A small scientific study on reflexology as a treatment for acute pain finds that it may be as effective as painkillers. The authors suggest reflexology may usefully complement conventional treatments for conditions like osteoarthritis and cancer, which are often associated with pain.

Carol Samuel and Ivor Ebenezer, of the University of Portsmouth in the UK, report their findings in the upcoming May issue of the journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, which is already available online.

Reflexology is a complementary therapy that applies pressure to the body and works well alongside conventional medicine.

While pressure may be applied to any body area, most treatments involve applying pressure to the feet or hands. In this study, the treatment was applied to the feet*.

For the study, 15 participants underwent two sessions where they had to submerge their foot in ice water. In one session they received reflexology before they submerged their foot, and in the other they believed they were receiving treatment from a TENS machine, but it was switched off.

The experiments yielded two measures: pain threshold and pain tolerance. Pain threshold is the time it took for the participants to start feeling pain, and pain tolerance is the length of time from first inserting the foot in the water to when they could no longer stand the pain.

The results showed that when they received reflexology, the participants had higher pain thresholds and tolerances than when they received the sham TENS treatment.

Receiving reflexology resulted in about 40% less pain, and ability to withstand it lasted about 45% longer.

Samuel, a trained reflexologist who conducted the experiment as part of her doctoral thesis, says in a statement released this week:

“As we predicted, reflexology decreased pain sensations. It is likely that reflexology works in a similar manner to acupuncture by causing the brain to release chemicals that lessen pain signals.”

Ebenezer says they were very pleased with the results, and although it is a small study, they “hope it will be the basis for future research into the use of reflexology”.

“Complementary and alternative therapies come in for a lot of criticism, and many have never been properly tested scientifically. One of the common criticisms by the scientific community is that these therapies are often not tested under properly controlled conditions,” says Ebenezer.

In this study the researchers wanted to avoid such criticism, which is why they tested the effect of reflexology against a sham TENS treatment that the participants believed was giving them pain relief.

Samuel says more research is now needed to take the findings from this small study further, such as to find out how reflexology actually works.

In another recent study published in the April issue of Journal of Endocrinology, researchers suggest that understanding the molecular underpinnings of acupuncture’s success could increase its acceptance by mainstream medicine.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD