Reflexology is a holistic approach that treats the whole person by applying pressure to specific points on the feet. Practitioners believe that each organ in the body is linked to a particular point on the foot. By massaging the feet, they can tell which organs are out of balance and work to restore harmony. Many hospitals and clinics use reflexology therapy as a complementary treatment for a wide range of disorders, including cancer and brain injury.
There is a growing body of scientific research to support reflexology treatment. In 1996, Dr Wang Liang presented his analysis of 8,096 clinical cases. He assessed 63 disorders, including vertigo and type 2 diabetes, and found ‘foot reflexology to be 93.63% effective in treating 63 disorders’. When he assessed the effectiveness of reflexology through this large number of cases, he found it was
‘Significantly effective (cure) in 48.68% of all cases. Effective or improvement in 44.95%. No effect in 6.37%.’1
Although Dr Liang’s findings are impressive, this is one researcher’s interpretation of the evidence. Thereis a good deal of debate about the effectiveness of reflexology.The majority of support comes from practitioners and patients who believe that it confers real benefits.2
The first reflexology treatment typically begins when the practitioner talks to you about your medical history and lifestyle. Then he or she begins a form of foot massage, concentrating on the areas that relate to your medical problems. A reflexology session usually takes around 45 minutes.
- Possible benefits of Reflexology for stroke
Several clinical studies provide evidence that reflexology can help to improve both movement and mental functioning after a stroke. In 2006, a study in China followed 33 patients, aged between 44 to 78 years, who had suffered a stroke within the previous five years. Their results showed a remarkable improvement in the participants’ ability to walk and use their hands and arms, as well as improvements in speech:
‘There were limb dysfunction in 26 patients and motor aphasia in 7 patients. Foot reflexo-therapy was applied for 30 minutes daily, with 10 days as one course of treatment. The period of treatment ranged from 2 to 7 months. It is reported that after treatment, 11 patients (33.33%) were cured: symptom free, with normal limb function and independent daily life; 20 patients (60.61%) improved: symptom free with improved limb function; and 2 patients (6.06%) were unchanged: no improvement in symptoms and limb function. It was concluded that foot reflexo-therapy can restore the damaged brain function, and revive the limb and speech performance of patients with cerebral thrombotic sequelae [stroke]. It was also proposed that foot reflexo-therapy is useful in the prevention of cerebral thrombosis, as well as in the treatment.’3
These results are supported by previous studies on movement and speech in China, which also concluded that reflexology can significantly help people to recover after a stroke.4
Another study, published in 2005, asked whether reflexology could make a difference to activities of daily living(ADL) and fatigue after a stroke. Thirty-one stroke survivors were treated with 40 minutes of reflexology twice a week for six weeks. Tests showed:
‘After foot reflexology, the subjects in the experimental group showed significant improvement in ADL. They also had less physical, psychological, and neurosensory fatigue, which are three areas of fatigue.’ 5
- Arguments against using Reflexology for stroke
A study published in 2009 contradicts some of the findings we have discussed. Dr Edzard Ernst, Director of Complementary Medicine at the Peninsula Medical School in the UK, conducted an extensive review. He concluded that there is little or no evidence to show that reflexology has any effect on any medical condition. He reviewed 217 trials on the benefits of reflexology for a range of symptoms and conditions. He dismissed 199 trials because he was not satisfied that they were of sufficient size or quality, and excluded their findings. He explains:
‘Of these 18 remaining studies, 12 failed to show convincingly that reflexology is an effective treatment, five suggested positive effects and the direction of one result was unclear. “Most higher-quality trials did not generate positive findings.”’6
Although Dr Edzard Ernst is based on the United Kingdom, he chose to publish his findings in the Medical Journal of Australia. When we consider the findings of any international systematic review, we should remember this: different countries may have different research criteria, which means that a clinical trial might be accepted by one national association but not by another. For example, also in 2009, The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) in the United Kingdom ‘“partially endorsed” the value of reflexology in Multiple Sclerosis care following ten years of research projects’.7 This might go some way towards explaining the different conclusions of Dr Ernst’s review, presented in Australia, compared with the review prepared by Dr Liang, presented in China.8
- Case histories
This article includes a case history by reflexologist Polly Hall. She treated William for stress and a muscular ache in his shoulders. ‘Reflexology for Stroke’ by Polly Hall. Case Study: William
- Notes and references
- ‘An Exploration of the Clinical Indication of Foot Reflexology, A Retrospective Analysis of its Clinical Application to 8096 Cases,’ by Liang, Wang. In China Reflexology Symposium Report, China Reflexology Association, October, 1996, Beijing
- ‘Treatment of 33 cases of Cerebral Thrombotic Sequelae with foot reflexotherapy’ by Zhang Duowen, and Wu Zhaoxia, Hospital under the fifth Bureau, Department of Water and Electricity, China, 2006
- The researchers explain:
Foot reflexology was applied once a day for ten days, every other day for ten days, and once or twice a week for ten days. A review of 38 cases of cerebrovascular accident patients showed a 95% effectiveness rate. Results were evaluated as (1) effective if the “functions of palsy lower limbs got recovered to enable the patient to walk independently in the room and” and (2) remarkably effective if the “function of lower limbs got recovered, digital meticulous action partially recovered, Babinski’s sign turned negative” Results: among the 28 patients of the cerebral thrombosis groups (a) 9 cases showed effect in the first course of treatment and 15 in the second course and (b) 3 cases showed remarkably effective in the second course of treatment and 3 cases in the third course. Among the cerebral infarction group (a) 2 cases showed effective in the first course of treatment and 2 cases in the second and (b) 2 cases showed remarkably effective in the third course of treatment. (‘Treatment of 38 Cases of Ischemic Apoplexy,’ by Wu Zhen-sheng, Li Xue-zhen. In China Reflexology Symposium Report, 1998. China Reflexology Association, Beijing, p1)
- ‘The Effects of Foot Reflexology on ADL and Fatigue in Stroke Patients’ by Song MR, Song HM. In Korean J Rehabil Nurs. 2005 Dec;8(2):139-148.
- ‘Is reflexology an effective intervention? A systematic review of randomised controlled trials’ by Edzard Ernst. In The Medical Journal of Australia 2009; 191 (5): 263-266, a publication of the Australian Medical Association.
- ‘A randomised controlled trial of the impact of a course of Ingham® Reflexology on mobility improvement, quality of life and satisfaction, in persons in primary care, with chronic, stablised, cerebrovascular accident’ by Jennie Levick, National Director, International Institute of Reflexology®, Sheffield.
- ‘An Exploration of the Clinical Indication of Foot Reflexology, A Retrospective Analysis of Its Clinical Application to 8096 Cases,’ by Liang, Wang. In China Reflexology Symposium Report, China Reflexology Association, October, 1996, Beijing
Aviva Cohen is the author and CEO of Neuro Hero