Reflexology: Addressing Pain and Putting Cancer Patients at Ease

Jack Bleeker
May 2010

With roots in ancient Egypt, China, and Japan, the art of reflexology is a healing and relaxation technique that has stood the test of time and is familiar to many today. Found on treatment menus in world-class spas and on the schedules of many hospital-based palliative care centers, reflexology is viewed by skeptics as just a foot massage, but those who have recognized the therapy's benefits will loudly proclaim that it is much, much more.

For patients with cancer, such as those battling malignant mesothelioma, reflexology is said to have numerous benefits. Used as a complementary therapy along with conventional treatments like chemotherapy and radiation, proponents of reflexology note that the treatment goes a long way in addressing such issues as pain, anxiety, nausea, and vomiting. Especially upon the mesothelioma prognosis, these individuals are in dire need of therapeutic relief from the side effects mentioned.

So how does a foot rub help eliminate the unpleasant effects of cancer? Simply put, reflexology involves applying pressure to and stretching the hands and feet in order to trigger responses in other parts of the body. Experts theorize that the pressure sends a calming message from the peripheral nervous system to the central nervous system, where it signals the body to adjust its tension level, therefore creating a feeling of overall relaxation, increasing blood supply, and bringing organs to an optimal level of functioning. Others say the success of reflexology relates to the "gate control" theory of pain relief, which theorizes that pain is a subjective experience created by an individual's brain. The notion that factors like mood or stress can also affect the experience of pain enters into play here. Hence, reflexology can reduce pain by relieving stress and anxiety.

Though there is no steadfast scientific evidence that reflexology offers an cure for cancers like mesothelioma or any other disease, numerous studies have shown that this complementary therapy improves quality of life for many cancer patients, even if just for a short time, hence, its inclusion in many complementary and palliative care programs at cancer hospitals nationwide. A 2000 study at the School of Nursing at East Carolina University, for example, involved 23 breast and lung cancer patients who noted "a significant decrease" in anxiety with the use of reflexology treatment. This, wrote the professionals that authored the study, "has important implications for nursing practice as both professionals and lay people can be taught reflexology.

"Reflexology is a simple technique for human touch which can be performed anywhere, requires no special equipment, is non-invasive and does not interfere with patients' privacy," the study continues.

Indeed, many medical professionals have suggested that caregivers for cancer patients take time to learn reflexology so that they can use it when necessary to help those for whom they are caring find relief from the pain and stress associated with the disease. Furthermore, noted study leader Dr. Nancy Stephenson, in the case of those caring for spouses or other family members, "the therapy provides a way for partners to get involved in their loved one's care at a time when they may feel there is nothing they can do to help."

Sources:
University of Minnesota, http://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/explore-healing-practices/reflexology/how-does-reflexology-work
American Cancer Society, http://www.cancer.org/docroot/ETO/content/ETO_5_3X_Reflexology.asp
Dosing, Cancer, and Reflexology (Kunz), http://www.reflexology-research.com/dosing.html


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