Reflexology and Fibromyalgia
Reflexology involves the application of pressure to specific areas of the body in order to promote health and induce relaxation. The scientific rationale for reflexology is rooted in observations from a number of early scientists who demonstrated the existence of a neurological relationship between the skin and all internal structures within the body. It is also supported by findings from other early researchers who established links between the nervous system and pressure applied from outside stimuli, as well as the ability of pressure to generate muscle contractions, blood pressure changes, and to influence the mental status of patients.
The mainstream use of reflexology began in the early 1900s, when a physician by the name of William Fitzgerald, M.D. put forth the concept of zone therapy. This concept maintained that pressure, when applied to specific parts of the body, could act in an anesthetizing manner. Dr. Fitzgerald also suggested that bodily energy flowed through various zones that run from the feet to the head, and found that when pressure is applied to a particular reflex point in one foot, it affected other parts of the body. In the 1930s, zone therapy was transformed into what is now known as reflexology by the physiotherapist Eunice Ingham. Although its mainstream use originated in the United States, reflexology has existed in various forms in other cultures for thousands of years. Early examples and historical references to reflexology-like practices have been found in Egypt and Asia, as well as in Native American folklore.
Reflexology and Fibromyalgia
Only one scientific study has been published regarding the use of reflexology to treat fibromyalgia symptoms. The study by Gunnarsdottir & Peden-McAlpine (2010) evaluated the effects of reflexology on pain and other symptoms among six women with fibromyalgia, all of whom met the American College of Radiology (ACR) criteria for a diagnosis of fibromyalgia. Each woman received ten weekly reflexology sessions, and all women were treated by the same reflexologist. At the end of the study, the researchers found that pain decreased in severity among four of the six women, and the areas that responded the best to the reflexology appeared to be the head, shoulders, neck, and arms. Headaches and migraines were particularly improved, which supports findings from other studies that have demonstrated a therapeutic effect of reflexology in the treatment of headaches (Launso et al., 1999). Despite the encouraging results of the study by Gunnarsdottir & Peden-McAlpine, their findings should be interpreted with caution, due to the extremely small sample size and the lack of additional supporting data in the scientific literature.
Despite the lack of published evidence regarding the use of reflexology in treating fibromyalgia specifically, there is considerable research published regarding the use of reflexology in treating various conditions and symptoms commonly experienced by fibromyalgia patients. A small study of fourteen patients with sleep disturbances found that reflexology was effective at improving insomnia (Hughes et al., 2009a), while another slightly larger study of 65 post-partum women determined reflexology to significantly improve sleep quality (Li et al., 2011). In addition to sleep, another small study of 11 patients with rheumatoid arthritis found that treatment with reflexology resulted in significant improvement of fatigue (Otter et al., 2010). Other studies have also found reflexology to be beneficial in improving fatigue in cancer patients, when combined with other alternative medicine practices such as aromatherapy (Kohara et al., 2004), as well as in individuals with multiple sclerosis (Hughes et al., 2009b). Reflexology has also been broadly investigated for its use in relieving pain, and has been found useful in improving pain among individuals with multiple sclerosis (Hughes et al., 2009b), cancer (Kim et al., 2010; Magill & Berenson, 2008; Stephenson et al., 2003), and low back pain (Quinn et al., 2008; Poole et al., 2007). In addition, reflexology was also recently demonstrated to treat cold intolerance under experimental conditions in a small group of ten female volunteers (Zhang et al., 2010).
As with most therapies for treating Fibromyalgia, the effectiveness of Reflexology will likely vary from patient to patient. Though research is clearly limited, Reflexology is also low risk and thus is a treatment option worthy of consideration.