When is a foot rub more than a foot rub? When it's reflexology, an ancient form of body work gaining in popularity.
Evidence supporting the value of reflexology is anecdotal, but the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health has funded a two-year study on whether reflexology can relieve pain in people with cancer.
Dr. Rick Lehman, an orthopedic surgeon in St. Louis, said he is impressed with some uses of reflexology.
"I do a lot of work with Olympic athletes, and they use practitioners who practice reflexology and other pressure-point therapy," he said. "What I've seen of it has been very positive -- I've had athletes get better from it. A lot of these therapies get a bad rap because doctors who don't understand the treatments say they are bad. I may not understand reflexology or know how to do it, but I've seen it work when used for soft-tissue problems."
Lehman added that the treatment would not be appropriate for a number of illnesses, such as diabetes and liver cancer.
Dr. Jeffrey Brooks, a podiatrist, explained that the philosophy behind reflexology is that pressure applied to the feet is said to stimulate other parts of the body, which may lead to restoration of the body's natural equilibrium.
"A lot of the nerves through the skeletal system do go through the foot," he said, but he still gives the practice "mixed reviews."
The American Medical Association places reflexology in the category with alternative therapies such as acupressure, acupuncture and massage therapy, according to spokeswoman Lori Bolas.
As such, she said, the AMA says more research is necessary to validate the therapy's effectiveness. It also cautions doctors to educate themselves on alternative therapies and cautions patients not to stop conventional therapy.
Certified reflexologists, about 25,000 of whom are registered worldwide through the International Institute of Reflexology, are quick to point out that the practice is a complementary therapy, not intended as a replacement for medical attention. Also, reflexology is not a diagnostic tool and does not claim to cure anyone.
Some people seek reflexology treatments as a way to relax the mind and body. Others have treatments in the hope of relieving a variety of acute and chronic conditions. Miguel Cotignola, 33, credits reflexology with allowing him to participate in marathons in spite of running on a leg with a pin in it.
"I broke my leg in college while playing soccer," said Cotignola. "I had two pins in it for a long time, but now there is just one. I had tried deep massage therapy for my leg, and that made it feel better, but it didn't help me run. A friend recommended reflexology."
While in training for the Chicago Marathon in October, Cotignola ran up to 40 miles a week.
"My leg muscles were really tight," he said.
After he started reflexology treatments about five months ago, his leg got a lot better.
Paula Stone, a certified reflexologist, is so proud of Cotignola, who is one of her clients, that she can recite his finishing time at the recent marathon -- 3 hours, 53 minutes and 49 seconds. That said, Stone, who earned her certification 10 years ago, takes no credit for the improvement in Cotignola's leg.
"My goal is to balance and normalize the body," she said. "In reality, I don't do anything to you. If I use the reflexology techniques correctly, the body will normalize and balance itself."
Some practitioners go through 300 or more hours of training before applying for certification. Others, seeking certification as massage therapists, learn a less intensive version of reflexology. Kathy Range, a certified massage therapist for the past nine years, offers reflexology treatments at Scandals Day Salon, in St. Louis.
"Reflexology is a targeted massage, and the benefits are many," said Range. "Interest in reflexology definitely has increased over the last five years, as more people have learned about it."
Sharon Turney finds reflexology treatments relaxing, even though the technique is more than simple massage. Turney, 58, is a water aerobics instructor who has had three screws in one toe since foot surgery about a year ago.
"Reflexology makes my toe more flexible," said Turney. "It also helps get the knots out of my body and relaxes me."
Sister Kate Filla, who helps administer a support services program for her order, has had a part-time reflexology practice in St. Louis for about 18 years.
"Reflexology is a wonderful tool to stimulate the body's self-healing properties, because it is based on the physiology of the foot, which is a microcosm for the whole body," she said.
What to expect
At your first appointment, the reflexology practitioner will ask about your medical history and any specific complaints, then briefly discuss your lifestyle.
Next, you will remove your shoes and socks and sit in a reclining chair or lie on a massage table. The practitioner then will rub, pull and twist every part of your feet, including your toes.
Though reflexology is not intended as a replacement for medical attention and is not a diagnostic tool or a cure for any ailment, reflexologists say the treatments may be beneficial for the following conditions:
* Back pain
* Sleep disorders
* Hormonal imbalances
* Sports injuries
* Digestive disorders
* Stress-related conditions
During treatment, you may feel relaxed or you may experience temporary discomfort as the practitioner works on a sore spot. Treatments typically last 30 to 50 minutes and cost about $1 a minute.
For more information about reflexology, including how to find a practitioner in your area, visit the Reflexology Association of America's Web site: www.reflexology-usa.org.
-- Patricia Corrigan