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A reflexologist writes...

Updated Monday, 17th March 2008

In the Alternative Therapies series, Kathy Sykes investigates the literature and science behind reflexologist's claims that pressure points on the feet mirror (hence "reflexology") parts of the wider body and finds little good evidence in support. But while science does not have evidence for the mechanisms put forward by reflexologists, it still attracts patients and practitioners, many of whom are convinced it offers a genuine benefit. So why are they convinced when - as Hilary MacQueen explains - scientists aren't? In this personal discussion of reflexology, practitioner Elizabeth Rabone offers an insight into her work, how she believes it works, and why she feels it has a role in the modern world.

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Reflexology is the technique of applying gentle pressure on the reflexes on the feet and hands in order to bring about a state of deep relaxation, stimulate the body's own healing processes and help the body return to a state of balance and wellbeing.

A historical perspective

Modern reflexology originated in the US in the early 20th century when Doctor William FitzGerald (1872-1942), an ear, nose and throat surgeon, developed his theory of zone therapy. He charted ten longitudinal zones of the body, each zone ending in a finger or toe, and experimented with pain relief, discovering - so he concluded - that pressure applied to one part of the body could have an anaesthetic effect on another part. His book, Zone Therapy, was published in 1917.

FitzGerald's work was further developed by Doctor Joe Shelby Riley and Eunice Ingham. Ingham was a physiotherapist who worked with FitzGerald; she is considered the mother of reflexology. She believed that congestion, sensitivity or tension in part of the foot mirrored congestion, sensitivity or tension in the corresponding part of the body. It was Ingham who coined the word 'reflexology' and developed many of the techniques used today. She began to map the reflex points onto the feet.

If you look at the feet, you will see that their shape approximates to that of the body; thus the big toe is the reflex for the head and the ball of the foot, below the big toe, is the reflex for the thyroid.

Because these 'zones' are longitudinal and run straight down the body, and because the location of the organs is asymmetrical, the reflexes are not identical on each foot. For example, the reflex for the liver is only on the right foot. The spine reflex does, however, run down the inside of both feet.

How do reflexologists explain their therapy?

There is not much scientific evidence to explain how reflexology works. One explanation put forward is that reflexology perhaps stimulates the release of endorphins (pain-killing substances produced naturally in the brain) by clearing overloaded nerve pathways.

Another possible explanation is that crystalline deposits of the body's waste products (calcium and uric acid) accumulate around the many nerve endings on the foot; these feel crunchy or squidgy. The reflexologist, by working these points, breaks up the deposits and stimulates the circulation, so that the lymphatic and circulatory systems can eliminate them more easily.

Most of the evidence about the effectiveness of reflexology is anecdotal, rather than from clinical trials. Reflexologists and their clients have found reflexology to help relieve conditions such as stress, anxiety, depression, migraine and headaches, and insomnia.

My own clients report that reflexology has helped improve their sleep patterns, and relieve muscle spasms, in particular. Some women have reported finding reflexology treatments beneficial during the menopause, as they help to mitigate some of the symptoms such as fatigue, poor sleeping and feelings of bloatedness.

It should be noted that the Association of Reflexologists code of ethics explicitly says that a reflexologist should neither diagnose nor claim to cure any condition. We see ourselves as complementary therapists, working to support or complement the work of conventional medical practitioners.

What happens during a session?

Reflexologists follow the holistic approach, that is, we see the whole body as one integrated organism and treat a whole person rather than a condition. A full reflexology treatment starts with the reflexologist recording the client's medical history, including illnesses, operations, allergies, any illnesses that run in the family. They will also take details of the client's lifestyle and other factors that could affect their health and wellbeing, worries and stresses as well as sources of support and other good influences on wellbeing.

Then the reflexologist will ensure that the client is lying (or sometimes, if a hand treatment is being given seated) comfortably, with the head, back and knees supported and check the physical condition of the feet (or hands), looking for, for example, hard skin, corns, verrucae and feeling their temperature (cold feet might indicate poor circulation).

Different reflexologists will then go on to treat the reflex points in a different order; I use a basic sequence which starts with the reflex point for the head and various glands within the brain, then the upper body organs such as the lungs, the digestive system, reproductive system and spine.

I then spend more time working (or work repeatedly) those reflex points that feel sensitive to the client or that I detect some 'congestion' with.

The sequence includes massage of the calf muscles and ankles, to stimulate drainage of the lymphatic system and thus eliminate toxins. It finishes with a breathing exercise in which the client does some deep, slow breathing while I stimulate the reflex point for the solar plexus (this is excellent for relieving stress and anxiety). The client then rests (often sleeps) to allow healing to take place and drinks water to flush out toxins.


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