What is reflexology and does it really work? We join an expert reflexologist to find out

Georgia Chambers, Alice Budd

Do you know about reflexology - the practice where pressure is applied to various points on the soles of your feet?

Advocates believe it can relieve stress, improve blood circulation and even alleviate chronic pain.

But does it?

We sent two writers to trial a treatment - and quiz Anamaya reflexologist Rupert French all about it.

What is reflexology?

"It's a specialist massage on the feet using specific thumb and finger hand techniques.

"The theory behind it is that the feet are a micro-system of the body and by applying pressure to specific parts of the feet you can have a different effect on the corresponding part of the body."

How does reflexology work on the body?

"There are a number of theories as to how reflexology works but we still don't know the exact mechanism.

"One theory is the nerve impulse theory, the idea that pressing a point on the foot sends a message to the brain and then on to the corresponding part of the body via the nervous system.

"Another is that the treatment works by unblocking energy meridians, the same way acupuncture does.

"Also, there's the notion that the relaxing effect of reflexology eases a lot of pain, discomfort and illness caused by stress.

"Of course, you can't forget the placebo effect, which has an important part to play, as it does in all therapies."

What is reflexology good for?

"Stress is one of the main reasons why clients come and see me. So many conditions have a root cause in stress. Left unchecked, stress can gradually weaken the body, affect sleep and energy levels and can eventually lead to illness.

"I see a lot of people with unresolved chronic pain and people with hormonal issues related to the menstrual cycle and the menopause.

"Some of my clients also find reflexology great for working through the different stages of pregnancy."

Reflexologist Rupert says stress-related problems are one of the key reasons as to why people visit him (Rupert French)

Is reflexology the miracle cure we've all been looking for?

"Not quite - we're not allowed to diagnose and cannot claim to cure!"

Who should get reflexology?

"Reflexology is for anyone and everyone!

"Generally speaking though, my clients tend to split into three categories: those who come with a specific complaint or reason, those who use it as a maintenance treatment to mitigate the effects of stress and those who just find it wonderfully relaxing and do it as a treat.

"Over the last couple of years, I've seen an increase in clients coming for sports and performance-related issues, which is great news, as this is one area where reflexology really does bring benefits.

"Prima ballerina Francesca Hayward came to me last year as she was experiencing painful foot cramps during her performances. No other therapy had been able to help, but within three to four treatments, her cramps had almost totally disappeared."

How often do you advise getting treatment?

"It very much depends on why you're coming.

"For preventive treatments, some people come once a month, others come once a week. It depends on your stress levels!

"For specific complaints, I'd recommend a course of treatments. Here, frequency can be key, as the effect of a treatment wears off after a few days and then you're back to square one."

This all sounds great - but is reflexology medically proven to work?

"There's plenty of anecdotal evidence but unfortunately very little in the way of clinical trials.

"There have been a number of small studies that show reflexology is good for pain, improves circulation and helps relaxation among other things.

"There will always be people who dismiss reflexology because of the lack of clinical evidence, and that's fair enough.

"The only way we can change these people's minds is by treating them and letting them see for themselves how they feel afterwards."

What do you think stops people from trying reflexology?

"A big factor is cost - it can be expensive and the frustrating thing is it's often the people who can't afford it who need it the most.

"This is where employers could step in - there would be huge benefits for both employer and employees including healthier, happier and more productive staff.

"People are also worried it might be painful, which it can be but it's never excruciating! Pain is very important as it tells us which areas need attention but we always work within a client's pain threshold.

"Lastly, a lot of people just don't like having their feet touched - don't worry, it's nothing like having your feet tickled as a child!"

Reflexologist tend to have different takes on the reflexology map (Rupert French)

That's a great picture - is it a reflexology map?

"Yes, it is. Back in the 1930s, Eunice Ingham was the first person to map out the reflexes on the feet as we know them today.

"Since then there have been many different maps drawn up. On the whole they are the same, but they do differ a bit in the finer details. Practitioners just use them as guides so we know which areas to investigate."

How can I find a reflexologist?

"If you're going to try reflexology for the first time, you want to find a good practitioner.

"Consider their qualifications, whether they specialise in your particular complaint and whether their ethos sits well with you - if you don't believe in energy and chakras then don't go for a therapist who highlights that.

"To search for a good reflexologist, I'd recommend aor.org, professionalreflexology.org and therapy-directory.org."

THE VERDICT:

Georgia: "I hate having my feet touched, so I was sceptical to say the least about trying reflexology. It was weird having someone casually chat to you whilst they massaged your feet, but after a short time, I completely relaxed into it.

"I went for a long walk later that day and it was genuinely like walking on clouds - I felt so light and full of energy... though I'm aware that might be a placebo effect.

"That said, my first experience with reflexology pleasantly surprised me. I'd definitely be more willing to get treatments more regularly if they were affordable."

Alice:"I went into the session very intrigued and a tiny bit cynical, as I'm sure most people do.

"Rupert only worked on my feet but I could feel the effects throughout my whole body - plus I had the best night's sleep.

"Don't let preconceptions hold you back from trying reflexology. If you suffer from any kind of pain, stress or insomnia, it's definitely worth a go - at worst, it will leave you extremely relaxed and ready for a nap."

Rupert French is a reflexologist at Anamaya in Kensington and also works at clinics in St Johns Wood and Belgravia. For more information go to rf-reflexology.co.uk.