Best Foot Forward

Body balance through reflexology, a therapy that’s growing up.

By Sascha Zuger

May 2009


The first footprint of reflexology—based on the principle that the body is mapped on the soles of the feet, hands and ears—might have been a pictograph on a tomb in ancient Egypt. Containing the remains of a famous Egyptian physician, this tomb’s artwork showed foot manipulation therapy in progress between healer and patient.

Other examples have been found in ancient Asia, though the American Reflexology Certification Board (ARCB, www.arcb.net) attributes modern reflexology to William Fitzgerald, MD, and Joe Shelby Riley, MD, in the 1920s. Physiotherapist Eunice D. Ingham expanded on their work and named the therapy she developed “Foot Reflexology.” Her books, dating back to 1938, are still sold today.

Trained practitioners believe that this form of manual manipulation boosts general health and allows for better body balance through improved biomechanics, lymphatic drainage and venous circulation. Reflexology is also thought to trigger muscle relaxation and stimulate pathways within the nervous system. Although reflexology has generally been seen as an alternative therapy, it is increasingly being defined as complementary as more traditional doctors find benefits—physical, mental and emotional—among a wide range of patients.


Researchers are starting to measure reflexology’s effects on a number of ailments and health issues. Bill Flocco, director of the American Academy of Reflexology (www.americanacademy
ofreflexology.com
), which sponsored the ARCB’s first certification exam in 1982, completed a scientific study (Obstetrics and Gynecology 12/93) of women suffering from premenstrual syndrome to determine whether reflexology could significantly reduce premenstrual symptoms compared with placebo therapy. The results demonstrated a significant decrease in symptoms for the women given true reflexology. Physical and mental symptoms such as back and headaches, insomnia, irritability, forgetfulness, fatigue and depression were markedly improved through reflexology.

The number of new studies grows each year as the practice becomes further entrenched in the world of health and wellness. More than 300 investigations have been published since the initial PMS project (www.reflexologyresearch.net/ResearchCatList.shtml).

Hospital Acceptance

Cardiac surgery patients in the Integrative Cardiac Wellness Program at the Saint Barnabas Heart Center at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center enjoy both state-of-the-art medical technology and the healing therapies of reflexology during their hospitalization. Alternative modalities such as reflexology are also part of the care plan for patients within the center’s stroke recovery program.

Cancer treatment facilities, such as Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, see benefits to patient care. “The MSKCC Integrative Medicine department offers reflexology in addition to general massage therapy,” says Barrie R. Cassileth, MS, PhD, Laurance S. Rockefeller Chair in Integrative Medicine and chief of the Integrative Medicine Service. “It is especially soothing for patients who are frail, recently out of the operating room or terminally ill.” Parents of young cancer patients learn how to perform the therapy on their children. Studies also show reflexology improves quality of life at the palliative stage of cancer, reducing anxiety and chronic pain. “Hospitals across the world have had studies with controls and active groups showing a remarkable difference in pain reduction and the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation, such as nausea,” says Flocco.


“The White House Commission [on Comple­mentary and Alternative Medicine Policy] recognizes reflexology as a Comple­mentary and Alternative Medicine modality. CAM modalities are becoming more popular as people are calling for more alternative treatments,” says ARCB president Michael Rainone. “From the beginning it was clear this was going to be a growing modality and it was important to have a standard of excellence.”

Training Matters

Not every spa or health facility touting “reflexology” offers the same experience. Certified reflexologists are heavily trained to obtain their credentials, receiving a minimum 200 hours training before they can take the certification exam.

“There are...reflexology schools throughout the country that qualify someone to take the exam,” says Rainone. The national exam requires a written test with 300 questions, a hands-on practical test and 90 hours of documented client sessions. More than a thousand reflexol­ogy professionals practice across the country, giving the therapy more professional status since its inception.

But is reflexology the right tool for easing what ails you? Does the treatment benefit those without any specific medical issue or difficulty? “It’s all about stress relief. I don’t know anybody, no matter where they live, who doesn’t have stress. Especially now, in this economy, everybody’s stressed out,” says Rainone. “Reflexology gives the body a chance to relax. I believe that in deep relaxation the body gets a chance to do some cellular repair that it can’t do in normal daily living, because we’re always on the go.”

The intention, Rainone says, is to help the body reach a state of balance. “We call it homeostasis. This is the real benefit of reflexology.”

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