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Reflexology

Reflexology is a complementary therapy that applies gentle pressure to the feet or hands to stimulate energy pathways in the body. 

Summary

  • Reflexology works on energy pathways similar to acupuncture
  • Pressing certain points on the feet is thought to help release energy blockages and restore balance in the body
  • Reflexologists believe that certain points on the feet correspond to organs in the body

What is reflexology?

Reflexology is a technique that applies gentle pressure to your feet or hands to bring about a state of relaxation and help the body's own healing process. 

Reflexology works in a similar way to acupressure and acupuncture. It is thought that there are certain points on the feet and hands that correspond to the organs and glands in the body. So by pressing and massaging these points it can stimulate energy pathways in the body. If any energy pathways are blocked reflexology aims to unblock them, allowing the energy to flow freely again which aims to restore balance to the body. 

If your reflexologist feels tender, sensitive or crunchy sensations on the feet they say it can indicate that an area of your body is out of balance. By pressing the points and working them gently, reflexologists believe that it will kickstart your body's natural healing powers.

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 you:

  • relax and cope with stress and anxiety
  • relieve pain
  • lift your 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.

How you have it

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 to have the treatment. 

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 blockages in energy flow 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.

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. Some people say their feet feel tender afterwards, others can have an emotional response or need to pass urine more often.

Tell your reflexologist about any after effects that you have.

Who shouldn't have reflexology

People with cancer must see reflexologists who have training or experience treating people with cancer. This is because there might be 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

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 randomised controlled trial in 2009 looked at whether reflexology or scalp massage could help improve quality of life in women with early breast cancer, compared to social and physical support on its own. The women were split into 3 groups. They had one of the following:

  • reflexology plus self-initiated support 
  • scalp massage plus self initiated support 
  • self initiated support

Self initiated support meant physical and social support. Each group had the same amount of support.  

The study found that the women in the groups who had scalp massage or reflexology had improved quality of life compared to the group that just had support without a treatment. 

This was a small study and further research is needed. 

How much 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 £65 for a 60 minute treatment. Costs can vary depending on where you live. It is important to have your treatments with a qualified therapist.

A word of caution

Make sure that you see a reflexologist who is properly trained and a qualified practitioner. Most reputable reflexologists are registered with the Association of Reflexologists or the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). 

Reflexology is not a treatment or cure for cancer. 

Questions to ask your CAM therapist

  • 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

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

Last reviewed: 
24 Jan 2019
  • A randomised controlled trial of the psychological effects of reflexology in early breast cancer

    D.M Sharp and others, 2009

    European Journal of Cancer, Vol 46, 312-322

  • Reflexology and Cancer

    A. Unlu and others, 2018

    Journal of Oncological Sciences. Volume 4, 96-101

  • 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

  • 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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