Reflexology is more than just an alternative approach to relieving symptoms. With an expanding research base, reflexology meets the integrative demands of combining complementary therapy and conventional medicine and is a viable component of integrative health care.
Evidence shows reflexology positively affects pain1; stress, anxiety, and depression2; fatigue and sleep3; circulation, skin temperature, edema, and hypertension4; dementia and aging5; and nausea, vomiting, and constipation.6
Reflexology has been studied on every continent, in a variety of populations: cancer patients, pediatrics, pregnancy, postoperative care, and older adults. Studies demonstrate effectiveness for reflexology as a diagnostic tool, as well as a treatment technique. Mechanistic research links reflexive points with brain activity,7 and conventional medical diagnoses correlate with reflexological examinations.8
Researcher Edzard Ernst says there are not enough high quality randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that demonstrate convincingly that reflexology is an effective treatment for any medical condition.9 However, there is a broad base of evidence supporting reflexology as a viable treatment option for symptoms and conditions that currently baffle medical science.
Even though there are some gaps in the research, RCTs may not be the best solution for studying reflexology. Studies vary in the use of trained professionals, self-applied techniques, and treatment provided by caregivers or partners. It would be beneficial to study the degree of effectiveness based on levels of training. In addition, many studies do not adequately define the treatment protocol, using both foot massage and reflexology interchangeably. It would be useful to discover if there is a difference between specific and general applications of touch to the hands and feet. The remedy? Case reports from within the profession might inform more useful and thorough research.
Diana Thompson has created a varied and interesting career out of massage: from specializing in pre- and postsurgical lymph drainage to teaching, writing, consulting, and volunteering. Contact her at email@example.com.
Notes 1. K.M. Wesa and B.R. Cassileth, "Is There a Role for Complementary Therapy in the Management of Leukemia?" Expert Review of Anticancer Therapy 18, no. 9 (2009): 1241-9; H.L. Wang and J.F. Keck, "Foot and Hand Massage as an Intervention for Postoperative Pain," Pain Management Nursing 5, no. 2 (2004): 59-65; N. Degirmen et al., "Effectiveness of Foot and Hand Massage in Postcesarean Pain Control in a Group of Turkish Pregnant Women," Applied Nursing Research 23, no. 3 (2010): 153-8; H. Poole, S. Glenn, and P. Murphy. "A Randomized Controlled Study of Reflexology for the Management of Chronic Low Back Pain," European Journal of Pain 11, no. 8 (2007): 878-87; C.A. Brown and C. Lido C., "Reflexology Treatment for Patients With Lower Limb Amputations and Phantom Limb Pain--An Exploratory Pilot Study," Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice 14, no. 2 (2008): 124-31;
2. R. Quattrin et al., "Use of Reflexology Foot Massage to Reduce Anxiety in Hospitalized Cancer Patients in Chemotherapy Treatment: Methodology and Outcomes," Journal of Nursing Management 14, no. 2 (2006): 96-105; J. Hattan, L. King, and P. Griffiths, "The Impact of Foot Massage and Guided Relaxation Following Cardiac Surgery: A Randomized Controlled Trial," Journal of Advanced Nursing 37, no. 2 (2002): 199-207; S.H Jang and K.H Kim, "Effects of Self-Foot Reflexology on Stress, Fatigue, and Blood Circulation in Premenopausal Middle-Aged Women," Journal of Korean Academy of Nursing 39, no. 5 (2009): 662-72.
3. R.H. Song and D.H Kim, "The Effects of Foot Reflexion Massage on Sleep Disturbance, Depression Disorder, and the Physiological Index of the Elderly," Taehan Kanho Hakhoe Chi 36, no. 1 (2006): 15-24; C.Y. Li et al., "Randomized Controlled Trial of the Effectiveness of Using Foot Reflexology to Improve Quality of Sleep Amongst Taiwanese Postpartum Women," Midwifery 27, no. 2 (2011): 181-6; W. Zhang et al., "A Pilot Study Exploring the Effects of Reflexology on Cold Intolerance," Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies 3, no. 1 (2010): 43-8; Y.M. Lee, "Effects of Self-Foot Reflexology on Stress, Fatigue, Skin Temperature and Immune Response in Female Undergraduate Students," Journal of Korean Academy of Nursing 41, no. 1 (2011): 110-18.
4. S.H. Jang, "Effects of Self-Foot Reflexology"; A. Coban and A. Sirin, "Effect of Foot Massage to Decrease Physiological Lower Leg Edema in Late Pregnancy: A Randomized Controlled Trial in Turkey," International Journal of Nursing Practice 16, no. 5 (2010): 454-60; H.S. Park and G.Y. Cho, "Effects of Foot Reflexology on Essential Hypertension Patients," Taeh Kanho Hakhoe Chi 34, no. 5 (2004): 739-50.
5. N.A. Hodgson and S. Andersen, "The Clinical Efficacy of Reflexology in Nursing Home Residents with Dementia," The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 14, no. 3 (2008): 269-75.
6. J.H. Yang, "The Effects of Foot Reflexology"; E. Bishop et al., "Reflexology in the Management of Encopresis and Chronic Constipation," Paediatric Nursing 15, no. 3 (2003): 20-1.
7. T. Nakamaru et al., "Somatotopical Relationships Between Cortical Activity and Reflex Areas in Reflexology: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study," Neuroscience Letters 448, no. 1 (2008): 6-9.
8. I. Raz, Y. Rosengarten, and R. Carasso, "Correlation Study Between Conventional Medical Diagnosis and the Diagnosis by Reflexology," Harefuah 142, no. 8-9 (2003): 600-5.
9. E. Ernst, "Is Reflexology an Effective Intervention?" The Medical Journal of Australia 191, no. 5 (2009): 263-6.