Could reflexology be as effective as painkillers? Lisa Salmon reports.
Fans of reflexology have long since sung the praises of its benefits.
Based on ancient Chinese practices, it involves carefully applying pressure to specific areas – mainly in the feet, hands and ears – to treat health complaints elsewhere.
The core principle is that these pressure points relate to other specific parts, or functions, of the body.
As well as being cited as potentially offering relief for a long list of ailments, including headaches, aches and pains and depression, reflexology’s offered as a relaxing, stress-busting treatment. And its popularity has soared in recent years, with numerous spas and practitioners offering the therapy across the UK.
However, though recognition of the benefits of complementary medicines has increased, with some GPs even advising patients to give them a go, lack of scientific proof has meant some medics are sceptical.
But a recent study by the University of Portsmouth found that, in certain circumstances, it may be as effective as painkillers.
The small study saw 15 people submerge their hands in ice-cold water. In one session they were given reflexology beforehand, and in another they believed they were receiving pain relief from a TENS machine that wasn’t actually switched on.
Around 40 per cent of those who had reflexology first were able to keep their hand in the water for longer before it felt painful, and 45 per cent were able to tolerate the pain longer.
Dr Carol Samuel, a trained reflexologist and co-author of the study, said: “As we predicted, reflexology decreased pain sensations.
“It’s likely that reflexology works in a similar manner to acupuncture by causing the brain to release chemicals that lessen pain signals.
“It looks like it may be used to complement conventional drug therapy in the treatment of conditions that are associated with pain, such as osteoarthritis, backache and cancers.”
The authors say this is the first time reflexology has been scientifically tested as a treatment for acute pain.
However, other less rigorous studies have in the past had similar findings, including 2010 Iranian research which found reflexology was more effective than Ibuprofen in reducing period pain intensity and duration.
The Association of Reflexologists (AoR) believes there are several theories as to how reflexology works.
Many believe it is similar to acupuncture in that it stimulates meridians (energy lines) in the body through applying pressure to specific points. This is thought to release blockages in energy.
Some believe internal organs adjust to the sensory input of a therapeutic touch, and other theories include the possibility that reflexology releases endorphins and encephalins – the body’s natural painkillers.
AoR fellow and reflexologist Rosanna Bickerton said: “It’s lovely and relaxing, and when the body’s relaxed it’s more able to bring itself into balance and heal itself. It’s a therapy that’s been tested by time.”
To find a local reflexologist visit the Association of Reflexologists website at www.aor.org.uk/find-a-reflexologist.