Kicking pain away

In a world obsessed with having the “next generation” of things (whether it be smartphones, cars or underwear), there is an unconscious tendency to believe that anything older is somehow lesser. There are many examples of where this is a mistaken belief and it is also true in medicine. This has been graphically shown in a new study which found that the ancient therapy of reflexology can provide significant relief for pain.

Reflexology certainly meets the criteria to be called “ancient”. There is evidence of some form of foot and hand therapy being practised in China as long ago as 4000 BCE. Egyptian tombs from around that time also depict this therapy in action. Additionally, North American tribes of Indians are known to have practised a form of foot therapy for hundreds of years.

The rediscovery of reflexology in the modern era is credited to Dr William Fitzgerald, who drew it to the attention of the medical world in the early part of the 20th century. In 1915, Fitzgerald contributed to an article titled To stop that toothache, squeeze your toe, which was published in Everybody’s Magazine, written by Edwin Bowers. Fitzgerald called the method \”Zone Therapy\” and in 1917 he wrote Zone Therapy or Relieving Pain in the Home.

The underlying theory behind reflexology is that there are “reflex” areas on the feet and hands that correspond to specific organs, glands and other parts of the body. For example: the tips of the toes reflect the head; the heart and chest are around the ball of the foot; and the lower back and intestines are towards the heel. The belief is that applying pressure to these reflex areas can promote health in the corresponding organs through energetic pathways.

All of that is a little outside the current model of Western medicine, which is why lots of research is going on into methods like reflexology and acupuncture to justify them to the orthodox Western medical mind.

In this study, participants took part in two sessions where they were asked to submerge their foot in ice water. This is a painful thing to do. On one occasion, they received refloxology before they submerged their foot. On the second occasion they received a fake “TENS” treatment. TENS is an electronic method of pain relief used by physiotherapists and hospital pain clinics since the 1960\’s. TENS is an abbreviation of Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. So a TENS unit relives pain by stimulating your nerves via an electrical current through your skin. In this study, the TENS machine was not switched on although the participants believed that it was operating. The fake TENS treatment was undertaken to rule out any placebo effect through the subjects “believing” that the treatments would work.

The researchers measured pain threshold by seeing how long it took subjects to perceive pain. They also measured pain tolerance by seeing how long the people could keep their feet in the water. The results showed that reflexology led to a 40 per cent increase in pain threshold and a 45 per cent increase in pain tolerance compared to the fake TENS treatment.

It is likely that reflexology causes the release of chemicals from the brain that lessen pain signals. However it works, it does seem to work. So next time you need pain relief don’t take two tablets — try toe tapping instead.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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