Reflexology is a centuries-old alternative health therapy that says there are "reflexive" areas on the feet and hands that correspond to specific organs, glands and other parts of the body.
For example, it is believed that the tips of the toes reflect the head; the heart and chest are located around the ball of the foot; the liver, pancreas and kidney are in the arch of the foot and the lower back and intestines are near the heel.
This concept of "zone therapy" was introduced in the U.S. around 1909, and is generally credited to Dr. William H. Fitzgerald, an ear, nose and throat doctor from Connecticut. Eunice Ingram, an American physiotherapist, went on to further develop this zone theory during the 1930s into what is now commonly known as reflexology.
Practitioners say that by applying pressure to these reflex areas, a variety of health benefits can be realized in the corresponding organs. Reported benefits of the therapy include increased relaxation, pain and stress reduction, lowered blood pressure, improved blood flow to brain, kidneys and intestines, and relief from cancer-care symptoms such as vomiting, pain and nausea, which can result from chemotherapy.
Scientific explanations as to why some believe the therapy is effective include that the applied pressure may send signals that serve to balance the nervous system and/or release chemicals such as endorphins that can reduce pain and stress.
Laura Norman, likely one of the city’s best-known and successful practitioners, has been preaching the gospel of reflexology since she discovered its positive effects in 1970 while working with disabled children. She also wrote a best-selling book, Feet First: A Guide to Foot Reflexology, that sold nearly a halfmillion copies.com, residents can sign up for reflexology sessions at offices in Manhattan, Florida or New England, take courses to become a Certified Reflexologist and purchase a variety of health and wellness products.
Her website even features a testimonial from Regis Philbin, co-host of ABC’s Live! with Regis & Kelly, where Philbin proclaims: "Laura Norman’s Reflexology spared me from a kidney operation and saved my life."
However, not everyone is as enthusiastic as Philbin when it comes to the curative powers of reflexology.
"There is no clinical evidence to support some of the claims made by practitioners and proponents of reflexology," said Dr. Stephen Novella, a clinical neurologist at Yale University and also a senior fellow at the James Randi Educational Foundation, a nonprofit that works to debunk unproven scientific claims.
Novella added that at best, reflexology amounted to a "foot massage." While he doubts the medical benefits, he did acknowledge that reflexology probably works "for pure stress relief."
Alison Cossette, spa director for The Spa at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan, says that many clients come in for foot massages and relief of athletic injuries to the foot such as plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendonitis. "Many of our customers come to us with running-related injuries to the foot, and reflexology treatment can provide a great deal of relief and stress reduction in that area," Cossette said.
Cossette reiterated that reflexology holds to the theory of reflex areas on the feet that correspond to a "map" of the body. She also pointed out that none of the spa’s practitioners make any specific medical claims with regard to curing illnesses or diseases.
Lisa Cohn, founder of 10-year-old Park Avenue Nutrition & Spa (parkavenutrition. com), is an expert in medical nutritional therapy, as well as being a registered dietician. "People interested in reflexology therapy are mainly looking for stress reduction and relief," Cohn says.
She added that many of the spa’s male clients call the therapy a "vacation," referring to the fact that many patients often become so relaxed that they fall asleep during treatment.
But she said that still other clients have reported the therapy’s positive effect on various health issues, such as digestive problems, back problems, headaches and especially foot pain and running-related foot conditions.
Saying that reflexology has "inherent" value, Cohn added that many academics and even some physicians have begun to embrace what she refers to as "touch therapy."
Cohn also noted that reflexology is a type of alternative therapy where people see a progressive response, rather than an immediate and drastic difference. "It also depends on the practitioner and how comfortable they make the customer feel," she said.