Reflexology: another daft New Age idea

BunkumAs medicine, reflexology is bunk. Just like iridology and phrenology. Of course, you knew that. But not everyone does.

Reflexology popped up recently in a shared post on Facebook (a popular venue for moving codswallop and cat photos from one user to another at the speed of light…). Coincidentally it appeared right after a post promoting a piece in the New York Review of Books called, The Age of Ignorance.

How apropos. (I’ll get to that NYRB piece in another post, along with some comments about Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows.)

As a massage, reflexology offers the same benefits for your feet as any other type of massage. It’s just not medicine.

The Skeptic’s Dictionary says:

Reflexology is based on the unsubstantiated belief that each part of each foot is a mirror site for a part of the body. The big toe, for example, is considered a reflex area for the head. As iridology maps the body with irises, reflexology maps the body with the feet, the right foot corresponding to the right side of the body and the left foot corresponding to the left side of the body. Because the whole body is represented in the feet, reflexologists consider themselves to be holistic health practitioners, not foot doctors.

They’re not doctors at all, but let’s not dwell on correspondence-course graduates handing out medical advice.

The National Council Against Health Fraud has an article on reflexology that warns,

Reflexology has almost no potential for direct harm, but its ability to mislead well-meaning people into believing that it can be used for screening for health problems, or that it has real therapeutic value could lead to serious problems…

Penn and Teller chime in on this and related quackery with their usual, acerbic wit:

The experts generally say reflexology in itself isn’t harmful unless you use it as a cure for a real disease or a diagnostic tool.

It isn’t medicine. Reflexologists can’t tell you any more about your health, or your body’s condition that your cat can. Reflexology can’t cure anything.

It can be a nice, relaxing foot massage that – like any form of massage – is relaxing, comforting and relieves stress. And makes your feet feel happy. Feet are important, as the song below says. So reflexology has some usefulness outside the New Agey goop that attaches to it.


It just isn’t medicine (alternative or otherwise).

Over on Skeptic North, writer Kim Hebert takes on reflexology and what she calls “homunculus theories of the body” (a very clever description, that is). She points out that many of these popular pseudosciences base themselves on two arguments:

The claims above appear after an argument from antiquity (the ancient Egyptians used it) and an argument from popularity (Europeans like it and it’s gaining popularity in North America), but there is no statement of evidence. They say only that reflexology is based on a premise, however premises can be wrong.

Neither claim has a valid basis in logic: they are fallacious arguments. But reflexology isn’t ancient, so we can rule out that one from the start. As Skeptoid tells us, it’s only a century old and replete with pseudoscience:

Developed in 1913 by a man named William Fitzgerald as “zone therapy”, reflexology is based on the New Age definition of the word “energy”. Fitzgerald believed that a mystical force field, not understood by science, that he called “bioelectric energy”, ran through the body in ten vertical bands corresponding to your ten digits. Modern practitioners call Fitzgerald’s mystical energy field “life force”, and believe that adepts can manipulate this force field to promote any type of wellness in any part of the body, all through actions that correspond to a conventional foot massage.

If popularity alone was the basis for anything, Sarah Palin would be president of the US and federal law would prohibit teaching science and evolution in schools. Remember smoking? It was once popular. Then we got wise about cancer and health, and today it’s just stupid. But I digress.

Quackwatch notes:

Since reflexology is not recognized by law, no formal training is required to practice reflexology or call oneself a reflexologist. However, some nurses and massage therapists offer reflexology as part of their licensed practice. Some courses are accredited for continuing education for nurses and massage therapists. The most widely publicized training source is probably the International Institute of Reflexology, of St. Petersburg, Florida, which claims to have 25,000 members worldwide [9]. Its seminar on the “Original Ingham Method of Foot Reflexology” are taught by Ingham’s nephew, Dwight Byers. Its “Certified Member” status requires 200 hours of instruction plus passage of written and practical tests. As far as I know, this certification process has neither legal nor medical recognition.

Two hundred hours of instruction? In a six-hour school day that would mean about six weeks. Less than one university semester. Real doctors study for seven (or more) years plus years of internship. So which one should you trust for medical treatment?

Review after review of clinic trials concluded reflexology doesn’t work as a medical treatment. However, some studies found as a foot massage it’s good for aching feet, it can relax patients, and even promote sleep:

  • It is concluded that the best clinical evidence does not demonstrate convincingly reflexology to be an effective treatment for any medical condition. source
  • The best evidence available to date does not demonstrate convincingly that reflexology is an effective treatment for any medical condition. Source
  • Collectively, the existing evidence does not convincingly show that reflexology is effective for breast cancer care. Source
  • There is no evidence for any specific effect of reflexology in any conditions, with the exception of urinary symptoms associated with multiple sclerosis. Routine provision of reflexology is therefore not recommended. Source.
  • Although this study was too small to reach a definitive conclusion on the specific effect of foot reflexology, the results suggest that any effect on ovulation would not be clinically relevant. Sham reflexology may have a beneficial general effect, which this study was not designed to detect. Source
  • On the basis of these results there is nothing to suggest that reflexology produces any specific benefit for patients with IBS. Source.
  • Controlled studies of magnets and reflexology failed to demonstrate any increased benefit of treatment over placebo. Source
  • Foot reflexology was not shown to be more effective than non-specific foot massage in the treatment of psychological symptoms occurring during the menopause. Source
  • This systematic review found that although reflexology has been shown to have an effect on selected hemodynamic variables, the lack of methodological control for nonspecific general massage effects means that there is little convincing evidence at this time to suggest the existence of a specific treatment-related hemodynamic effect. Furthermore, the review found that few studies of reflexology controlled for nonspecific effects in order to isolate any specific active component, despite the hemodynamic claim being a key part of the therapeutic value of reflexology. Therefore, further research approaches using more innovative designs and robust methods that can allow a treatment-induced, therapeutically beneficial hemodynamic effect to reveal itself are needed to help reflexology purchasers make a more informed decision about the safety and product quality of the reflexology hemodynamic claim and for reflexologists to be able to guarantee minimum product quality, validity, and safety standards in their practice. Source.
  • This meta-analysis indicates that foot reflexology is a useful nursing intervention to relieve fatigue and to promote sleep. Source.
  • Owing to the methodological limitations of the studies and equivocal results, the current evidence does not allow a clear conclusion on the benefits of acupressure, reflexology, and auricular acupressure for insomnia. Source.
  • The results do not support the use of reflexology for symptom relief in a more disabled multiple sclerosis population and are strongly suggestive of a placebo response. This study demonstrates, however, that reflexology can be delivered and is well tolerated by people who are moderately to severely affected by multiple sclerosis. Source.
  • This study showed little evidence to support reflexology as a mean of reducing anxiety in CABG patients. Several methodological problems were identified that need to be considered further. Source.
  • Despite certain limitations to the data provided by this study, the results do not suggest that reflexology techniques are a valid method of diagnosis. Source.
  • An intervention involving foot reflexology in the postnatal period significantly improved the quality of sleep. Source.
  • The conclusion was that foot reflexology is not recommended for acute, abdominal postsurgical situations in gynecology because it can occasionally trigger abdominal pain. Source.
  • Reflexology texts are inconsistent with regard to the location of the heart point and contradictory with regard to the correct reflexology approach to cardiac patients. Source.
  • Reflexology researchers face two key methodological challenges that need to be addressed if a specific treatment-related hemodynamic effect is to be scientifically demonstrated. The first is the problem of inconsistent reflexology foot maps; the second is the issue of poor experimental controls. Source.

I don’t dismiss the beneficial effects of stress relief and relaxation on healing. But that’s not what reflexologists are selling you. They’re selling the snake oil.

And in our gullible, internet-saturated age, suspicious as we are of modernity, authority and government, and prone to believe all sorts of claptrap found online while we lose the tools of critical thinking necessary to analyze their claims, we too easily fall for the glib lines, the promises of miraculous cures wrapped up in the gibberish of New Ageism. After all, reflexology seems like a science (in the same way angry political bloggers seem like they make sense… until you run their rants through the filter of reason…)

As Skeptoid explains, the danger isn’t in getting your feet massaged: it’s in thinking that the other claptrap that goes with it – the zone therapy and bio-energy nonsense – has any scientific or medical meaning:

Now, nobody disputes that foot massages do have benefits. They feel great, and absolutely promote relaxation and stress reduction. Unfortunately, these benefits can mislead people to conclude that the massage is working for whatever other malady is claimed to be treated. Another problem with reflexology is that, when used to diagnose a medical problem that does not in fact exist, the practitioner can claim that it is a future problem that’s being diagnosed and treated. Time travel combined with medical treatment! If reflexology were to be tested and compared to the results of a real medical diagnosis, this time travel aspect allows its supporters to claim even a clean miss as a direct hit.

As as The Conversation points out in its review, even reflexologists don’t agree on why (or how) it works and often work from zone maps that contradict what other practitioners use:

There is no clear consensus among reflexologists as to how the therapy “works”. Several mechanisms have been proposed, including the unblocking of energy fields, the removal of toxins, the breakdown of crystalline deposits in the lymphatic system, the release of endorphins, alteration of electromagnetic fields, and the increase of blood flow to internal organs.
Many of these mechanisms are inconsistent with mainstream physiological principles and are therefore unmeasurable with conventional scientific methods.
Four trials have demonstrated some evidence of a reduction in systolic blood pressure and heart rate in individuals undergoing reflexology. However, these studies did not adequately control for non-specific (placebo) effects, so it is not possible to delineate the benefit of stimulating reflex areas from the beneficial effects of simply lying down and receiving a relaxing foot massage.

So go ahead and enjoy your foot massage. You would probably get as much and likely more benefit – and save a lot of money – if you just get your partner to do it. But it’s your money and if you want to pay a quack instead of getting a little loving sensuality, please feel free to open your wallet. Your feet will probably feel great either way.

Just don’t expect to get anything medical or diagnostic from the foot rub.

Here’s the rest of that Penn and Teller segment. It’s worth watching all of it.

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