Reflexology — an ancient foot massage technique practiced by traditional healers since the golden age of the Egyptian pharaohs — has been found to significantly help cancer patients manage their symptoms and perform daily tasks without difficult, in a new scientific study.
The findings, by Michigan State University researchers, determined breast cancer patients who underwent reflexology reported markedly less shortness of breath — a common symptom in recovering survivors — and were better able to perform daily tasks such as climbing a flight of stairs, getting dressed, or shopping.
The study, which was funded by the National Cancer Institute and published in the journal Oncology Nursing Forum, is first large-scale, randomized study to provide scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of reflexology — a technique based on the idea that stimulating specific points on the feet can improve the functioning of certain organs, glands, and other parts of the body.
"It's always been assumed that [reflexology is] a nice comfort measure, but to this point we really have not, in a rigorous way, documented the benefits," said lead researcher Gwen Wyatt, a professor in the College of Nursing. "This is the first step toward moving a complementary therapy from fringe care to mainstream care."
Wyatt’s study involved 385 women undergoing chemotherapy or hormonal therapy for advanced breast cancer that had spread to other parts of the body. The women were divided into three groups: One received treatment by a certified reflexologist; a second group got a foot massage meant to act like a placebo; and the rest had only standard medical treatment.
After 11 weeks, researchers found the patients in the reflexology group experienced significant improvements in breathing symptoms and in doing everyday tasks. Those who received the "placebo" foot massage also reported reduced fatigue, which came as a surprise to the researchers. Wyatt is now studying whether massage similar to reflexology performed by cancer patients' friends and relatives might be a simple and inexpensive treatment option.
Wyatt said noted health researchers have only recently begun studying reflexology in a scientifically rigorous way, but it's been practiced for thousands of years.
"Reflexology comes out of the Chinese tradition and out of Egypt,” she said. "In fact, it's shown in hieroglyphics. It's been around for a very long time."