There is a reflexologist in my area offering services to:
- Promote relaxation and release of tension
- Improve lymphatic and cardiovascular circulation
- Maintain or reestablish the body’s natural state of balance
- Increase energy, inner peace, clear senses, clarity of mind, feeling more centered and balanced
- 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.
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.