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Reflexology refers to the massage of certain areas of the foot, and sometimes the hands, to improve health in other areas of the body. First proposed as “Zone Therapy” by William H. Fitzgerald in 1913 and later standardized as foot reflexology by Eunice D. Ingham, the practice purports most often to lessen stress and relieve tension in specific areas of the body corresponding to specific areas on the foot or hand. Many practitioners also make claims of being able to predict future problems in organs or systems that are currently symptom free.
Reflexology is one of a host of alternative medical practices that suggest that one part of the body contains a map of the human being that the reflexologist can interact with in order to affect other parts of the body. Acupuncture, iridology, the study of the iris of the eye, and phrenology, the use of the landscape of the skull to predict health problems, all work under the same assumption.
The proposal that the foot has connections to all parts of the body and can affect different organ systems has no basis in modern physiology. Nerves which are found in the foot only travel between the motor and sensory parts of the brain which affect the foot and no other organ system. The energy or toxins that reflexologists purport to release has never been substantiated or described in any way. Reflex in human physiology represent a close loop between sensory and motor parts of a neuronal pathway. Therapeutic claims made by reflexiologists cannot be explained by any of the reflexes known to modern science.
Two systemic reviews of all of the clinical trials of reflexology concluded that there is no evidence that the practice is any better than non-professional foot massage and is no better than placebo for any of the claims that have been tested. The lack of predictability which has been described in studies by William T. Jarvis, PhD, is often side-stepped when reflexologists claim to be describing future problems in an organ system; claims which remain untested and which defy practical study design.
Reflexology feels good, just like a foot massage feels good, but there is no evidence that it cures any specific condition. The claim that it unblocks energy flows or releases toxins is unsupported by modern physiology and biochemistry. Reflexology remains stuck in a pre-scientific world view that uses wishful thinking to justify its claims.
Wang MY, Tsai PS, Lee PH, Chang WY, Yang CM. The efficacy of reflexology: systematic review. J Adv Nurs. 2008 Jun;62(5):512-20.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18489444 Accessed Nov 1 2010.
E. Earnst. Is reflexology an effective intervention? A systematic review of randomised controlled trials. Med J Aust. 2009 Sep 7;191(5):263-6.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19740047 Accessed Nov 1 2010
Klenerman, Leslie, Wood, Bernard A. , Griffon , Nicole L. The human foot: a companion to clinical studies. Birkhäuser, 2005