Reflexology: Science proving what we’ve known for 1000’s of years

Ignaz Semmelweis was a genius. Born in 1818 he was the first person to link dirty hands to deaths on hospital wards. Anyone today would think this the most glaringly obvious discovery but at the time he was ridiculed and even lost his job in Austria because of it.

He worked on a maternity ward in a Viennese hospital. In the 1800s most women delivered their babies at home and were only taken to hospital because of poverty, illegitimacy or complications. Shockingly, 25-30% of mothers died from childbirth while in hospital.  Doctors were convinced the infection was due to over crowding, poor ventilation or even the onset of lactation. Semmelweis took it upon himself to investigate further and he found the cause was bacteria. The chief of the hospital strongly objected to his research saying the deaths were unpreventable.

Semmelweis realised that his students were transferring infections between patients. He couldn’t show them the physical evidence, as they didn’t have the equipment at the time to see the bacteria. However, he instructed his students to wash their hands in a solution of chlorinated lime in-between patients. He had joined the hospital in 1844 and by 1848 no one had died during childbirth in that year. A year later he was dropped from his post as his peers were still unconvinced by his discovery. He joined another maternity ward in a Hungarian hospital and their mortality rate dropped to 0.85% while in Vienna the rate had risen again to 10-15%. His ideas were accepted and understood in Hungary while in Austria, his peers remained mostly hostile. Sadly the years of controversy eventually undermined his spirit and he was taken to a mental hospital where he shortly died in 1865.

It makes me think. What else is there still to be discovered? What else is happening around us that we just can’t see or don’t have the technology at the moment to find? So many illnesses like fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety and chronic fatigue syndrome have no physical evidence – they won’t show up on a scan or in a blood test. They don’t appear as a rash or broken limb yet this doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Maybe we won’t believe this was true in 10-20 years time when more crucial discoveries have been made.

Time after time the scientific community slam reflexology because of the lack of scientific evidence to support it even though it’s been practised for 1000’s of years. The first record of Reflexology is in an Egyptian tomb in Ankhamor dating 2330BC.

In 2000 The House of Lords Select Committee published a report on Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) to give an in depth analysis of what was going on within this field. The Committee was very keen that there should be professional standards, registration and accountability in all aspects of CAM.

They described reflexology as:

“A system of massage of the feet based on the idea that there are invisible zones running vertically through the body, so that each organ has a corresponding location in the foot. It has also been claimed to stimulate blood supply and relieve tension.”

Within this report, all CAM therapies were divided into one of three groups and reflexology sits within Group Two: A complimentary therapy which lacks a firm scientific basis and is not regulated to protect the public, but gives help and comfort to many people.

However THERE IS scientific research taking place to prove how reflexology can have a very real impact on our bodies. Two studies took place in Japan in 2008 and 2013. They examined the somatotopical relationship (point-for-point correspondence of an area of the body to a specific point on the central nervous system) between cortical activity and sensory stimulation of the reflex areas during reflexology. Their findings showed that the reflexology stimulation does induce a somatosensory process corresponding to a stimulated reflex.

This year a further clinical study is being lead by Dr. Stefan Posse, an internationally recognised neuroscientist at the University of New Mexico (UNM) Medical School’s Human Brain Imaging Research Laboratory.

They are using today’s technology to prove reflexology concepts that have been around for thousands of years. The researchers are going to use brain imaging to study what happens in the brain and spinal cord during a reflexology session.

There are two studies forecast. In the first, each participant will have reflexology on a specific reflex area on their feet and the brain imaging will record what is happening in their brain and spinal cord in real time. The team of neuroscientists will then assess the results to determine which part of the brain responds to the reflexology. The second clinical study will assess the brain and spinal cord when participants have reflexology for a specific health concern.

Kevin Kutz, the Reflexologist providing the reflexology knowledge for these clinical studies wrote, “Imagine: we could be able to peer inside the brain and spinal cord to map reflexology’s path in the body, continuing a trail from humankind’s past into its future. What treasures might we find? Where could new discoveries lead? This is going to be crucial evidence for how reflexology can help health, wellness and medicine.”

Looking for further research I found The Association of Reflexology’s library of material and I chose one piece at random: “Reviewing the effect of reflexology on the pain and certain features and outcomes of the labour on the primiparous women.” (primiparous – a women who has borne only one child).

The study took place in 2010 involving 88 women in an Iranian hospital aged between 18 and 36 years old. They were randomly split into two groups. Group 1 had reflexology for 60 minutes as they entered the active stage of labour. Group 2 did not receive any reflexology.

The results showed reflexology reduced the length of labour, labour pain intensity and postpartum haemorrhaging. The researchers concluded reflexology should be used in hospitals to help prevent the use of pharmacological methods and palliative medicines that could lead to side effects. Good news but why isn’t this common practice?

This month there has been a visible shift in the Government’s mindset after many years of lobbying by Association of Reflexologists. Reflexology was mentioned in Government documentation for the FIRST time on 24th February 2021 when they published their Reopening of Businesses and Venues Guide. Reflexology was actually written under Holistic Therapy. Since the original lock down of 2020 (and before) reflexology has never even been mentioned and was just lumped under ‘close contact services including massage parlours’. Thankfully the Government have now changed their rather seedy description from massage parlours to massage centres.

I’m not going to change everyone’s opinions over night but technology is changing and more and more evidence is coming. I hope one day we’ll have the ability to prove easily how reflexology can help and make a difference. These more research studies taking place can only help make reflexology accountable.

Sadly as an unregulated profession, anyone can find a reflexology course for £9.99 that proudly proclaims you’ll be accredited and able to run your own business after watching their online videos and reading their manual. If you had reflexology with someone who has just looked on line for a couple of hours, of course it will be a bad experience and you’ll say reflexology is just a massage, if that. I would too! If you are looking for a reflexologist please find an accredited Association of Reflexology practitioner who you know has been taught thoroughly and professionally.

Until then, those who love having it and feel the benefits please keep on coming. And the sceptics, who are missing out what they presume is just a foot massage, why don’t you give it another try? Please please go to an Association of Reflexology accredited reflexologist and not the crazy foot lady down the road who passed her online course while watching Coronation Street.

Kathryn Allen, Member of the Association of Reflexologists



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