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What reflexology is

Reflexology means applying pressure and massage to areas on your feet and hands. The feet are the most common area to treat. According to reflexologists, you have reflex areas in your feet that match every part of your body. Therapists claim that there is a map of the left side of your body on your left foot, and the right side of your body on your right foot. For example, your left big toe represents the left side of your head, and a point around the ball of your right foot represents your right lung. These maps can vary a little between different branches of reflexology.

Reflexology has been used for centuries. It is thought to have been developed originally by the ancient Egyptians. It is one of the most popular types of complementary therapy in the UK among people with cancer.


How reflexology works

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. 

You can read our information about acupuncture.

A sharp or tender feeling (or what reflexologists sometimes describe as a crunchy sensation) can indicate that an area of your body is out of balance. Therapists think that you become ill when energy pathways are blocked, and unblocking them can restore energy and balance.


Why people with cancer use reflexology

People with cancer may try reflexology as a way to

  • Relax and cope with stress and anxiety
  • Help relieve pain
  • Help lift their mood and give a feeling of well being.

There is some evidence that reflexology can help.

Some people think that reflexology can help to 

  • 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)

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


What reflexology involves

On your first visit, your reflexologist will ask you some general questions about your health, lifestyle and medical history. If they have any concerns that reflexology could interfere with your health, or with any drugs you are currently taking, they might ask to speak to your GP.

A reflexology session usually lasts between 45 to 60 minutes. You’ll usually lie down for the treatment or sit in a reclining chair. Your reflexologist will use their fingers and thumbs to apply pressure to your feet or hands. Most people say that having reflexology feels relaxing and soothing. Pressure on some areas may be uncomfortable or slightly painful. Your therapist may tell you that this discomfort relates to problems in a particular part of your body. 

Your reflexologist may suggest a course of treatments rather than just one. If you are paying for your treatments, this can be expensive, so always check with your therapist how much they charge and how many sessions they recommend before booking your treatment.


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. But it is very popular among people with cancer. 

Some studies have looked at using reflexology to help with cancer symptoms such as pain, sickness and anxiety. Results from these studies are mixed and most involved small numbers of patients so it is difficult to see if the reflexology had any effect. Some studies had no control group, or the control group did not have a similar intervention to the reflexology. Again, this makes it difficult to see if it is the reflexology that is causing any difference between the groups. It could be the attention of the therapist that helps people to feel relaxed, for instance, rather than the reflexology itself.

A systematic review in 2008 looked at all the research into using reflexology for any condition from 1996 to 2007. Among the 5 studies suitable for review, the only condition for which reflexology showed a benefit was urinary symptoms due to multiple sclerosis. The researchers advised that routine use of reflexology in other conditions is not recommended. 

The review was updated in 2011 and 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 and it wasn't possible to be sure whether reflexology worked or not. 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 and we need more research. 

A study in 2007 looked into partners giving reflexology treatment to people with cancer that had spread. 86 patients took part. In one group patients' partners were taught how to give reflexology by a qualified reflexologist. The partners then gave the patient a 30 minute reflexology session. In the other group the partners just read to the patients for 30 minutes. In the reflexology group the patients had significantly reduced pain and less anxiety. But this was a small study and we need more research before we will know if reflexology really does help to reduce pain and anxiety in people with cancer.


Side effects of reflexology

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.


Who shouldn’t use reflexology

If you have cancer, you need to see a reflexologist who has training in 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.

Other conditions where reflexology might not be suitable include

  • 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

If you have any of these conditions check with your doctor or specialist nurse before having reflexology.


The cost of reflexology treatments

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. 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. You can see their details below.

It is vital that the person who treats you is properly trained and qualified. The best way to find a reliable therapist is to

  • Contact one of the reflexology organisations and ask for a list of reflexologists in your area
  • Ask the therapist how many years of training they've had and how long they've been practicing
  • Ask if they have treated people with cancer before
  • Ask if they have indemnity insurance (to cover them, and you, if anything went wrong)

You can read more about finding a reliable therapist and the questions you should ask.


Useful organisations

Association of Reflexologists
Victoria House
Victoria Street
Phone: 01823 351010

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.

Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC)
CNHC is the UK regulator for complementary healthcare practitioners and covers reflexology therapists. Its key function is to improve public protection by giving the general public access to a list of practitioners who meet national standards of competence and practice. Registered practitioners are able to use the CNHC quality mark on certificates and publicity materials.

Phone: 0207 653 1971

The Federation of Holistic Therapists (FHT)
18 Shakespeare Business Centre
Hathaway Close
SO50 4SR
Phone: 023 8062 4350

The Federation of Holistic Therapists is the leading 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.

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Updated: 5 February 2015