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Reflexology

Reflexology is a type of massage where pressure is applied to your feet and hands.

There is no scientific evidence to support the use of reflexology as a treatment for cancer.

Reflexologists believe that having your feet pressed and massaged in a systematic way stimulates the corresponding organs in your body. This releases your body’s natural healing powers and restores health. A reflexologist will gently press your feet to assess your state of health. Pressing these areas is thought to start the healing process, working on energy pathways similar to those used in acupuncture.

How reflexology works

There is no scientific evidence that reflexology can help treat or cure cancer. The theory is that having your feet pressed and massaged in a systematic way stimulates the corresponding organs in your body. This releases your body’s natural healing powers and restores health.

Reflexologists believe that you become ill when energy pathways are blocked, and unblocking them can restore energy and balance.

A sharp or tender feeling (reflexologists sometimes describe this as a crunchy sensation) can indicate that an area of your body is out of balance.

Pressing areas on your feet and hands is thought to start the healing process, working on energy pathways similar to those used in acupuncture.

Why people with cancer use it

Reflexology is one of the most popular types of complementary therapy in the UK among people with cancer.

There is some evidence that reflexology can help to:

  • relax and cope with stress and anxiety
  • help relieve pain
  • help lift their mood and give a feeling of well being

Some people think that reflexology can help:

  • boost the immune system
  • fight off colds and bacterial infections
  • reduce sinus problems
  • reduce back problems
  • change hormonal imbalances
  • overcome infertility
  • reduce digestion problems
  • reduce arthritic pain
  • reduce nerve tingling and numbness from cancer drugs (peripheral neuropathy)

But, there is little or no scientific evidence to prove that reflexology helps any of these conditions at the moment.

What reflexology involves

On your first visit, your reflexologist will ask you some general questions about your health, lifestyle and medical history. They might ask to speak to your GP if they are concerned that reflexology could interfere with any other treatment or drugs that you are having.

A reflexology session usually lasts between 45 to 60 minutes.

You usually lie down or sit in a reclining chair while your reflexologist gently presses your feet and hands to assess your health.

Most people say having reflexology feels relaxing and soothing. But pressure on some areas may be uncomfortable or slightly painful. Your therapist might tell you that this discomfort relates to problems in a particular part of your body.

Your reflexologist may suggest a course of treatments instead of just one session. This can be expensive if you are paying for your own treatment, so always check how much a therapist charges and how many sessions they recommend before booking.

Possible side effects

Generally, reflexology appears to be safe and doesn’t cause many side effects. Because most people feel relaxed after a treatment you might feel a bit light headed.

Others report:

  • tender feet
  • feeling emotional
  • wanting to go to the toilet (to pass urine) more often

Tell your reflexologist about any after effects that you have.

Research into reflexology for people with cancer

There is no scientific evidence to prove that reflexology can cure or prevent any type of disease, including cancer.

It is still a popular form of complementary therapy for people with cancer. Some studies have looked at using it to help with symptoms such as pain, sickness and anxiety.

It is difficult to see if reflexology has any effect for sure because:

  • there are mixed results
  • most studies have been small
  • some trials have not been well designed
  • it could be the attention of the therapist that helps people to feel relaxed, not the therapy itself

A systematic review in 2008 looked at all the research into using reflexology for any condition from 1996 to 2007.

Only 5 studies were found suitable for review and the only condition reflexology showed a benefit for was urinary symptoms due to multiple sclerosis.

The researchers advised that routine use of reflexology in other conditions is not recommended.

The updated review in 2011 included 23 studies. 9 studies showed that reflexology seemed to work well and 5 showed that it didn't work. Some of the other studies were not well designed.

Overall, the review seemed to show that reflexology can have some positive effects for people with diabetes, premenstrual syndrome, cancer, multiple sclerosis, an overactive bladder, and dementia.

But, the evidence is weak so we need more research.

A 2007 study looked into partners giving reflexology treatment to people with cancer that had spread.

In one group, the participants had 30 minutes of reflexology from their partners who had been taught by a qualified reflexologist.

In the other group, the partners just read to the participants for 30 minutes.

The people who had reflexology from their partners had significantly less pain and anxiety.

But this was a small study of only 86 people, so we need more research before we will know if reflexology really does help to reduce pain and anxiety in people with cancer.

Who shouldn’t use it

People with cancer must see reflexologists who have training or experience treating people with cancer. This is because there are specific points on the feet that they need to avoid, or where they should only apply very gentle pressure.

People with diabetes should always ask their doctor before having reflexology. This is because it may interfere with drugs for diabetes.

If you have a pacemaker you need to tell your reflexologist.

Also check with your doctor or nurse before having reflexology if you have any of these conditions:

  • circulatory problems of the feet
  • inflammation or blood clots in the leg veins
  • gout
  • foot ulcers
  • fungal conditions of the feet such as athlete's foot
  • thyroid problems
  • epilepsy
  • a low platelet count, which means you may bruise or bleed more easily

What it costs

Many cancer centres and hospitals in the UK now offer patients reflexology treatments free of charge. So you can ask your nurse or doctor if this is an option on the ward or centre where you have your treatment. If not, they may be able to direct you to voluntary organisations that offer complementary therapy treatments at no cost or a reduced cost.

If you have reflexology privately, it will usually cost between £25 and £50 for a 60 minute treatment. It is important to have your treatments with a qualified therapist.

Finding a reflexologist

Reflexologists can join several associations, but there is no law that says they have to. Nor do they have to finish any specific training.

You should ensure that you see a properly trained and qualified practitioner.

Most reputable reflexologists are registered with the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) or one of the organisations that are part of the Reflexology Forum.

Contact them and ask for a list of reflexologists in your area.

Questions you might ask

  • How many years of training have you had?
  • How long have you been practising?
  • Have you had training for treating and supporting people with cancer?
  • Do you have indemnity insurance? (in case of negligence)

Useful organisations

CNHC is the UK regulator for complementary healthcare practitioners. It protects the public by giving them access to a list of practitioners who have met national standards of competence and practice. Registered practitioners can use the CNHC quality mark on certificates and publicity materials. Most NHS services only use CNHC registered practitioners.

46-48 East Smithfield
London
E1W 1AW

Phone: 0203 668 0406
Email: info@cnhc.org.uk

The Association of Reflexologists (AoR) is a UK membership organisation of well trained and insured reflexologists. The AoR provide advice and guidance to reflexologists, and work with others to promote high standards. Their website has a useful search to find your nearest reflexologist.

Victoria House
Victoria Street
Taunton
Somerset
TA1 3FA

Phone: 01823 351010
Email: info@aor.org.uk

The Federation of Holistic Therapists is the largest professional association for complementary therapists. They have a register of therapists who are qualified, insured, and who follow the FHT strict Code of Conduct and Professional Practice.

Phone: 023 8062 4350
Email: info@fht.org.uk

Last reviewed: 
05 Feb 2015
  • Partner-delivered reflexology: effects on cancer pain and anxiety.
    NL Stephenson and others, 2007
    Oncology Nursing Forum. Volume 34, Issue 1

  • The efficacy of reflexology: systematic review.
    MY Wang and others, 2008
    Journal of Advanced Nursing. Volume 62, Issue 5

  • Foot massage. A nursing intervention to modify the distressing symptoms of pain and nausea in patients hospitalized with cancer.
    L Grealish and others, 2000
    Cancer Nursing. Volume 23, Issue 3

  • The effect of foot reflexology on pain in patients with metastatic cancer.
    N Stephenson and others, 2003
    Applied Nursing Research. Volume 16, Issue 4

  • The effects of foot reflexology on anxiety and pain in patients with breast and lung cancer.
    N Stephenson and others, 2000
    Oncology Nursing Forum. Volume 27, Issue 1

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in.

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