Reflex Reaction

by endlesspsych

By Keir Liddle

The Scotsman newspaper today published the article– sorry, did I say article? I suspect I meant advert– linked to here, extolling the virtues of reflexology. This is the latest in a long line of Scotsman articles to do so: other examples can be seen here, here and here.

Kate Foster, in the article on reflexology in maternity, describes and defines reflexology thusly:

Reflexology is a foot treatment involving massage to reflex points on the feet. These areas correspond to all the various parts and organs of the body and are interconnected by meridian lines carrying chi, or energy. It is thought that blockages of these lines can lead to physical, mental or emotional problems, and by stimulating the reflex points on the feet the energy flow can be restored.

Her colleague Louisa Pearson suggests that reflexology dates back several thousand years when it was practised in a similar manner by the Egyptians and the Chinese. She offers the following definition:

Reflexology is a holistic treatment in which reflex areas in the feet correspond to other parts of the body. Using this body “map” as a guide, practitioners massage key points in the feet to treat a range of health problems, ranging from migraines to digestive problems and stress.

Let’s get one thing out of the way straight off the bat: reflexology is nonsense – the only conditions you can diagnose via the method of foot massage are likely corns, verrucas and athlete’s foot. But there is nothing essentially wrong with enjoying a nice foot massage.

Indeed, the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran writes of a person whose leg was amputated, and who experienced orgasms in his phantom foot.

“The genitals are right next to the foot in the body’s brain maps”

He notes, and speculates that this fact may account for foot fetishes. This may, for some, explain the attraction of reflexology…

As for the supposed diagnostic accuracy of reflexology? It has been suggested that these are down to the reflexologist picking up subtle cues from the “patient” in the consultation and interpreting these rather than “crunchy” or hard spots on the feet.

William T. Jarvis, Ph.D., a professor at Loma Linda University conducted a study to test this hypothesis. Using questionnaires, 70 subjects were asked to state whether they had had health problems during the previous two years in any of 43 anatomical areas. The data was then compared with the findings of a reflexologist as recorded on a report form. The results did not differ from what would be expected by blind guessing. 

The study design also included an ingenious control to prevent the reflexologist from asking questions or observing subtle clues; the experimental subjects were asked to remain silent and a curtain was placed so that their feet were the only part of their body visible to the reflexologist.

This possibly explains why Gaby Souter thought that the reflexologist was:

uncannily spot-on about every niggly health complaint and, indeed, emotional problem or personality quirk that you might have.

And perhaps why the Scotsman felt it was worth devoting column inches and copy to what amounts to nothing more than an advert for glorified foot massage.

Souter does get one thing right in her article when she states that reflexology is…

similar to having your palm read.

Aye, that’s fairly on the money – both of them have no evidence base to show they work at all beyond blind guesswork.

Both palmistry and reflexology are based on absurd theories and have not been able to back up their predictive or therapeutic claims.

Reflexology has demonstrated no ability to influence the course of any illness. Done gently, reflexology is a form of foot massage that may help people relax temporarily, but nothing more.