At the whole life expo, I had a treatment by a reflexologist who explained that her profession is trying to get covered by insurance companies. Frankly, I couldn't say one way or the other whether her rubbing my feet made me feel any better, but I found the conversation interesting.
Reflexology, one of the most widely used of all the alt modalities, is based on the idea that reflex points in the hands, feet and ears correspond to other parts of the body, including the vital organs.
The average treatment seems to run about an hour and cost around $75. But there's very little evidence that this kind of massage has any effect at all, though some research has been done in the UK and Australia.
One thing we do know is that, well, it can't hurt you.
It seems plausible that there is some truth to the theory, because when I strain other parts of my body by working out too hard, my feet cramp. Does this mean anything?
What the experts say
"We can't treat for specific conditions. You can't call me up and say, 'I have multiple sclerosis and am in a wheelchair. How many treatments do I need to get out of it?' We only treat knowing we may help with low back pain, sinus conditions, constipation and stress. We know we help with stress because I've had clients fall asleep. People with sinus congestion have told me they can feel their sinuses draining. One of my clients said she didn't have any pain for a month after treatment. It's hard to do double-blind studies on reflexology, because every body, every chemical makeup is different. The Danish post office has reflexologists on staff. But we haven't got a lot of research."
MARY-KAY PERRIS, reflexologist, Toronto
"I consider reflexology in the same category as acupressure or acupuncture and shiatsu massage. All of these treatments work by applying force, needles or pressure to various established acupuncture points. The foot happens to have numerous points that correspond to various body parts. Reflexology has a long track record of safety and appears to be effective for many mild to moderate pain conditions."
ZOLTAN RONA, holistic MD, Toronto
"I have heard the claim that it's difficult to do double-blind studies on alternative modalities because every body is different, and while this is true, that is precisely why we do double-blind placebo-controlled randomized trials. The claims for reflexology are expansive. The usual things are trotted out: relieving stress, cleansing toxins, and there are even claims related to COPD [emphysema]. There are clinical trials. They're not great trials, they're not very convincing, and they're done in such a way that it's difficult to say whether there is scientific merit. In cases like the one you describe with foot cramps, I can think of all kinds of reasons your feet might cramp quite apart from there being any diagnostic or therapeutic connection between your feet and other parts of your body."
LLOYD OPPEL, MD, chair, Allied Health and Alternative Therapies Committee, BC Medical Association
"I would say that scientifically speaking it's not likely that a part of the foot corresponds to the lung or the heart or other internal organs. I couldn't say it's completely impossible, but I don't think we know of any anatomical pathway through the nervous system that would do that. I know of no evidence for it."
ROBERT CHEN, associate professor, department of medicine, Institute of Medical Science, University of Toronto
"Some insurance companies cover reflexology treatment, but often only if it's being given by a certified massage therapist, which is like saying you'll only certify a car if it's been serviced by a bicycle repair shop. Massage therapy is wonderful, but the two are different. Though a lot of people think reflexology is quackery, there is research that proves it works for certain conditions. A recent article in the U.S. journal Obstetrics And Gynecology showed it to be helpful with PMS. There has also been research on blood pressure and stress reduction. In Europe, particularly in Britain, reflexology is part of the mainstream, and reflexologists practise in many doctors' offices."
MARCUS SUMMERSFIELD, executive director, Reflexology Association of Canada, Winnipeg