A recent large-scale, randomized study of reflexology offers the strongest evidence yet that it can help cancer patients manage their symptoms and perform daily tasks. This study investigated reflexology as a complement to standard cancer treatment.

Reflexology is based on the idea that stimulating specific points on the feet can improve the functioning of corresponding organs, glands, and other parts of the body.

This study involved 385 women undergoing chemotherapy or hormonal therapy for advanced-stage breast cancer that had spread beyond the breast. The women were randomly assigned to one of three groups. One group was treated by a certified reflexologist, one group received a foot massage that was meant to act as a placebo, and the third group had only standard medical treatment no foot manipulation. The participants were surveyed about their symptoms at intake and after 5 and 11 weeks.

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The researchers found that those in the reflexology group experienced significantly less shortness of breath, a common symptom in breast cancer patients. Perhaps due to their improved breathing, they were also better able to perform daily tasks such as climbing a flight of stairs, getting dressed, or going grocery shopping. The lead author, Gwen Wyatt, PhD, RN, professor at Michigan State University, expressed surprise that the effects of reflexology appeared to be primarily physical, and not psychological.

“We didn’t get the change we might have expected with the emotional symptoms like anxiety and depression,” Wyatt said. “The most significant changes were documented with the physical symptoms.”

Also unexpected was the reduced fatigue reported by those who received the “placebo” foot massage, particularly since the reflexology group did not show similarly significant improvement. Wyatt is now investigating whether a friend or family member can successfully deliver reflexology after being trained by certified reflexologists to perform the nine specific steps used in the study.

Reflexology did not appear to reduce pain or nausea, but Wyatt said that could be because the drugs for combating those symptoms are generally quite effective, so the women may not have reported them to begin with.

This study was published in Oncology Nursing Forum (2012;  doi:10.1188/12.ONF.568-577).