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Reflexology in the treatment of illness.

Reflexology - does gentle massage to your feet actually help treat or relieve the symptoms of illness? This World Reflexology Week we look at what the science says.   2015-09-30

There is evidence that some type of foot and hand therapy was practiced in the ancient world by the Chinese and Egyptians. An inscription in an ancient Egyptian tomb depicts a physician applying some type of foot therapy. The hieroglyphic inscription reads; "don't hurt me" to which the physician replies "I shall act so you praise me". Reflexology as we know it however, was pioneered by Dr William Fitzgerald (1872-1942) who called it 'Zone Therapy'. It was first brought to the attention of the general public in an article published in “Everybody’s Magazine" entitled “To stop that toothache, squeeze your toe”. According to the author of the article Edwin Bower, when we clutch a painful part of the body it is more than an instinct. Bower writes that according to Dr Fitzgerald, this action "produces a form of pain-deadening - the doctors call it analgesia - somewhat similar to the injection of ---some anesthetic solution into a nerve". A physiotherapist named Eunice Ingham extended Dr Fitzgerald's theory, mapping the feet with all the corresponding organs and glands of the body. Ingham's nephew Dwight Byers is the current President of the US based 'International Institute of Reflexology'. Ingham is known as the pioneer of modern reflexology.

What is reflexology?

Reflexology is a complementary therapy that involves using massage to the feet and hands but it is more common for the feet area to be used. The theory behind reflexology is that different points in the feet and hands reflect parallel parts of the body and by applying pressure to a zone of the feet that corresponds to the 'sick' limb, the practitioner is positively causing physical change in the body. Reflexologists believe that in the feet there are reflex areas that correspond to the entire body. These areas are arranged in the form of a map with the right foot corresponding to the right side of the body and the left foot to the left side. This enables the practitioner to treat the whole body.

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What does the science say?

There are claims that reflexology can reduce pain and enhance relaxation, sleep and help deal with anxiety and depression. Other studies claim that reflexology reduces pain, nausea, diarrhoea or constipation, and improves the quality of life of cancer patients. Cancer Research UK says that there is no evidence that reflexology can treat cancer but it does help patients cope with stress and may relieve pain.

According to the Association of Reflexologists, a 'well trained' reflexologist will not claim to cure or diagnose. Reflexology is a 'very individual treatment' that takes into account any factor, physical and non-physical that could affect your health. It helps some people and to others, it does not, so the advice given is to give it a try.

The British Reflexology Association also explains that reflexology is not a 'cure-all' but, it says that surveys carried out by them have found that it has helped patients with symptoms of stress, insomnia and irritable bowel syndrome. It quotes the book 'Reflexology for Women' by Nicola Hall which claims that reflexology helps a range of disorders including 'headaches, migraines, sinus congestion, stiffness in the neck and back, digestive problems, hormonal problems'. Others agree that reflexology is very relaxing and imbues the patient with a sense of wellbeing. This may very well be true since any massage will be relaxing and imbue the patient with a sense of wellbeing.


Whether or not reflexology helps, there is no argument that it does no harm. Keep in mind though that it does not treat illness so under no circumstances should you forego medical treat in favour of reflexology.