In reflexology, different parts of the body are “mapped” to different areas of the hands and feet (and sometimes the tongue). Practitioners focus on these spots because of the large amount of nerve endings in these zones. (For this reason, another name for reflexology is “zone therapy.”)
Reflexology attempts to encourage the flow of blood and nutrients to the organs to improve health.
Similarly, other practitioners claim that these zones matter due to the flow of “chi” through the body. Chi is a sort of life-energy that, in many Eastern alternative medicine traditions, allow life to function. It is thought to flow through specific “channels.” When these channels become blocked during illness, practitioners use their alternative medicine therapies to “un-block” them and cure the disease. Chi as a concept is not proven by traditional research methods.
Research Finds Limited Benefit
A 2009 review published in the Medical Journal of Australia evaluated 18 randomly-controlled trials (RCTs) using reflexology for a number of conditions including multiple sclerosis, irritable bowel syndrome, and headaches. Many studies had poor methodological quality and few participants.
The researchers concluded that, “The best evidence available to date does not demonstrate convincingly that reflexology is an effective treatment for any medical condition.”
It should also be noted that training for practitioners varies dramatically. There are no formal training requirements to practice reflexology or call oneself a reflexologist.
However, as a form of massage done by someone trained in massage therapy, reflexology has some proven stress-relief and pain-relief benefits for people with lupus.
Is Reflexology Effective?
However, it may provide pain-relief and relaxation as a form of gentle foot massage. Reflexology can:
- decrease stress and anxiety
- is low risk and tolerated by nearly everybody (and every body)
- works well alongside other therapies
Be aware of any oils or herbs used. Certain oils or herbs used during the massage trigger allergic reactions.
Reflexology and Alternative Medicine for Lupus?
People with lupus turn to alternative – also known as “complementary” medicine – because they are frustrated. And with good reason! Sometimes you leave the hospital feeling just as bad as when you went in. Doctors don’t always seem to listen to concerns. And, the side effects of the medications can be extremely unpleasant.
Alternative therapies offer pain relief, less expensive procedures, and a listening ear who takes you seriously. Even if some therapies are unproven, they may induce the placebo effect. This is when non-therapeutics cause therapeutic benefit due to expectations.
But, some alternative methods have been shown to have some therapeutic benefit:
- Acupuncture may “reduce the perception of pain” in a measurable way by stimulating nerves in the skin and releasing natural painkillers called endorphins
- Mindfulness meditation practices reduce stress and even helps the mind better process new stress. Because this brings down stress overall, it can help stave off a flare
- Pets can help with stress management and even reduce the perception of pain
More and more, doctors are recognizing that alternative/complementary medicine can act as a good additional source of help for people suffering from chronic diseases. The face of medicine is changing to a more equal model.
The Beneficial Aspects of Massage
Reflexology, like other massage therapies, squeeze and press muscles in the body. They may activate certain nerve groups as well and encourage blood flow into the affected area. Oils, herbs, and heating elements increase this effect.
Although massages do not cause harm if done correctly (by trained practitioners), they trick the body into thinking that it was damaged or stressed. As a consequence, the body releases endorphins, natural opioids that dull the pain response. This reduces chronic pain and promotes a sense of relaxation since the body is not actually wounded. The manipulation of the muscles also helps to loosen and stretch them, relieving tension that might have been causing pain on its own.
The combination of this relaxing feeling with a reduction in pain and feelings of stress can also encourage sleep. This can often be a problem for people with lupus. Better sleep can improve health for the whole body, so that alone can make a radical improvement in a person’s symptoms. You can read more about sleep and lupus here.
Final Thoughts on Reflexology
Will reflexology cure your lupus? No. However, as a low-risk therapy with no side effects, and a well-supported range of benefits, it certainly doesn’t hurt to try.
Is it better than any other massage therapy? That is up to you! If you are thinking of trying reflexology, look into other forms of massage as well. Find one that works best for you and your body.
Should you tell your doctor if you are trying reflexology? Yes. Let your lupus treatment team know, particularly if heat or herbal preparations are being used. Like supplements, these can potentially interact with your medications.