“Gag reflex” (Reflexology)

While at the mall, I had the option of hanging around while my wife got her hair done. But I figured if I was going to waste away in a chair surrounded by bright posters and a foreign environment, I may as well hit the relexologist.

Reflexology involves massaging the feet to treat pain or disease anywhere in the body except, ironically, the feet. Different areas of the feet are said to correspond to specific body parts. The practice is based on the unfounded notion that humans have an energy field called Qi, which relexologists manipulate in order to induce healing.

Dr. William Fitzgerald made up the idea that the body has 10 energy zones. Eunie Ingham simplified this by eliminating nine of the zones and declaring the feet to be the gateway to tissue renewal and organ mending. Neither Fitzgerald’s idea, nor Ingham’s truncated one, have any scientific basis.

I settled into my chair, which reclined and was cushier than what the salon was offering. This was paying off already. My practitioner was Asian (I correctly guessed Vietnamese). Many reflexologists have this distinction, since it appeals to those who think they are tapping into ancient Far East wisdom. This has been updated for the modern age in the assumption that Asians in general and Indians in particular are strong computer programmers.

Citing ancient, irrelevant authority is a common alternative medicine tactic, so I’m used to seeing it. But I was mortified to see the idea being promoted by the University of Minnesota through its Center for Spirituality and Healing. Also, I don’t mind a reputable university having a center for spirituality and one for healing, but am disturbed when they are the same place.

On this center’s website, it noted that reflexology was possibly used by the ancient Egyptians, Indian Buddhists, and the Dynastic Chinese. That’s some nice history there, but consciously lacking on the site was any documentation of reflexology’s efficiency.

My practitioner began gently pushing, pressing, pinching, and pulling. It was pleasant enough, better than what she was on the receiving end of: Specifics of my trip to Ho Chi Minh City. On the wall hung a chart that showed which area of the foot corresponds to which body parts. There are many such charts out there, few agreeing with each other. This would be like human anatomy being different depending on which medical school one attends.

Whatever chart is used, it is never indicated what disease or condition will be treated. The only concern is location. A man with a strained triceps muscle and another with a tumor in the same place will receive identical reflexology treatments.

Reflexologists claim they can alleviate or prevent all manner of illnesses: Migraines, stuffy sinuses, backaches, circulatory problems, hormonal imbalances, and almost anything else. However, a systematic review of randomized controlled trials concluded in 2009 that, “The best evidence available does not demonstrate that reflexology is an effective treatment for any medical condition.” A similar review in 2011 reached an identical conclusion. Other than maybe helping sore feet, reflexology has no medical value. As such, practitioner claims and patient anecdotes sustain the field, bolstered by post hoc reasoning and communal reinforcement.

Modern medicine has extended life spans, discovered anesthesia, eliminated many diseases, and assuaged others. So it is disheartening that sham treatments are embraced by so many. The substantial ignorance about how the immune system and the scientific method work is one of the reasons. Cheapness, desperation, and misplaced anti-pharmaceutical industry anxiety are other factors.

On the mortifation-inducing UM site, we are told: “Millions of people use reflexology to complement other treatments. It is growing increasingly popular across Europe and Asia as both a complement and as a preventive measure.” At no point does it claim to work. A small part of me wants to give UM credit for that, but most of me wonders why they are promoting this at all.

During my treatment, the prodding continued, with her asking me periodically if I felt any discomfort. Any tinge of pain was supposed to reveal hidden dangers lurking within. For instance, a throb in the ball of my right foot might reveal stomach ailments (though a throb in the stomach would be a better sign). She threw in the qualifier that a throb might reveal only the potential for medical misfortune.

She made it through both feet without me experiencing any tinges. This was presented as proof that reflexology was a vehicle which showed my good health. So whether a patient is sick now, tomorrow, or never, reflexology is proven to work. That sounds like a mighty sketchy conclusion, but I did get some nice peppermint tea out of the deal.


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