Ahh: Reflexology eases cancer symptoms

MICHIGAN STATE (US) — A type of foot massage practiced since the age of the pharaohs can help cancer patients manage their symptoms and perform daily tasks.

The study, published in the journal Oncology Nursing Forum, is the first large-scale randomized 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,” says lead author Gwen Wyatt, a professor in the College of Nursing At Michigan State. “This is the first step toward moving a complementary therapy from fringe care to mainstream care.”

View larger. Michigan State’s Bott Building for Nursing Education and Research features a reflexology path that students, staff, faculty, and visitors can walk to relieve stress and improve overall health.(Credit: G.L. Kohuth/Michigan State)


Reflexology is based on the idea that stimulating specific points on the feet can improve the functioning of corresponding organs, glands and other parts of the body.

The study involved 385 women undergoing chemotherapy or hormonal therapy for advanced-stage breast cancer that had spread beyond the breast. The women were assigned randomly to three groups: Some received treatment by a certified reflexologist, others got a foot massage meant to act like a placebo, and the rest had only standard medical treatment and no foot manipulation.

Wyatt and colleagues surveyed participants about their symptoms at intake and then checked in with them after five weeks and 11 weeks.

They found that those in the reflexology group experienced significantly less shortness of breath, a common symptom in breast cancer patients. Perhaps 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 says she was surprised to find 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 says. “The most significant changes were documented with the physical symptoms.”

Also unexpected was the reduced fatigue reported by those who received the “placebo” foot massage, particularly since the reflexology group did not show similarly significant improvement.

Wyatt is now researching whether massage 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 says 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.

Although health researchers only recently have begun studying reflexology in a scientifically rigorous way, it’s widely practiced in many parts of the world and dates back thousands of years.

“Reflexology comes out of the Chinese tradition and out of Egypt. In fact, it’s shown in hieroglyphics. It’s been around for a very long time.”

Researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston contributed to the study that was funded by the National Cancer Institute.

Source: Michigan State