Reflexology and Homunculus Theories of the Body

There is a reflexologist in my area offering services to:

  1. Promote relaxation and release of tension
  2. Improve lymphatic and cardiovascular circulation
  3. Maintain or reestablish the body’s natural state of balance
  4. Increase energy, inner peace, clear senses, clarity of mind, feeling more centered and balanced
  5. Releases endorphins, relaxes the parasympathetic nervous system, and do something vague to “immune levels”

Great. Except there’s a problem. According to the pamphlet I have in my hands, reflexology is “based on the premise that there are reflex points in the feet, hands and ears corresponding via nerve pathways of the nervous system to every part, gland and organ of the body“. This premise has no anatomical or physiological basis.

Claim #1 is easy. Rubbing the body is relaxing. Rubbing feet is relaxing. No special claim there. Also, the foot is right next to the genitals in the sensory mapping of the brain.

A few crossed neurons and a foot rub can be very relaxing indeed…

Claim #2 is true (to an extent – for example, lymph can be massaged out of an area where it has collected) for the area being rubbed, but there is no evidence that foot, hand, or earlobe rubbing would do the same for the whole body. The most effective way to improve cardiovascular circulation is to eat a balanced diet and do cardiovascular exercise. If people are relying on reflexology rather than taking effective steps to improve their cardio health, people at risk of heart attack and/or stroke could be unknowingly endangering themselves.

Claim #3 is too vague to be meaningful. What is the body’s natural state of balance and what objective measure is used to determine if the therapy was effective in achieving that goal?

The claims in #4 and 5 are equally vague. How does one measure any of these end points?

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.

“DID YOU KNOW THAT YOU HAVE OVER 7200 NERVE ENDINGS IN EACH FOOT?!!!!”

That was the next part of the pamphlet. It’s important because it’s in caps and has 4 exclamation points. While the foot does have many nerves, not all of these are the same. For one thing there are sensory and motor nerves. Within sensory nerves, there are different kinds for pain, touch, pressure, movement, temperature, stretch, vibration… Does reflexology work on all of these? If not based on anatomy and physiology, then how? There is no evidence for a “life force” (Qi) that is undetectable yet open to external manipulation.

The pamphlet boasts that “reflexology is a wholistic [sic] modality often working together with other medical and complimentary therapies to achieve the best results for the client“, but with the caveat that reflexologists do not “diagnose, prescribe or treat for specific conditions and should not be used as a substitute for necessary medical treatment“. Isn’t poor cardiovascular circulation a relatively specific condition?

I’m sure this person means well, and if someone wants to spend 50$/hour on a foot rub, that’s up to them. But I would feel better if reflexologists would admit up front that there is no high-quality scientific evidence for their therapy, rather than trying to convince people with logical fallacies and vague claims of efficacy. I would also feel better if they had an evidence section on their association’s website (they do not – in fact a search for the word “evidence” turned up only 4 results, all about insurance).

I am big believer in honesty in the business relationship and the rights of consumers. But unfortunately the health field has become obfuscated by misleading language and vague claims. I would find reflexology more acceptable if its promoters were up front about their level of evidence and made the possible risks explicitly clear to the consumer. I would find it even more acceptable if they simply offered foot/hand/ear rubs without unsupported claims of vague medical efficacy – because regardless of the supposed benefits, massages feel great.

*The opinions in this article reflect that of the author only and do not necessarily represent the views of employers, regulatory bodies, or professional associations. The author strives to promote science-based health care in all fields and advocates for a client’s right to honesty.

2 Responses to “Reflexology and Homunculus Theories of the Body”

  1. peetananda says:

    As a former Rehabilitation Director in hospitals and clinics, I can understand your orientation and need to share your medically based perspective. Some of your criticisms of the reflexologist’s claims represent the thorough empirical science training required to become an occupational therapist.

    However, to more fully understand the whole body approach to therapeutic intervention, you might benefit from studying the human anatomy from and energetic model. Maybe starting with Chinese medicine and acupuncture would broaden your understanding. By engaging in a movement experience like yoga or t’ai chi you might begin to feel some of the effects that the reflexologist was alluding to.

    My journey took me from pure western allopathic medicine to equally rigiorous scientific pursuits of independent study regardingd the effects of tongue shape and placement in one’s mouth experienced by pain relief, tension and stress reduction throughout the body. Its one of those believe it or not, you have to be there or try it your self kinds of things.

    This process which I now call Jeehbonics)slowly opened my mind and spirit to the other purposes of the human body which are sometimes more obvious to the observer in hospice contexts when the patient is gradually letting go of pain, the physical body, consciousness. I began noticing correlations between tongue shape and position in the mouth to speech sounds, swallowing reflexes and efficiency as well as myofascial facilitation throughout the body in muscle, joint and nerve function. . . and yes even pain management via directed breath, movement and endorphine release.

    The 1:1 corespondence between one body part and the whole body-mind is not just a vague mental or imaginary construct: it is ongoing and happening all the time. All you need to do is wake up and act alive.

    • Kim Hebert says:

      The scientific method (empiricism) is testing that which we can observe in controlled conditions to answer questions about specific variables by eliminating outside bias, then synthesizing the information with other evidence and prior plausibility to determine how things work. “Begin noticing” is a far cry from an empirical approach and is open to all manner of bias and error. Noticing something is the first step to scientific discovery, not the final one.

      In any case, you’ve made several assumptions about what I do and what I’ve studied, apparently based on a biased view towards scientific individuals; none are correct. I hope you don’t take the same approach to your observations or you’re likely to see similar results. I don’t think any reasonable person can oppose trying their best to verify that an endpoint is reached objectively to ensure that patients are improving at an appropriate and expected rate and that the treatment that was sold to them was worth their effort, time, and money. That is all I am advocating.

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  • Kim Hebert

    Kim Hébert is an occupational therapist. She is interested in the promotion of science and reason, particularly regarding therapeutic health interventions. She blogs occasionally about occupational therapy and other health topics at Science-Based Therapy. Her hobbies are art and astronomy. **All views expressed by Kim are her personal views alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of current or former employers, associations, or other affiliations. All information is provided for discussion purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for consultation with a licensed and accredited health professional.