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Reflexology: What Is Its True Potential?

by Mary Martin(more info)

listed in reflexology, originally published in issue 53 - June 2000

How Reflexology Works

Reflex points on the feet and hands connect with all the systems of the body. A connection is not scientifically validated although a relationship is consistently identified in practice. It is theorized that the connection is with channels of subtle energy or via the nervous system. In the 1890s Sir Henry Head of the Neurological Society proved a relationship between the skin and internal organs. He proved that a reflex action could be produced by working on the surface nerves, and that the reflex action can be some distance from the stimulus. I feel both theories are valid.

Fig 1: Reflex points of the left sole (plantar)

Fig 1: Reflex points of the left sole (plantar)

A form of acupressure stimulates the reflexes. The level of pressure is relative to a patient's history, vitality, age and structure of the feet. It's important to get it right. Patients may feel tenderness or sharpness in places. Evaluation of responses is in terms of current disorders, past traumas or general stress. Concerning the latter, the eye reflexes often react with patients who spend hours on computers. Sciatic reflexes may react where a patient's work involves much standing. Patients may be symptom free; however, acting as an early warning system, the therapy has a preventative role. The effects of old, unresolved, traumas can resurface and be healed. A twenty-one year old came to be de-stressed. Afterwards he experienced aches and pains down the right side of his body. These related to a skiing accident that occurred when he was seventeen. Far better to release the trauma than let it become a problem years later. The skin has a wide repertoire of responses; touch is a means of communication that can provoke release of pent-up emotions.

This emotional cleansing helps patients move on. Interpretation of the responses from reflexes requires training and expertise. A case history is always taken, and it is important to know when to make a referral.

Reflexology is well-known for reducing levels of mental and physical stress. It can be blissfully relaxing and these effects are cumulative. It relaxes muscular tension. With further treatment the relaxed state becomes well established leading to improved circulation of blood and lymph. There can be functional improvement to the neuro-endocrine system and the process of homeostasis.

Toxins are removed and the body's innate powers of healing are activated. This is relative to the individual's regenerative powers.

Right Inside

Left Outside

Fig 2: Reflex points of the right inside and left outside foot

Clinical Case Studies

People often turn to reflexology when their problems have become chronic and all other approaches have failed, as in these few examples.

In 1993 John had glandular fever. Four years later he was diagnosed with ME. He came for reflexology in July 1998, experiencing muscle weakness, mental and physical lethargy, chest pain and hyperventilation. He was taking anti-depressants, but managed to work a few hours a week as a self-employed landscape gardener. By the third weekly treatment he took himself off anti-depressants, and a fourth treatment enabled him to work all week, provided he took the next day off to get over the healing crisis. He excreted a lot of toxins through the skin following treatments. Interestingly he had worked with many chemicals in the past. By the eighth treatment he worked six days a week and has done so up to the present, helped by monthly treatments.

Sixty-four year old Margaret consulted me in October 1998 in considerable distress. Eight years previously both her heels became numb, and four years after this her toes and balls of the feet were affected. The medical profession offered no diagnosis or solution.

She had experienced intermittent back pain for twenty years and a frozen shoulder for the past five months. Problems with her feet caused her years of misery, because she thought the numbness would travel to her legs.

Reflexes to sciatic, lower back, and buttocks reacted strongly. I gave extra attention to these and to the shoulder reflexes. She had some feeling in her toes at the end of this session. As the reflexes became less tender, feeling gradually returned and was fully restored by the fifth treatment. The shoulder and back problems were also alleviated. This level of improvement has been maintained.

The associated stress and anxiety have gone. I fail to understand why the obvious connection between the back problem and numbness of the feet had not been diagnosed much earlier.

Thirty year old Anthony, a sportsman, experienced excruciating lower back and leg pain for nine months, and existed on pain killers. No diagnosis was made. Eventually a scan revealed a damaged disc and trapped sciatic nerve. A laminectomy operation was advised, but instead he sought my help. The reflex points corresponding to the sciatic nerves, buttocks, lumbar and sacrum reacted strongly. Within a few treatments he had given up painkillers, was sleeping better and was far more relaxed. Within ten treatments the problem was resolved, and the operation avoided. He resumed competing in athletics and playing football without further trouble. He enjoyed continuing good health for four years, after which we lost touch.

Fifty year old June presented several problems, the most distressing being hyperparathyroidism, diagnosed eight years previously. She had hypertension (200/90) and oedema in her legs and feet of twenty year's duration. At one stage she had fifty kidney stones removed! She was depressed after being told by a doctor that her condition would shorten her life, and was concerned that her husband would not cope without her! An operation to remove the parathyroids was pending. Four days later she was due to attend hospital for further tests.

After her first treatment she delighted in seeing a reduction in the swelling. Her ankle bones were visible and her shoes were loose. These visible signs of improvement gave her hope. She went off uplifted. She reported passing an enormous amount of urine after this treatment.

Regarding tests, the doctor remarked that he could not understand why her calcium levels had dropped so much or that her blood pressure was the lowest for three years, being 130/80. Weekly treatments continued. During this time urinary output increased and the oedema was greatly reduced. By the seventh treatment there was no oedema, depression had lifted, and she looked fitter and happier.

She kept a further appointment with a professor to discuss the operation. He said her that calcium levels had reduced so much that an operation was no longer necessary. After telling him about her reflexology sessions he said that he was pleased to know the reason why.

In June's case, reflexes to the parathyroids, left kidney (probably due to scar tissue), urinary and lymphatic systems reacted.

Throughout the sessions the left eye reflex also reacted. Despite advising her to see an eye specialist, she did not do so until fourteen months later. The specialist diagnosed a cataract in that eye. We were in touch for a further two years, during which time she enjoyed continued good health.

Reflexology within the NHS

Earlier treatment could have prevented much pain and distress in these cases, and made savings in NHS resources. Fortunately there is now some integration within the NHS. I was invited to work in the Maternity Dept. of Whipps X Hospital in Spring of 1987. Pregnant women were referred for reflexology by their consultants. Treatment helped them achieve healthy pregnancies by counteracting conditions such as nausea, back pain, migraines, digestive upsets, hypertension and oedema. Most women gave birth naturally.

Midwives whom I have taught use reflexology on labour wards to help with contractions. I have given treatment to women with overdue pregnancies who have started labour two hours after treatment. After the birth it can help re-balance the hormones, aid milk production and reduce the stress of being a new mum (or dad). A surprising number of seemingly infertile couples have conceived following a course of treatment. Menstrual problems respond very well too.

Several hospitals are following the example of Mount Vernon by setting up complementary therapy centres within cancer units. It has been demonstrated that reflexology can help reduce, or alleviate the side-effects of cancer treatments, as well as helping patients cope with the stress of having this disease.

Importance of Training and Standards

Reflexologists adopt the holistic approach, claiming to treat the patient rather than the disease. It is not so simplistic. Whilst disorders are not viewed in isolation, they need to be acknowledged and understood. They cannot be disregarded any more than one can disregard the feelings of a recently bereaved person who comes for treatment. How else can treatments be directed to achieve optimum results for a particular patient? How else can contraindications be determined, or a decision taken about making referral? In what other way can we understand the patient's perception of their ailments? Healing reactions also need to be monitored and understood. Therapists need to have a sound knowledge and understanding of anatomy and physiology and common disorders.

Reflexology is not a mechanical process. Whilst an effective technique is crucial for a positive outcome, many other skills are required. Non-specific aspects of treatment in terms of conveying empathy, warmth and mutual trust are also important. Good communication skills are essential in the therapeutic relationship. In terms of philosophy, possible outcome, and limitations, clear explanations about the therapy should be conveyed. Therapists need to see things from a patient's perspective. A common concern of people coming for treatment is their feeling of not being in control. Patients need to be involved in their own healing process and encouraged to make meaningful changes. Healing is more likely to take place in this kind of environment.

It is hard to find credible research into this therapy although there is a considerable amount of anecdotal evidence. There are no national standards of training and therefore levels of competence vary enormously. Prospective patients may not be concerned about scientific validation, but they are concerned about receiving treatment from a well-trained therapist. The present situation is also confusing for those wishing to take up training, because training standards vary considerably within umbrella organisations.

In his article in Positive Health last June, Mark Kane raised several important issues concerning competence. He pointed out that university courses are validated by a panel of academics from other disciplines and institutions. This ensures that courses are taught to an appropriate academic standard. He pointed out that the British Acupuncture Council have non-acupuncturists members that represent the interests of patients and they are consulted on legal, educational, and medical matters.

As self-regulation appears not to work for reflexology, this sort of arrangement might help it achieve the standards of competence necessary to reach its full potential, and earn its place alongside mainstream complementary medicine.


Mitchell A, Cormack M. The Therapeutic Relationship in Complementary Health Care. Churchill Livingstone ISBN 0-443-05319-7. 1998.
Head H. Aphasia and Kindred Disorders. Hafner, New York, p48l. 1963.
Kane M. Are You Qualified to Practice? Positive Health. June 1999.


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About Mary Martin

A qualified teacher, Mary Martin established her School of Reflexology in 1987. She founded the Association of Reflexologists in 1984 and is an Honorary Life Member. Previously she practised as a Gerson therapist. Mary belongs to a network of therapists attached to the cancer centre at Mount Vernon Hospital. She has had a busy practice in Ruislip since 1983. She may be contacted on Tel: 01895 635621;

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