The management of chronic pain has a long way to go so people with arthritis and fibromyalgia often turn to alternative sources for help. Reflexology is one option and there is evidence that people have thought so for thousands of years with some form of hand and foot therapy being practised in Egypt and China as long ago as 2330 BC.
The practice has had thousands of years to evolve and today is a non-invasive complementary health therapy that is based on the theory that different points on the feet, lower leg, hands, face or ears correspond with different areas of the body. Reflexologists believe that working these points or areas aids relaxation and helps improve wellbeing. Reflexologists work holistically with their clients and aim to work alongside standard healthcare to promote better health for their clients.
Reflexologists do not diagnose, prescribe or cure but are there to support each client as a whole person and promote their wellbeing.
Reflexology acknowledges that every person is a unique individual; it is not possible to know in advance how a person will react to a treatment. However, after a treatment, people generally feel relaxed, may sleep better and notice a feeling of improved mood and general wellbeing.
Can it help people with arthritis?
To date there is no scientific evidence to show that reflexology can help reduce symptoms of osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis but little research has actually been carried out. There are plenty of case studies where it has been shown to be helpful. Nicola Hall, chairman of The British Reflexology Association, explains:
“There are reflex areas in the feet for all of the parts of the body and when a treatment is given all of the reflex areas are worked on in both feet to try and restore balance in the body and promote relaxation to help ease symptoms. With specific conditions, certain reflex areas will be of greater importance and with arthritis these include:
- The reflex area to the part affected, eg knee, hip;
- The adrenal glands, which help reduce inflammation;
- The pituitary gland as this controls the function of the adrenal glands and helps reduce pain;
- The parathyroid gland reflex as this helps with calcium levels in blood;
- Areas near to the affected area that may be under added stress, so for an arthritic hip, we would also treat the lower spine;
- ‘Zone related areas’ that can be treated either directly or via the reflex area and these include the shoulder/hip, elbow/knee, wrist/ankle, and hand/foot;
- The solar plexus (for relaxation).”
How might it work?
There are different theories about how reflexology could impact on health.
“The pain gate theory, is based on the idea that the pain stimulus passes through slow acting nerves while the touch stimulus travels through fast acting nerves allowing the touch to block the pain at a higher level of transit,” explains Tracey Smith, reflexology and research manager from the Association of Reflexologists. “This is similar to the idea of rubbing your elbow if you bang it; the pain is less when it has been rubbed. It seems from the varying research projects that have been carried out that reflexology does impact on pain… whether it be through the various routes of illness or through a classic ice pain experiment, reflexology appears to increase pain threshold and tolerance.
“A small research project compared reflexology to Ibuprofen and found that reflexology was statistically better at pain relief than Ibuprofen for menstrual pain, even in the third month of the study when Ibuprofen was administered and reflexology was not.”
Are there any people for whom it is not suitable?
“People with active deep vein thromboses and infectious diseases should not be treated and occasionally there are times when it is advisable for some people not to receive reflexology but actually these are few and far between,” says Tracey. “Older or frailer clients may need an adapted shorter and lighter treatment but will still enjoy the benefits of reflexology.”
How to choose a reflexologist?
Reflexology is not regulated in the UK, which means that anybody can call themselves a reflexologist. So look for someone with good training, insurance, a continuing professional development requirement and a strong support association (such as The Association of Reflexologists, British Reflexology Association or The Federation of Holistic Therapists).
Speak to the practitioner to check they have experience treating arthritis and seem confident to treat your specific condition.
Bear in mind that reflexologists can describe their treatment as being relaxing, able to improve mood, aid sleep and promote a sense of wellbeing. But they cannot legally make any direct or implied health claims beyond these due to the lack of scientific evidence.
Reflexology is unlikely to be available on the NHS but occasionally may be given by a physiotherapist working in the NHS. The cost of a private session depends on the area where the practitioner works and could range from £25 an hour to £80 an hour.
What happens in an appointment?
In the first session a medical history is taken to ensure there is no contraindication to treatment. The practitioner needs to know which reflex areas require extra attention during the treatment session.
The client is then seated in a reclining position on a recliner chair or massage couch with shoes and socks removed. The reflexologist sits at the ends of the feet. The feet are gently cleansed and a foot cream usually applied for easy movement of the reflexologist’s hands.
A little general massage to the feet may start the session to allow the client to get used to having their feet touched and to warm them up if they are cold.
“Each reflex area is worked on usually following a set routine with the right foot being worked first and then the left,” says Nicola. “Then extra attention is given to the important reflex areas for that particular client. During a session some people like to chat to the practitioner while others prefer to lie back and close their eyes and may even fall asleep.”
The whole session lasts for about one hour. At the end clients are given a glass of water and helped out of the chair. Sometimes aftercare advice is given, not least of which is to drink plenty of water.
Reflexologists usually recommend a course of three treatments at weekly intervals. Clients then may decide to continue with treatment at monthly intervals to try to help maintain the balance in the body, or more frequent treatment can be given if desired.
“Reflexology is very relaxing and is particularly beneficial in helping to ease pain,” Nicola says. “And people can do it themselves. A practitioner can explain how massaging the hands – much more accessible than the feet – paying extra attention to the particular areas of pain, can help ease symptoms and improve quality of life.”
- Association of Reflexologists, visit aor.org.uk or tel 01823 351010
- British Reflexology Association, visit britreflex.co.uk or tel 01886 821207
- The Federation of Holistic Therapists, visit fht.org.uk or tel 023 8062 4350
True Story: Jacquie Eldridge, 58 years, Kent
“I have been having reflexology for about a year to help ease my osteoarthritis symptoms. These started when I was a teenager, when my left knee began creaking and feeling uncomfortable, particularly on stairs and long walks. Problems gradually increased over the years until I couldn’t walk without limping, which began to affect my back. In my early fifties my left knee was replaced and I was advised that my right knee will probably follow suit.
“My fingers and toes have been affected too; I had pain in the joints from my early thirties, which eased after about ten years but left the tell-tale knobbly joints.
“In my late forties the base of my thumb joints flared-up and became increasingly problematic, affecting every aspect of my daily life. I couldn’t even rest my hands at night to sleep comfortably. Last year I had an arthroplasty operation on my right hand which, after nine months, has improved the situation. I am booked in to have the other hand operated on soon.
“My husband had received some reflexology as a case-study from a newly practising acquaintance and was so impressed that when a similar opportunity presented itself on our doorstep, he persuaded me to give it a try. Initially I was sceptical and thought I may find it difficult as I am not a great fan of massage and am incredibly ticklish! However, I have at no time felt uncomfortable or awkward during the sessions and have actually been ‘blown away’ by the effects.
“I find it quite incredible that when a particular area of my feet is being gently manipulated, I am aware of a sensation in the back of my head (pituitary gland) which apparently is the natural pain relief being released into my system. My reflexologist has shown me how to self-administer such relief by massaging my thumb.
“Initially I had reflexology twice a week with Fiona Biggs of Dower House Holistic Therapies as a case study, and this has now been reduced to twice a month, which seems to be as effective as previously.
“Reflexology gives me an overall sense of wellbeing that is calming and comforting at times when I feel overwhelmed by stiffness, pain, fragility and negativity. I come away from a reflexology session with a positive mental attitude that sets me up to cope with the bad days.”