Reflexology can be as effective as painkillers in some cases, according to a new study. 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. And 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.

Its popularity has soared in recent years, with spas and practitioners offering the therapy across the UK. However, although 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.

A study by the University of Portsmouth looks likely to change that even further, after researchers 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.

Those who had reflexology first were able to keep their hand in the water for longer before it felt painful (40 per cent), and were able to tolerate the pain longer (45 per cent).

Dr Carol Samuel, a trained reflexologist and coauthor of the study, says: “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.”

She says that this is an early study and more are needed, but adds: “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.”

So how does it work? The Association of Reflexologists (AoR) says there are several theories.

Many believe the therapy works in a similar way to acupuncture, by stimulating 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.

THE AoR says Japanese research from 2008, using MRI scans, showed a link between foot reflexology points and a brain reaction, suggesting the link from pressure points to organs occurs through a blood flow reaction in the brain.

AoR fellow and reflexologist Rosanna Bickerton has worked in pain research and says she’s not surprised by the recent Portsmouth University findings.

She stresses that people in pain should always seek conventional treatment as medically advised first, and points out: “Reflexologists find that people in pain come to us when the conventional system doesn’t work for them, which is hard for us, because we’re getting the really tough ones to deal with.”

She says the therapy’s also very good for stress and sleep problems, and people will often have it as a one-off treat.

However, she advises that for reflexology to make a difference, regular sessions are needed.

“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 practitioner, visit the Association of Reflexologists at find-a-reflexologist