Reflexology — The Foot-Body Connection
Devotees of reflexology say the many receptors on the bottom of our feet are key to managing many of our ailments. Lacking evidence, is just feeling good enough?
By Brian Hoyle
Medically Reviewed by Cynthia Haines, MD
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Beyond the feel-good results, does the ancient practice of reflexology have any proven health benefits? Researchers are still looking for the answer.
Reflexology: The Basics
The premise behind reflexology is that different regions of the feet correspond to different areas of the body. By manipulating the specific parts of the feet, the belief is that ailments in other parts of the body can be improved. This idea has been around for thousands of years in China and elsewhere, where reflexology has long been practiced. More recently, early in the 20th century, American physician William Fitzgerald mapped out 10 zones of the body and keyed each zone to a region of the foot. The later finding of so-called reflex points led to the use of the term reflexology to describe the manipulations designed to bring relief.
By gently probing the right foot, practitioners of reflexology (they can include massage or physical therapists, podiatrists, and chiropractors) seek to provide relief to the right side of the body, and vice versa for the left foot.
The basis of reflexology is not known for sure. Feet have been molded by evolution to be highly sensitive to impulses, courtesy of the thousands of nerve endings that are present. Proponents of reflexology claim that the extensive innervation of the feet is key to the flow of what is referred to as “vital energy” thoughout the body. A ready flow of this energy is beneficial, while blockage in the flow due to injury or illness is not. Reflexology aims to restore the proper energy flow.
Not surprisingly, given the claimed full-body benefits of reflexology, practitioners use it for a variety of ailments including anxiety, headache, digestive disorders, incontinence, pain, and fatigue from illnesses such as cancer and diabetes.
Reflexology: The Research
Claims of success and demonstrating success are two different things. This is certainly true when it comes to reflexology. A scientific study published in 2006 concluded that foot reflexology can ease the use of painkillers following general surgery. However, because the study was not peer-reviewed (a practice where other experts in the field judge the merits of the study and recommend its acceptance, or not, for publication), but rather was published in a magazine of the Reflexology Association of America, the possibility of bias cannot be ruled out. This is not to say that the study’s conclusion is not without merit. But a more stringent review of the study is needed before its significance is really known.
The best scientific evidence comes from a 2008 systematic review, a fancy way of describing a study that undertakes a review of other published studies. Among the five published studies on reflexology that were assessed, only one showed any effect that could be related to reflexology, and only for urinary difficulties associated with multiple sclerosis.
So, at least for now, the benefits of reflexology are supported by belief rather than by measurable facts.
Reflexology: The Warnings
Does it matter if the weight of science is not behind reflexology? For some folks, no. The relaxation and stress reduction benefits can go a long way toward making someone feel better. But, for others, more caution is needed. If you are seeking reflexology-mediated relief and have a foot fracture, gout, impaired circulation, or wounds that are still healing, reflexology is not for you. Pregnant women should avoid reflexology, unless their intent is to kick-start labor. Most importantly, reflexology should never be used as a means of treating any condition in the absence of a visit to a physician.
Video: What is Foot Reflexology - Foot Massage And Benefits - How to do Foot Reflexology Step By Step
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