Nov 14 2008

Reflexology in UK Schools

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Comments: 34

Reflexology is pure, unadulterated, grade-A nonsense. That isn’t stopping some UK schools from spending £90,000 to provide reflexology treatments for aggressive and anti-social behavior in students under 13. As reported by the Guardian, Lambeth council in south London is planning on spending taxpayer money on charlatans to address problem students.


Reflexology is based upon the belief that the body is divided into zones, and these zones are mapped on the hands and feet. The reflexology research website explains:

Reflexology is the physical act of applying pressure to the feet and hand with specific thumb, finger and hand techniques without the use of oil or lotion. it is based on a system of zones and reflex areas that reflect an image of the body on the feet and hands with a premise that such work effects a physical change to the body.

This is an archaic homonculus or mapping-based system – the idea that one part of the body maps to the entire body. Iridology is another example – proponents believe that the flecks in the iris relate directly to specific organs or parts of the body.

Reflexologists claim that by massaging the foot they can affect remote parts of the body by influencing “energy”, detoxifying, blood flow, or through nerve impulses. Again, reflexology research enlightens us:

Pressure sensors in the feet and hands are a part of the body’s reflexive response that makes possible the “fight or flight” reaction to danger. Feet ready to flee and hands ready to fight communicate with the body’s internal organs to make possible wither eventuality. The sudden adrenal surge that enables a person to lift a car is an example of this reaction. Reflexology taps into this reflex network, providing an exercise of pressure sensors and thus the internal organs to which they are inextricably tied.

The problem, as anyone even vaguely familiar with human anatomy knows, is that this is all bunk.  Pressure of the feet does not provoke a sympathetic “fight or flight” response, there is no direct physiological connection between specific locations on the feet and specific organs or body party, nor is there any reflex network tied to pressure sensors in the feet. This is simply made up – it’s fiction. It is not part of any text of anatomy or physiology. As a side note, there are pressure sensors on the hands and feet, the purpose of which is to feel pressure. But these specialized sensory nerve endings exist throughout the body – it’s how you feel pressure. Again – this is not part of any imaginary reflex network.

And of course there is no credible scientific evidence for any specific effects claimed for reflexology. It therefore fails on both theoretical and evidentiary grounds.

But I Feel Better!

Some people find foot massages to be pleasant and relaxing.  (Others report that reflexolgy techniques can be painful.) This is a non-specific effect from massage – humans generally like the sensation of being touched. This is no evidence for any specific effect from reflexology itself nor support for the unscientific mechanisms claimed for it. But it can be very compelling to people who feel they have been helped by foot massage.

The officials who have decided to waste taxpayer money on pseudoscience also justify their actions with non-specific effects. A “spokeswoman” reports:

“In fact there has been a 50% increase in attendance and 60% decrease in exclusions among young people involved in the programme.”

The program also includes standard methods of behavioral control, and it is certainly possible that having a foot massage may have a calming effect on aggressive children. If nothing else, it removes them for a time from the usual classroom environment and gives them special attention. It’s quite possible that the attention that would go along with any novel intervention, no matter how absurd or worthless, would achieve similar results.

The more insidious problem with this program is that it represents official recognition of pseudoscience. This implicitly teaches the students that such pseudoscientific notions are legitimate. I wonder if they they then expect to learn in science class about the reflexology network and how it removes toxins and restores the flow of “energy” to the body.

This is officially the worst idea I heard all week. The officials behind this should be ashamed of themselves, or rather they should be shamed by the taxpayers whose money they have squandered and the parents whose children they have subjected to pseudoscience.

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