Fans of reflexology have long been singing the praises of its benefits.
Based on ancient Chinese practices, it involves carefully applying pressure to specific areas – mainly in the feet, hands and ears – to treat health complaints elsewhere.
The core principle is that these pressure points relate to other specific parts, or functions, of the body.
As well as being cited as potentially offering relief for a long list of ailments, including headaches, aches and pains and depression, reflexology is offered as a relaxing, stress-busting treatment.
However, though recognition of the benefits of complementary medicines has increased, with some GPs even advising patients to give them a go, lack of scientific proof has meant some medics are sceptical.
But a recent study by the University of Portsmouth looks set to change that even further, after researchers found that, in certain circumstances, it may be as effective as painkillers.
The small study saw 15 people submerge their hands in ice cold water. In one session they were given reflexology beforehand, and in another they believed they were receiving pain relief from a TENS machine (an alternative to painkillers) that wasn’t actually switched on.
Those who had reflexology first were able to keep their hand in the water for longer before it felt painful and were able to tolerate the pain longer.
Dr Carol Samuel, a trained reflexologist and co-author of the study, says: ‘As we predicted, reflexology decreased pain sensations.
‘It’s likely that reflexology works in a similar manner to acupuncture by causing the brain to release chemicals that lessen pain signals.’
Pointing out that this is an early study and more are needed, she adds: ‘It looks like it may be used to complement conventional drug therapy in the treatment of conditions that are associated with pain, such as osteoarthritis, backache and cancers.’
Many believe the therapy works in a similar way to acupuncture, by stimulating meridians (energy lines) in the body through applying pressure to specific points. This is thought to release blockages in energy.
Some believe internal organs adjust to the sensory input of a therapeutic touch and other theories include the possibility that reflexology releases endorphins and encephalins – the body’s natural painkillers.