Why Consider Reflexology for Multiple Sclerosis
When Ann Romney, wife of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), one of the treatment options she turned to was reflexology. Is there any evidence to suggest you should consider reflexology for treatment of MS or is it just a waste of time?
What is reflexology?
Reflexology is a type of body therapy and is sometimes referred to as a form of massage. However, even though massage and reflexology both involve touch, they are not the same.
The practice of reflexology involves applying pressure to specific points on the feet, hands, or ears that correspond to certain organs or bodily systems. Massage therapists manipulate specific muscles and muscle groups or fascia.
Professionals who practice reflexology follow a type of road map that designates reflex points. Although there is some variation between practitioners around the world concerning the selection of points, there is general consensus on many of them.
Reflexology is considered a complementary treatment and has been shown to be helpful in relieving symptoms associated with headache, anxiety, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), and other conditions, including MS. With that in mind, here are some studies that have illustrated the benefits of reflexology for patients with MS.
One study involved 53 individuals with MS who completed a 11-week period of either reflexology or sham treatment—nonspecific massage of the calves. Those in the reflexology group were treated with the appropriate pressure on specific points on the feet along with massage of the calves.
The treatment period was followed by a three-month follow-up. Researchers documented information on the intensity of paresthesias (tingling, burning, and similar sensations), urinary symptoms, muscle spasticity, and muscle strength.
Here are the findings:
- Patients in the reflexology group showed significant improvement in paresthesias, spasticity, and urinary symptoms
- Mean improvement in muscle strength between the two groups was equally marginally significant
- Improvement in the intensity of paresthesias was still significant at the three-month follow-up
A total of 73 men and women with MS were assigned to receive either reflexology or sham reflexology once weekly for 10 weeks in a randomized, double-blind study with follow-ups at six and 12 weeks. The investigators were looking mainly for the impact of reflexology on pain, but they also noted the effect on fatigue, depression, disability, muscle spasms, and quality of life.
Pain intensity improved significantly in both the reflexology and the sham groups. The reviewers also noted significant improvements in fatigue, depression, disability, muscle spasms, and quality of life in both groups.
How did the authors explain these findings? They suggested that a placebo effect may have been in play or that participants in the sham reflexology group benefited from stimulation of reflex points via non-specific massage.
This last and most recent study was a single-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial that involved 20 individuals with moderate to severe MS. They received either reflexology or sham reflexology one hour per week for eight weeks.
Both groups showed small improvements in the Multiple Sclerosis Impact Scale after eight weeks, with a slightly better improvement seen in the reflexology group. Participants also showed some improvements in other symptoms but they were similar between the two groups and returned to baseline at follow-up.
Although the findings did not support the use of reflexology to relieve symptoms of MS, the authors pointed out that this complementary option was well tolerated by patients with moderate to severe MS.
Thus far the studies of reflexology for relief of MS symptoms have yielded inconsistent results. Unlike the use of medications, however, there are no reported side effects from use of this therapeutic approach.
If you like the idea of reflexology, you could find a professional reflexologist to work with you. Some people try their hand at reflexology on their own by learning a few of the reflex points from a professional or reference materials and asking a partner or friend to press on the points, or they do it themselves.
Either way, reflexology is a complementary treatment option for MS that may provide some relief while avoiding side effects. What do you think?
Hughes CM et al. Reflexology for the treatment of pain in people with multiple sclerosis: a double-blind randomized sham-controlled clinical trial. Multiple Sclerosis 2009 Nov; 15(11): 1329-38
Miller L et al. Evaluation of the effects of reflexology on quality of life and symptomatic relief in multiple sclerosis patients with moderate to severe disability: a pilot study. Clinical Rehabilitation 2013 Jul; 27(7): 591-98
Siev-Ner I et al. Reflexology treatment relieves symptoms of multiple sclerosis: a randomized controlled study. Multiple Sclerosis 2003 Aug; 9(4): 356-61