Reflexology: Only Dangerous If You Use It

Reflexology is really no more than a foot massage - so why might it be dangerous? Here's why.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Alternative Medicine, Consumer Ripoffs

Skeptoid #24
January 28, 2007
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Let's lay back on the sofa, put our feet up, and receive a therapeutic foot massage, accompanied by the soothing sounds of the rainforest. Feel the energy as your body's impurities are cleansed, your wellness heals itself, and the cancerous tumor in your brain melts away — all because of this foot massage. We call it Reflexology.

Reflexology is the art of rubbing the foot, with the belief that certain areas on the bottom of the foot are spiritually connected to parts of the body. Rubbing the part of the foot that correlates to the brain, for example, is supposed to cure anything that's wrong with your brain, like brain cancer. Rubbing the part of the foot that corresponds with your elbow is alleged to magically reconnect a torn elbow ligament. Developed in 1913 by a man named William Fitzgerald as "zone therapy", reflexology is based on the New Age definition of the word "energy". Fitzgerald believed that a mystical force field, not understood by science, that he called "bioelectric energy", ran through the body in ten vertical bands corresponding to your ten digits. Modern practitioners call Fitzgerald's mystical energy field "life force", and believe that adepts can manipulate this force field to promote any type of wellness in any part of the body, all through actions that correspond to a conventional foot massage. For more great information on New Age energy, I refer you to Skeptoid episode #1, available on iTunes or on the Skeptoid.com web site.

Now, nobody disputes that foot massages do have benefits. They feel great, and absolutely promote relaxation and stress reduction. Unfortunately, these benefits can mislead people to conclude that the massage is working for whatever other malady is claimed to be treated. Another problem with reflexology is that, when used to diagnose a medical problem that does not in fact exist, the practitioner can claim that it is a future problem that's being diagnosed and treated. Time travel combined with medical treatment! If reflexology were to be tested and compared to the results of a real medical diagnosis, this time travel aspect allows its supporters to claim even a clean miss as a direct hit.

Listener Scott Breitbach wrote in with the following letter:

Hello Dr. Dunning,

I live in a small town in Iowa (pop. 4,000ish). About two years ago a fitness center was built (the Chickasaw Wellness Complex, CWC), which I think is pretty good for a town of our size. I've got a membership and have thus far been satisfied. However a (cover) story this week in our local paper was about the new 'Reflexologist' now employed at the CWC. I have attached the article.

My issue is this: I would like to submit a letter to the editor refuting the article and exposing reflexology for what it is, pseudoscience. The reason I am emailing you then is that I need some help. I need some information and resources as well as talking points for my letter. Please help!

Scott Breitbach

p.s. Thanks for the podcast, I enjoy listening.

And thank you, Scott, for helping to fight the good fight and alerting the paper's readers to this sham. And here is the article that the New Hampton Tribune, in New Hampton, Iowa published:

What is Reflexology?

As part of the Lighten up Iowa Kick-off Celebration held at the Chickasaw Wellness Complex on Thursday, January 4, Chantal Papousek, a Lay Minister of Reflexology, introduced area residents to Reflexology.

According to information supplied by Chantal, Reflexology, or zone therapy, is the practice of stimulating points on the feet and hands, in the belief it will have a beneficial effect on some other parts of the body, or will improve a person’s general health — helping a body heal from acute and chronic conditions, help reduce pain, stress and the effects of stress on the body such as high blood pressure.

The most common form is foot reflexology. Practitioners believe the foot to be divided into a number of reflex zones corresponding to all parts of the body, and that applying pressure to tight areas of a person’s foot will stimulate the corresponding body part, thus causing it to begin healing itself.

After a medical history assessment, in a Reflexology treatment Chantal first conducts a “Thumb Walk”, pointing out tender areas of the bottom of a person’s feet. These areas are documented and treatment is focused on them.

A machine called “The Drummer” is then used on the bottom and top of the feet, similar to massage machines. The Drummer can stimulate areas deeper and more effectively than fingers.

Chantal graduated from the Modern Institute of Reflexology with a 4.0 grade point average and recently became certified as a Lay Minister of Reflexology.

Reflexology treatments can be arranged with Chantal at the Wellness Complex. For more information, contact her at the wellness complex, 641-394-5433 or by e-mail at cwc@new-hampton.k12.ia.us.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Now, at first glance, one reaction to this letter is that reflexology is probably pretty harmless, and this is the kind of New Age faith-based treatment that the majority of people seem to want these days. I've had foot massages on a number of occasions and they do feel pretty darn good, so I'm sure that the majority of Chantal's customers will come away feeling wonderful, at least until the massage wears off. Nothing wrong with that part of it at all.

But I wish that the New Hampton Tribune hadn't taken Chantal's press release so literally and reprinted it with so little reflection on its contents. What we have here is a newspaper advising its readers where to get a "medical history assessment" from a person with no medical training whatsoever. (If Chantal had any medical training, I'm sure she would have listed it on her resume before "Lay Minister of Reflexology.") This is absolutely unacceptable. From a liability standpoint alone, it's insanity for a newspaper to print this; and from an ethical standpoint it's egregious. The New Hampton Tribune has no excuse for stating that reflexology can improve a person's general health. Suppose a reader has a serious illness and goes to Chantal after reading this article, at the expense of time and money which could have been spent on crucial medical treatment. There is nothing in this article that suggests a patient should do anything else. And this is the central risk of reflexology: that a believer, or even a naive victim, will turn to reflexology in the belief that it can treat an illness, at the expense of proper medical treatment. This delay of treatment can result in serious injury or death.

I think my favorite part of Chantal's press release is that she trumpets her 4.0 grade point average from the Modern Institute of Reflexology. Notice that you'll find the Institute prominently listed on Wikipedia's "List of Unaccredited Institutions." Wow, a 4.0 GPA from an unaccredited correspondence school. The Institute has a web page describing the course of study to become a Lay Minister. The page consists largely of prayers, scriptural passages, and even a discussion of Biblical foot washing (for some reason, this particular institute mixes a large dose of Christianity in with Reflexology's usual paranormal claims). Sounds like a pretty rigorous medical course to me.

The article also states that Chantal is "certified" as a Lay Minister. Since any certification that she might have is from an unaccredited correspondence school about Biblical foot washing, and not from any medical board approved by the American Board of Medical Specialties, it's irresponsible of the newspaper to call her "certified" when she's offering what she calls a "medical history assessment". Chantal, and any other reflexologist who uses the word "medical", is about two inches away from prosecution for practicing medicine without a license, and any newspaper worth its salt should have refused to run her press release. In no way is any reflexologist certified to give any type of medical assessment, diagnosis, or treatment. To do so would be a felony.

New Hampton Tribune, clean up your act. People say "Don't shoot the messenger," I am shooting the messenger. Your article is irresponsible and endangers the health of your readers. Chickasaw Wellness Complex, what can I say. Offer massages, they're wonderful things. I haven't heard whatever you might be telling your customers, who are paying you for wellness, about reflexology — but I hope it's factual and contributes to their health, and doesn't put them at risk of seeking alternatives to needed medical treatment. And Scott Breitbach, thank you for being the only voice of reason here and looking out for the health of your fellow Iowans.

Brian Dunning

© 2007 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Carpenter, Janet S., Neal, Jennifer G. "Other complementary and alternative medicine modalities: acupuncture, magnets, reflexology, and homeopathy." The American Journal of Medicine. 19 Dec. 2005, Volume 118, Issue 12: 109-117.

Ernst, Edzard. "Is reflexology an effective intervention? A systematic review of randomised controlled trials." Medical Journal of Australia. 7 Sep. 2009, Volume 191, Number 5: 263-266.

MIR. "Lay Ministry of Foot Reflexology & Biblical Foot Washing." Modern Institute of Reflexology. Modern Institute of Reflexology, 1 Jan. 2003. Web. 28 Jan. 2007. <http://www.reflexologyinstitute.com/career_minister.php>

Thompson, Damian. Counterknowledge: How We Surrendered to Conspiracy Theories, Quack Medicine, Bogus Science and Fake History. New York: W. W. Norton Company, Inc., 2008. 78, 88.

Wikipedia. "List of unaccredited institutions of higher learning." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 31 Oct. 2009. Web. 4 Nov. 2009. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_unaccredited_educational_institutions>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Reflexology: Only Dangerous If You Use It." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 28 Jan 2007. Web. 30 Mar 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4024>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 113 comments

and the reflexology bit then Hypo?

Magnanamous Dinoflagellate, sin city, Oz
June 21, 2013 8:52am

Nobody said that it's not okay to apply the same level of skepticism to our current health care system. There is plenty to be skeptical about when pure market capitalism and Public Health & Safety issues collide. The difference here, though, is that a system has been set-up to insure a fair amount of scientific rigor and intellectual integrity are enforced with the systems if "Big Pharma" and "Big Medicine" (which too often is decried as "job-killing regulation" and "big-government meddling" by the most greedy among the intellectually dishonest profit-mongers within the system). While it is possible to make a point that more can/should be done to protect us (consumers of necessary medical services) from those that care only about profiting from the unavoidable degradation of the human body... it’s just as intellectually dishonest to say that "little guys like reflexology" somehow deserve a pass from the same standards of proving efficacy, no matter how many years of anecdotal "evidence" it may tout itself to have. Especially when their claims fly directly in the face of established and accepted basic empirical FACTS!

Skip Tickle, Seattle, WA
July 18, 2013 11:09am

I have never come across a book named "Basic Empirical Facts!", but I am willing to project that if such a book was ever written, it would have inaccuracies in it due to the fact that our knowledge base keeps increasing. There are situations that are conveyed more completely with a look, then with a book. (good sentence, but not exactly apropos.) My opinion is that some of what is labeled as pseudo science may be explored and enhanced by future scientists. If there is even only a germ of truth in a pseudo science, an open mind may use it as a stepping stone to knowledge, whereas a closed mind will achieve nothing.

Vicky, Rockaway Park, NY
August 3, 2013 12:45pm

Hi, read your article on Reflexology and wanted to verify a few things. Firstly reflexologist do not claim to cure or treat an illness nor do they make any medical diagnosis or change anyones medication. reflexology works in conjuction with medicine. The aim of reflexology is to relax the mind body and spirit and I think that if it achieves this then it is wonderful. Reflexology works with the individual taking a better look at their lifestyle i.e. excerise and diet and in conjunction with reflexology the feeling of well being is possible. Like any alternative treatment its trail and error and picking the one that works best for you. Instead of knocking it give it a try you might surprise yourself and actually benefit from it or maybe you are happy giving out about everything and blaming everyone else for trying to improve their life while you happy being miserable.

Bernie, Ireland
August 28, 2013 7:11am

There is so much ignorance in this article it amazes me.

anonymous, Eastern US
October 24, 2013 6:35pm

I am only familiar with chinese reflexology. This western version sounds like a knockoff? Thats a little ironic. Brian, have you got anything on chinese reflexology?

Ian, KL
November 16, 2013 8:19am

Brian I really think that you should consider doing more research, as your current article has many flaws and are more like opinions from a narrow minded stiff.

Beth, Australia
March 16, 2014 12:54am

Wow, all these comments and no-one has yet explained precisely how it is more than a massage. Also, lot's of "certified" this and "accredited" that - please state which medical schools/universities you obtained your qualifications from. Thanks.

Muz, Edinburgh
April 24, 2014 8:31am

This article is flawed in the way that it presents reflexology from a source that is not properly educated in it. Then it argues against a poorly understood and explained presentation, which is of course easy to do.

Reflexology was NOT developed by William Fitzgerald - he developed A system based on knowledge that goes back thousands of years, and introduced it to modern, white America. Reflexology has been used in Egypt, China and North-America since ancient times, so it's not 'New Age'.

We don't know exactly how it works yet, but Dr. Manzanares, an MD from Barcelona, Spain, who has spent 30 years researching reflexology, has made interesting findings in deposits (areas of unusual texture in the feet) from his patients. Tissue samples show that these deposits consist of much higher percentage of nerve cells than tissue from neighboring areas of the feet.

It is believed (until we know otherwise) that reflexology works by stimulating the nervous system in the body by applying alternating pressure on areas on the feet and hands that correspond to organs and body systems. We know that it stimulates circulation, reduces stress markers like cortisol, helps with anxiety, and in general is a great complement to medical treatment for most conditions.

There's not a single reflexologist who has ever claimed it can cure a brain tumor. It's not debunking if you put up a false target.

In the US, the RAA offers national certification to ensure a certain standard of practice.

Toril, Virginia
February 5, 2015 11:51am

If reflexology has a history in ancient culture, show us the literature. Proof would require not just literature showing foot massage was mentioned in ancient literature, but ancient literature showing that specific zones on the foot associated with specific zones elsewhere in the body are consistent with popular press titles in our time. Modern texts often rely on Eunice Ingrahm's charts but others cite no source at all for the particular charts - while implying in text that the practice generally relies on ancient knowledge.

When something relies on ancient knowledge, we can connect the dots. When there are no dots to be connected, we are trusting the authority of an author alone. Unfounded trust in authority is dangerous.

Miss Ellen, West Coast
February 28, 2015 8:28pm

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