Complementary therapies are often used or sought by women during pregnancy. Reflexology is one such therapy. Did you know there are different types of reflexology? Expert in complementary therapies Dr Denise Tiran, CEO and Education Director for Expectancy, explains the differences in reflex therapies and how they may be used to support during pregnancy and birth
Introduction to reflex therapies
“Reflexology” is a generic term for a range of complementary therapies based on the principle that one small area of the body represents a “map” or chart of the whole. It is not simply foot “massage” – reflex therapies have their own theories, mechanisms of action, effects, contraindications and precautions, as well as a developing body of research evidence.
Not all forms of reflex therapy are the same. Some western styles focus on holistic relaxation, similar to massage, any therapeutic effects arising largely from reduced stress hormones, such as cortisol, and a corresponding rise in endorphins, oxytocin and other hormones. Eastern reflexology is based on acupuncture energy lines and is very different from western reflexology, both in theory and practice.
Reflex zone therapy (RZT), which I practise and teach in my courses, was devised by the German midwife, Hanne Marquardt, in the 1950s and is often used by midwives in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Scandinavia. RZT is a clinical tool based on anatomical and physiological principles and usually practised only by registered healthcare professionals, including nurses, physiotherapists and midwives. The relaxation effect is a pleasant but less significant element of treatment which is focused specifically on easing or resolving physiological symptoms and sometimes pathological conditions.
It is still not clear exactly how reflex therapies work, although there is ongoing research to “map” the reflex points on the feet, using technology such as MRI, ECG and EEG. Sceptics believe that it is a placebo effect or that the touch or the interaction between client and therapist induces relaxation. Reflex therapy is, however, known to be analgesic, possibly via the gate control mechanism, stimulates peristalsis and circulation and may have neurological effects. It remains difficult, however, to draw definitive conclusions as to the precise mechanism of action of reflex therapies. I have refrained from providing research references in this article because many recent papers are from the Middle East where practice is very different, and studies in which “reflexology” is performed more frequently involve superficial foot massage. For futher exploration of reflexology research, especially in relation to postdates pregnancy, see Tiran 2023.
Reflex zone therapy
In RZT, the “map” of the feet is different from generic western styles such as Ingham or Bailey reflexology. RZT encompasses the entire surfaces of both feet, where as other styles may not use the upper surface of the feet (dorsum). The right foot relates to the right side of the body and the left foot to the left side. The dorsum represents the front of the body, with reflex zones for the face, breasts and abdominal muscles. The outer edge of each foot represents zones for outer aspects of the body eg shoulders, hips, ovaries – whereas the inner edges of the feet represent midline organs such as the uterus, vagina and spine. The soles are mapped with points for all the internal organs (heart, lungs, gastrointestinal zones etc). Where there are two organs (eg eyes, kidneys) there is a reflex zone on each foot, but if there is only one organ the reflex point will be on the same side eg the liver zone is on the right foot. The stomach and heart are central organs but displaced to the left, so there is part of the reflex zone on each foot, that on the left being noticeably larger.
Most styles of generic reflex therapy involve a treatment session of around an hour in which full-foot coverage by the practitioner’s hands help to relax the client. Conversely, in RZT, a treatment is generally much shorter (no more than 35 minutes, especially in pregnancy) or may involve focused treatments of just 5-15 minutes to treat specific symptoms. By working on precise points on the feet, impulses are thought to be directed to the relevant organs, having a physiological effect on that distal part of the body to which the foot points relate.
One aspect in which I am particularly interested is the diagnostic potential of the reflex zones on the feet. It is possible to see or feel aspects which may indicate current, previous or even impending disorders, from teeth that may need a filling to breast lumps requiring medical referral. Whilst working at the University of Greenwich, I investigated prediction of stages of the menstrual cycle by examination and palpation of the relevant foot zones. I consistently have around a 70% success rate in identifying the active ovary in the current cycle, estimating the day of the cycle and predicting when the next menstrual period is due.
RZT in midwifery practice
Reflexology is a popular relaxation therapy and many expectant parents seek treatment from independent practitioners. However, offering general relaxation reflexology in the NHS may not be practical due to the time required for each individual. In order to offer an equitable service it is essential to rationalise which women can receive it and it may be preferable – and easier – to introduce RZT for specific indications, eg postdates pregnancy or antenatal and postnatal issues. Given the variety of styles of reflexology, it is paramount that all midwives in one unit practise the same style to ensure standardisation of treatments and reflex point location and to allow for audit of the service.
RZT can be used to reduce stress, anxiety and fear and to ease pain in pregnancy, birth or the postnatal period, but it comes into its own when treating specific symptoms. Whilst at the University running a degree in complementary therapies, I established a clinic offering RZT and other therapies (aromatherapy, herbal medicine, moxibustion for breech etc) to treat pregnancy issues. During the ten years of the clinic, I treated almost 6000 women with RZT. Over these years, I had considerable success in treating women with symptoms such as backache, sciatica, pelvic girdle pain and carpal tunnel syndrome, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, sickness and haemorrhoids. I was involved in setting up a postdates pregnancy clinic in which we used RZT, combined with aromatherapy and acupressure to help avoid induction, and showed that RZT can facilitate labour progress and ease pain; it may even be effective in dealing with retained placenta. RZT can also aid postnatal recovery and stimulate or supress lactation.
RZT is a specific form of reflex therapy which was devised by a midwife and which fits well with contemporary midwifery practice. Its somewhat more reductionist approach enables short treatments to ease symptoms and reduce the need for intervention, particularly in labour. Although the evidence base is limited, there is an increasing body of knowledge to support its use – and because treatment does not involve any oils or creams, it is safer than aromatherapy, both for individual parents and for staff.
RZT is not an easy therapy to learn. It is necessary to learn the whole therapy before applying the principles to midwifery practice, unlike aromatherapy in which a small selection of oils and massage techniques can be studied for labour care. I am honoured to offer the only UK reflex zone therapy course for midwives and many graduates are now using it in private practice, with a few maternity units incorporating RZT into postdates pregnancy clinics.
Reference: Tiran D 2023 Complementary therapies for postdates pregnancy. Singing Dragon, London
Dr Denise Tiran HonDUniv FRCM MSc RM
CEO and Education Director, expectancy