changed the name of Eunice’s book, ” The Stories The Feet Can Tell” to “Zone Therapy” and in some parts of the world it is still thought of as Zone Therapy. However, there is a distinct difference between the two therapies. Zone Therapy relies solely on the zones to determine the area to be worked, whereas Reflexology takes the zones as well as the anatomical model to determine the area or areas to be worked.

After the publication of her book Eunice Ingham found herself on the program at many health workshops. She traveled around the country giving book reviews. Only sick and dilapidated people attended these book reviews/ workshops where she would teach people by working on them and discuss their particular health problems. As these sick people, whom everyone else had given up on, got better the word spread and Reflexology became better known amongst the medical fraternity as well as lay people.

In the late 50's Dwight Byers started helping Eunice Ingham at her workshops. In 1961 Dwight Byers and his sister Eusebia Messenger, RN joined their Aunt Eunice teaching at workshops on a full time basis. Seven years later they became responsible for the continued teaching of Reflexology under the banner of The National Institute of Reflexology. In the mid 70's Eusebia retired and Dwight Byers formed The International Institute of Reflexology®, where the theories and techniques of Reflexology were further refined.

Eunice Ingham died in 1974 at the age of 85 still thoroughly convinced that Reflexology could aid in easing the suffering of mankind. She was on the road with that message until the age of 80. (2)

Reflexology: A Close Look

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Reflexology, also called zone therapy, is based on the notion that each body part is represented on the hands and feet and that pressing on specific areas on the hands or feet can have therapeutic effects in other parts of the body. Most proponents claim:

  • The body is divided into 10 longitudinal zones—five on each side of the body.
  • Each organ or part of the body is represented on the hands and feet;
  • The practitioner can diagnose abnormalities by feeling the hands or feet
  • Massaging or pressing each area can stimulate the flow of energy, blood, nutrients, and nerve impulses to the corresponding body zone and thereby relieve ailments in that zone.

The pathways postulated by reflexologists have not been anatomically demonstrated; and it is safe to assume that they do not exist. Similar rationales are used employed by iridologists (who imagine that eye markings represent disease throughout the body) and auricular acupuncturists who “map” body organs on the ear (a homunculus in the fetal position). The methodology is similar in both of these; and some commentators consider pressing on “acupuncture points” on the ear or elsewhere to be forms of reflexology, but most people refer to that as acupressure (“acupuncture without needles). The Reflexology Research Web site displays charts for foot and hand reflexology. The fees I have seen advertised have ranged from $35 to $100 per session.

Most reflexologists claim that their procedures can relieve stress, which is probably correct with respect to everyday stress. However, many reflexologists describe stress in terms that do not correspond to scientific knowledge. Kevin and Barbara Kunz, for example, state:

The individual's foot reflex areas reflect the individual's overall state of tension that has resulted from a lifetime of adaption to stress. Stress cues in the feet are a roadmap to the reflexologist. Wherever it is found on a foot, it is a sign that stress and its effect have begun to accumulate in the corresponding parts of the body [1]

Many proponents claim that foot reflexology can cleanse the body of toxins, increase circulation, assist in weight loss, and improve the health of organs throughout the body. Others have reported success in treating earaches, anemia, bedwetting, bronchitis, convulsions in an infant, hemorrhoids, hiccups, deafness, hair loss, emphysema, prostate trouble, heart disease, overactive thyroid gland, kidney stones, liver trouble, rectal prolapse, undescended testicles, intestinal paralysis, cataracts, and hydrocephalus (a condition in which an excess of fluid surrounding the brain can cause pressure that damages the brain). Some claim to “balance energy and enhance healing elsewhere in the body.” [2] One practitioner has even claimed to have lengthened a leg that was an inch shorter than the other. There is no scientific support for these assertions.

Some reflexologists who deny that they diagnose or treat disease claim that the majority of health problems are stress-related and that they can help people by relieving the “stress” associated with various diseases or body organs [1]. This type of double-talk is similar to chiropractic claims that “subluxations” lower resistance to disease and that “adjusting” the spine to correct subluxations will improve health. All ten of the books I have inspected mention scores of health problems that reflexology has supposedly helped.

Pauline Wills, author of the Reflexology and Colour Therapy Workbook, teaches that colors can be applied to “areas where an abnormality has been diagnosed but which has produced no noticeable symptoms in the physical body.” She states that the application can be done by imagining colors transmitted through the practitioner's hand or by Firstly, if the practitioner is sensitive to colour, they can visualize it being projected or by using “reflexology crystal torch.” [8].

Personal Observations

During the 1990s, I observed at least seven foot reflexologists at work during health expositions. In most cases, the process appeared to be an ordinary prolonged foot massage with little communication between the practitioners and their clients. But at one exhibit, the practitioners claimed that they could reduce stress, cleanse the body of toxins, increase circulation, assist in weight loss, and improve the health of organs throughout the body. On another occasion, I underwent a 15-minute session in which the practitioner felt my foot for diagnostic purposes and then massaged it for “therapeutic” purposes. During the previous year, I had had severe shoulder pain caused by an inflamed tendon that was rubbing against a bony surface inside my left shoulder joint. Thorough medical evaluation had determined that the appropriate treatment was arthroscopic surgery in which a drill is used to shave the bony area that was impinging on the tendon. The reflexologist claimed that he could detect the shoulder problem by feeling my left foot, that it was caused by stress, and that pressing on my foot—perhaps for a few sessions—could solve the problem. His “treatment,” which lasted about 10 minutes, consisted of massaging the foot and from time to time, pressing hard on the ball of my foot, a procedure that was quite painful. The “treatment,” of course, did absolutely nothing to help my shoulder. A few months later, I had the surgery, which cured the problem immediately and permanently.

Training, “Credentials,” and Legal Status

Since reflexology is not recognized by law, no formal training is required to practice reflexology or call oneself a reflexologist. However, some nurses and massage therapists offer reflexology as part of their licensed practice. Some courses are accredited for continuing education for nurses and massage therapists. The most widely publicized training source is probably the International Institute of Reflexology, of St. Petersburg, Florida, which claims to have 25,000 members worldwide [9]. Its seminar on the “Original Ingham Method of Foot Reflexology” are taught by Ingham's nephew, Dwight Byers. Its “Certified Member” status requires 200 hours of instruction plus passage of written and practical tests. As far as I know, this certification process has neither legal nor medical recognition. The Institute's Web site states:

The Ingham Method™ of Reflexology is used primarily for relaxing tension. Doctors agree that over 75% of our health problems can be linked to nervous stress and tension. Reflexology improves nerve and blood supply, and helps nature to normalize.

The International Institute of Reflexology® wishes to make it perfectly clear that it does not purport to teach medical practice in any form; or is the Ingham Method™ of Reflexology intended to replace conventional medical treatment.

Reflexology is a unique modality in the health field. Its purpose is not to treat or diagnose for any specific medical disorder, but to promote better health and well being in the same way as an exercise or diet program. Its practice should not be compared to massage or any other kind of manipulative procedure.

A brochure for a Byers seminar at the Big Sky Somatic Institute quotes him stating:

As a Reflexologist works each reflex, it triggers a release of stress and tension in the corresponding area or body zone, as well as an overall relaxation response. The release of tension unblocks nerve impulses and improves the blood supply to all parts of the body. Because reflexology works from the inside, it also has a balancing effect on each gland, organ and body region. . . .” [10]

Diagnosing or treating disease would constitute the practice of medicine and would be illegal for anyone who does not have a professional license to do these things. Although many diagnose and treat disease, I am not aware of any prosecutions. In some states that license massage therapists, unlicensed reflexologists might also be prosecutable for practicing massage therapy without a license [11].

Sandals, shoe inserts, foot-massage devices and a steering wheel cover based on reflexology theory are being marketed. As far as I know, no such product has a plausible rationale or been scientifically tested. Any medical claims made for such devices would make them “medical devices” under the law and therefore illegal to market without FDA approval.

Research Findings

Although the claims of reflexology are so far removed from scientific reality that testing them might seem a waste of time, a few competent researchers have conducted investigations.

The first study I know of was supervised by William T. Jarvis, Ph.D., a professor who taught research methods to graduate students at Loma Linda University. Using questionnaires, 70 subjects were asked to state whether they had had health problems during the previous two years in any of 43 anatomical areas. These data were then compared with the findings of a reflexologist as recorded on a report form. The results did not differ from what would be expected by blind guessing. To prevent the reflexologist from asking questions or observing subtle clues, the experimental subjects were asked to remain silent and a curtain was placed so that their feet were the only part of their body visible to the reflexologist [12].

In another study, 35 women with premenstrual syndrome (PMS) were randomly assigned to ear, hand, and foot reflexology or to placebo therapy done on sham reflex points. The women kept a daily record of 38 possible symptoms selected from previous PMS research questionnaires. The treatment group reported significantly fewer symptoms than the placebo group, and these improvement persisted for 2 months after treatment. Many women in this group fell asleep during the 30-minute sessions and reported feeling more energetic during the next day. The placebo group reported that they thought they were receiving genuine reflexology, The authors note, however, that it was very difficult to develop a credible placebo control group, which may have been the study's flaw. Normally, reflexology is soothing, but the placebo treatment was described as “either overly light or very rough.” [13] Thus the differences could have been differences in the quality of the massage being administered. The study suggests that massage may relieve PMS symptoms, but it does not validate the alleged connection between reflex points and body organs.

In another study, three experienced reflexologists examined 18 adults with one or more 6 specified conditions identified from their medical records. The data showed no significant relationship between the patient's medical diagnoses and the reflexologists' findings [14].

Another study compared the effects of foot reflexology, simple massage, and conversation on 130 patients who had undergone abdominal gynecologic surgery under full anesthesia. The patients were asked how they felt, and data were recorded on general condition, pain intensity, movement of the bowels, urination, and sleep, from the day before the operation until until the tenth day afterward. Simple massage turned out to be a relaxing, positive experience, whereas foot reflexology had various effects, some of which were negative. The researchers concluded that foot reflexology is not effective in acute, abdominal postsurgical situations in gynecology and can occasionally trigger abdominal pain [15].

Another study examined the popular claim that reflexology treatment benefits bronchial asthma. Ten weeks of active or simulated (placebo) reflexology were compared in a controlled trial of 40 outpatients with asthma. Objective lung function tests (peak flow morning and evening, and weekly spirometry at the clinic) did not change. Subjective scores (describing symptoms, beta2-inhalations and quality of life) and also bronchial sensitivity to histamine improved on both regimens, but no significant differences were found between groups receiving active or placebo reflexology. The researchers concluded that they had found no evidence that reflexology has a specific effect on asthma beyond placebo influence [16]. The Bottom Line

Reflexology is based on an absurd theory and has not been demonstrated to influence the course of any illness. Done gently, reflexology is a form of foot massage that may help people relax temporarily. Whether that is worth $35 to $100 per session or is more effective than ordinary (noncommercial) foot massage is a matter of individual choice. Claims that reflexology is effective for diagnosing or treating disease should be ignored. Such claims could lead to delay of necessary medical care or to unnecessary medical testing of people who are worried about reflexology findings.

Quackwatch

Clinical Studies and Abstracts

The efficacy of reflexology: systematic review.

Blackwell Synergy - June 2008

The effectiveness of foot reflexology in inducing ovulation: a sham-controlled randomized trial

Elsevier - June 2008

Reflexology treatment for patients with lower limb amputations and phantom limb pain--an exploratory pilot study.

Elsevier - May 2008

The clinical efficacy of reflexology in nursing home residents with dementia.

Mary Ann Liebert - April 2008

Complementary therapies in the management of low back pain: a survey of reflexologists.

Elsevier - Feb 2008

Reflexology in the management of low back pain: a pilot randomised controlled trial.

Elsevier - Feb 2008

A randomised controlled study of reflexology for the management of chronic low back pain.

Elsevier - Nov 2007

Feasibility of a reflexology and guided imagery intervention during chemotherapy: results of a quasi-experimental study.

MetaPress - May 2007

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reflexology.txt · Last modified: 2012/10/16 14:40 (external edit)