Ten years ago, you’d be forgiven for wondering why anyone would recommend a foot massage as a form of complementary therapy. Today, though, reflexology is one of the most popular forms of holistic treatment, having rapidly gained a legion of followers and advocates from all walks of life.
Reflexology uses massage to stimulate reflex points and is based on the theory that different points on the feet, lower leg, face, hands, or ears correspond with different areas of the body. Fundamentally, it aims to reduce the effects of stress and tension on the body, and, as a result, can aid recovery after exercise.
A few years ago, as part of her PhD studies, professional reflexologist Dr Carol Samuel, published research that indicated that people felt around 40% less pain, and were able to stand discomfort for approximately 45% longer, when reflexology was their chosen method of pain relief. The study was a first of its kind in published evidence for the treatment. And, while reflexology doesn’t profess to cure, prescribe or diagnose, it has certainly captured the attention of those wanting to improve their wellbeing.
We wanted to find out more, so we spoke to Nicola Wingfield, a trained reflexologist and member of the Association of Reflexologists, to discuss the benefits for runners, particularly those training for a marathon.
As a kid – and all throughout my teens – I had wanted to be a physiotherapist. However, shortly after I turned sixteen, I abandoned this dream for a career in marine biology and conservation. When I was having children, I realised that I wanted to take the opportunity to retrain and do something different. I had reflexology treatment during my pregnancy and found it to be very positive and beneficial. It was highly relaxing, and quite a break from the tiredness and aches experienced during pregnancy.
I wanted to get into physiotherapy for the same initial reasons; to help people become pain-free and make it easy for them to recover from their injuries and stresses. Once I qualified, I was able to help others in a positive way that also worked around my family life.
As a teenager, I dreamed of becoming a physiotherapist for a sports team, and now I treat a lady who plays for the over-45s England hockey team. She has reflexology treatment before matches as part of her preparation, alongside osteopathy and seeing a physiotherapist. So, I feel like I’ve had at least part of that dream fulfilled!
Reflexology is all about applying the appropriate pressure and massage to certain spots on the feet. And when you perform a treatment you can feel imbalances in the foot. More specifically, you can identify parts of the body that aren’t working as well and stimulate the nerve endings that correspond to the proper function and all other body parts can be energised. By having all of the body mapped out in the feet (left foot corresponding to the left side of the body, and vice versa) the body can be treated as a whole.
Holistic therapy is like a jigsaw. You’re taking information from lots of different sources, from what the client is saying, what you’re picking up from their feet, and then you put that together. You can identify areas where they could do some more stretching, for example. I might advise clients to incorporate yoga poses to concentrate on those areas, or talk to them about ways to help them relax more. You can help prevent injuries before they happen as well by bringing awareness to the body. Lots of clients say that they can feel themselves becoming more aware of their body as a result of treatment.
As reflexologist practitioners, we have to be cautious about claiming reflexology can absolutely, with certainty, treat any condition. Though the advertising standards accepts claims that reflexology can help a person relax, improve their mood, aid sleep, improve sense of wellbeing, there is a disappointing lack of clinical evidence in our area. So much of our evidence is anecdotal. But, research is growing and more and more people are trying to show how it can help with all sorts of conditions.
That said, people come for lots of different reasons. Most reflexologists find that they seem to attract people with similar issues. A lot of clients come from word-of-mouth; often if I’ve helped someone in the past with their irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and they’ve found the therapy beneficial, it’s likely that they are going to tell someone else with IBS that they should try reflexology.
Only very recently, in the past 10 years or so, has there been an increased awareness about the relationship between stress and common ailments. According to statistics from the Meridian Stress Management Consultancy in the UK, almost 180,000 people in the UK die each year from some form of stress-related illness. And it affects the body in so many different ways; digestion, back pain, tiredness, stomach ulcers, problems sleeping and even reproductive issues are common with people with high, prolonged levels of stress. A study in America estimated that stress accounted for 75% of visits to the doctor. Often if a problem is linked with stress, reflexology should be able to help. And whether reflexology physically or mentally helps, it varies from person to person. Sometimes it just helps people to feel more in control of their illness, injury, or life in general. And that’s a very powerful thing for people, particularly those struggling with stress.
There are very few medical exceptions of people you can’t treat. The youngest person I’ve ever treated is four years old, and the eldest is 88. Even babies can be treated with reflexology. It’s very inclusive in that respect.
Broadly, the five key benefits involve aiding muscle repair, releasing stress/tension in the muscles, increasing blood flow, deeply relaxing the patient and improving their sleeping patterns. I’ve found it most beneficial to people who are running and training a lot, perhaps for a marathon or triathlon, because it also helps with mental stress reduction. When the body is stressed, your mind is stressed. That can impede muscle repair and general wellbeing, and sleep patterns can get disrupted or disturbed. The overall reduction in stress leaves energy for the body to heal itself, so that’s one of the main, overall benefits of reflexology.
I’ve got a friend who is training for the marathon at the minute, who comes to see me for appointments. When I asked her what she felt the main benefit for her was, she says it feels like it ‘resets her feet’ and takes out all that tension that builds up over the course of a long run. She says it helps to realign everything and she feels better for it.
And other runners and athletes have highlighted benefits, too. The Greek men’s handball team commented on a significant, measurable decline in medical expenses during two periods where a reflexologist was integrated into their medical team. During both periods, they won the European Challenge Cup and two separate Greek championships. Stress impairs healing roughly in the first 96 hours after damage or muscle tear and, so, reducing this stress allows for maximum muscle repair. When considering post-training or post-race recovery, the optimal times for having reflexology treatment are in the days shortly following.
I start by asking clients to fill out a straightforward medical form: because it’s holistic, it’s essential to take people’s individual lifestyles into account and that helps me understand how that affects what’s going on in their body. You need to get an overall impression of how someone lives their life and discover what else they can be doing to support their reflexology treatment.
I ask people to sit in an incredibly comfortable, zero-gravity reclining chair with their head back. Some people use a massage couch. I use a cream on the feet and the following treatment involves a mix of massage technique and very fine pressure point work. You work over the entire foot, which simultaneously stimulates reflexes around the body. And because everything is linked, the feedback I get is that it ‘feels great’ all over. There can be points where it feels incredibly tender and that’s generally where there are imbalances in the body. By working over those reflexes what we’re trying to do is bring about changes in the rest of the body. Some people fall asleep, other people just feel sleepy and relaxed. Some people chat and find the chatting just as much a part of their relaxing therapy. Sometimes just having someone to listen to them is what they need.
Generally, treatment is carried out in hour-long appointments. For young children or older people, I carry out shorter treatments that happen more frequently. Generally, the more frequent, the more beneficial.
But, it largely depends on what they’re coming in for. Most people start weekly appointments for six to eight weeks, then over the first few weeks we see how their body responds, how they feel mentally and, then, gradually start to stretch out appointments over time. Some people opt for one appointment every two weeks to keep them ticking over, whereas others come every six months just as a treat. Most people come once a month because it suits their lifestyle and their finances.
It largely depends what the injury is. People often get frustrated when they’re out of action from injury and that doesn’t aid their pain or recovery at all. And, chances are, it just adds to any stress they may be feeling. Reflexology helps with circulation and can boost immunity – when the body is relaxed it can help the immune system function better – and it can also help with lymphatic drainage. For example, the webbing on the fingers to the end of the knuckle joints correspond to the lymphatic system, which traps and cleans toxins, bacteria, viruses and other foreign substances travelling through.
If someone has something specifically wrong, such as a sprained ankle, you can still do work on the feet very gently. It depends on the person and how much they’ll tolerate, though you can certainly work on the uninjured foot and the hand on the opposite side. I’ve had to do that before with a client with broken bones in their feet. You can also do facial reflexology as well. So, there are definitely ways to get around it.
We hope this has given you a taster of how reflexology operates and how it could benefit you if you’re training for a marathon, or any long-distance training you might be doing.
Nicola Wingfield is a Kent-based reflexologist, offering a range of treatments, such as foot and facial reflexology and Indian head massage. You can find out more about reflexology and how to book treatments at www.soulrevivalreflexology.co.uk
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