Reflexology Can Ease Cancer Symptoms

First Posted: Nov 14, 2012 02:34 PM EST

Reflexology is a type of foot massage that is being practiced since ages. Recently it has gained popularity the world over for its role as a complementary and preventive therapy in life threatening diseases.

Reflex therapy can help cancer patients manage their symptoms and perform daily tasks.

This strong evidence in support of reflexology was presented by a Michigan State University researcher, Gwen Wyatt, a professor in the College of Nursing and the lead author of the study. This is the first large scale study of reflexology as a complement to standard cancer treatment.

"It's always been assumed that it's a nice comfort measure, but to this point we really have not, in a rigorous way, documented the benefits," Wyatt said. "This is the first step toward moving a complementary therapy from fringe care to mainstream care."

Reflexology consists of applying an appropriate pressure to specific points and areas on the feet, hands or ears. According to the reflexologists these areas and reflex points correspond to different body organs and systems, and that pressing them has a beneficial effect on the organs and a person's general health.

The study was conducted on 385 women who were victims of advanced-stage breast cancer that had spread beyond the breast and were undergoing chemotherapy or hormonal therapy. These women were divided into three groups in which one group received treatment by a certified reflexologist and the other group got a foot massage meant to act like a placebo, and the third group had only standard medical treatment and no foot manipulation.

The participants were also surveyed about their symptoms at intake and then checked after five weeks and 11 weeks.

On conducting this experiment Wyatt and her colleagues noticed that those in the reflexology group experienced significantly less shortness of breath, a common symptom in breast cancer patients. As a result of their improved breathing they also were better able to perform daily tasks such as climbing a flight of stairs, getting dressed or going grocery shopping.

Wyatt was surprised to note that reflexology's effects appeared to be primarily physical, not psychological.

"We didn't get the change we might have expected with the emotional symptoms like anxiety and depression," she said. "The most significant changes were documented with the physical symptoms."

The researchers were surprised to notice a reduction in fatigue by those who received placebo foot massages because this was absent in the reflexology group.  Wyatt is now researching whether massages similar to reflexology performed by cancer patients' friends and family, as opposed to certified reflexologists, might be a simple and inexpensive treatment option.

Reflexology did not appear to reduce pain or nausea, but Wyatt said that could be because the drugs for combating those symptoms are generally quite effective, so the women may not have reported them to begin with.

 "Reflexology comes out of the Chinese tradition and out of Egypt," Wyatt said. "In fact, it's shown in hieroglyphics. It's been around for a very long time."

This study was funded by the National Cancer Institute and published in the latest issue of Oncology Nursing Forum.

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