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Scientists use MRI to validate Reflexology


Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) studies are about to change reflexology, providing illustration of some of reflexology's basic tenets.

In three separate studies, Hong Kong researchers explored with fMRI what happens in the brain when pressure or technique is applied to specific reflex areas of the left foot.


Study 1
Reflexology applied to a specific part of the foot activated the reflected area. Specifically, technique stimulation applied to the inner lateral corner of the left great toe activated the right temporal lobe, the part of the brain related to the reflex area.

Study 2
Reflexology technique stimulation of the eye reflex area activated a region of the brain matching acupupoint stimulation of stroke patients with vision defects but not the visual part of the brain.

Study 3
Reflexology pressure work was compared to electro-acupuncture work. This study is discussed in detail below. The above-mentioned studies will be detailed in the future.

Their finding: the specific parts of the brain activated by such work correlates with reflexology's theory and intended use.

The studies were presented at the NeuroImage Meeting, the Annual Meeting of the Organization of Human Brain Mapping, 2005 and 2006. The researchers found that the"fMRI is useful to investigate the central neural pathway of reflexology." The researchers, Annie M. Tang, Geng Li, Chan C.C., Edward Yang, K.K.K. Wong and R. Li are with the University of Hong Kong.

Comparison of Foot Reflexology and Electro-Acupuncture

The researchers used fMRI to compare what happens in the brain when pressure is applied to foot reflexology's adrenal gland reflex area and what happens when electrical stimulation is applied to acupuncture's K1 point, both located in approximately the same area of the foot.

Findings: the areas of the brain activated by both "were mostly localized at insula region. The stimulated reflex zone and acupoint is the treatment point for psychological anxiety, inflammation and asthma according to Reflexology and Chinese medicine. The activation in insula demonstrated that massage (reflexology) or acupuncture stimuli at the point may probably regulate emotional and pain effects. Our results are consistent with the results in psychological asthma. Also, our results indicate that massage (reflexology) has the same function as acupuncture.

Annie M. Tang, Geng Li, Edward S. Yang, "Comparison of Foot Reflexology and Electro-Acupuncture: An fMRI study."

The insula is associated with emotions, pain and visceral functions as well as integration of homeostatic information. According to Dr. Martin Paulus, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Diego, the mind and body are integrated in the insula. "The insula itself is a sort of receiving zone that reads the physiological state of the entire body and then generates subjective feelings that can bring about actions like eating that keep the body in a state of internal balance."

The fMRI study showed that reflexology stimuli activate other areas of the brain, one of which receives information about sensory information such as pressure to the feet. This area is the somatosensory cortex, the homunculus or the "little man", a representation of the body projected onto the brain. Reflexologists view the reflexology chart as a representation of the body projected onto the foot. The fMRI study thus shows that stimuli applied to the representation of the body on the foot communicate with the representation of the body in the brain. (Kunz and Kunz have long contended that the foot reflexology chart is one of several "homunculi" of the body. At least five parts of the brain are organized as a homunulus.)

Implications of MRI study

The implications are many, among them is an understanding of other recent studies. For one, reflexology work was found to improve pain tolerance and pain threshold.

1. The fMRI study has found a direct correlation between pressure to a single reflex area of the foot and one of the brain's processing areas for pain, the insula.
This same area of the brain helps integrate homeostatic responses and may help explain results obtained in other research studies that link reflexology to changes in the body's viscera.

2. The fMRI study found an additional area of activation to be the left cerebellum ("related to the motor-sensory pathway for conducting impulses between muscles as well as the sensory receptors at left great toe to the primary receiving area in cerebral cortex"). Activation of the cerebellum may demonstrate, among other things, that the foot has a job to do - locomotion - and that the reflexologist's work is impacting this job. For the reflexologist, a frequent client is the foot-sore individual. It's not unusual for a client to get up after a session and say, "I feel like I'm walking on pillows." It's not difficult to imagine that the reflexologist's hands-on work would directly affect the foot and make it feel better.

Implications of other studies

1. Austrian researchers found improved blood flow to the kidneys after reflexology techniques were applied to the kidney reflex area. For example, during the application of reflexology work to the kidney reflex area of the foot, Doppler sonogram showed increase in blood flow to the kidney.
Sudmeier, I.,Bodner, G., Egger, I., Mur, E., Ulmer, H. and Herold, M. (Universitatsklinik fur Innere Medizin, Inssbruk, Austria) "Anderung der nierendurchblutung durch organassoziierte reflexzontherapie am fuss gemussen mit farbkodierter doppler-sonograhpie," Forsch Komplementarmed 1999, Jum;6(3):129-34 (PMID: 14060981, UI: 99392031

Additional research demonstrated impact to the functioning of the kidney when hand reflexology is applied over time (10 minutes, five days a week for 3 weeks) created a positive change in three measures of the kidney's functioning (waste product removal, red blood cell level, immune system). Such a finding is important to those whose kidneys have failed and who undergo dialysis.

Oh SY, "The Effects of Hand Reflexology on Saeng-Chi and Immunity in ESRD Patients," Journal Korean Acad Fundamental Nursing 2002 Aug;9(2):213-225. Korean. Seoul Women's College of Nursing, Korea. seiyng5@snjc.ac.kr

2. Austrian researchers found the same results with an intestine reflex areas and blood flow to the intestines.

3. Further research has demonstrated a change in blood sugar level (pancreas function) as well as functions of the heart.

Such results support a contention by Kunz and Kunz (American Reflexologists) that reflexology's stimulation of pressure to the feet, by definition, communicates with and creates change in the body's homeostasis. The rationale is that in order to walk the body must see itself and fuel itself. The fMRI study demonstrates an actual mechanism with the body to explain such a theory.

Specific reflex areas impact on reflected parts of the body

It was demonstrated that reflexology technique applied to a reflex area impacted a specific, reflected part of the body. More than anything, these studies may affirm for reflexologists the importance of directing technique application to a specific reflex area to impact a specific, reflected part of the body. The impact sought is to improve or affect the function of that body part.

Pregnancy, childbirth and lactation

Reflexologists specializing in pregnancy or birthing, for example, apply technique to the hypothalamus reflex area with the goal of influencing the release of oxytocin, manufactured in the hypothalmus and important to lactation after birth as well as bonding between mother and child.

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