The Bad Science of Reflexology

In short: Another pretty poor study showing a supposed effect for reflexology in pain. Here's how not to do science.

A recent study done at the University of Portsmouth in the UK explored the possibility of reflexology helping in pain relief. To quote the universities website:

"Researchers have found that people felt about 40 per cent less pain, and were able to stand pain for about 45 per cent longer, when they used reflexology as a method of pain relief"

This is a pretty impressive result. I don't want to go into the many issues around reflexology, what it is, or how it works lets just look at how the study was done.

The study involved 15 participants being given reflexology and placebo treatment and seeing how this affected their experience of pain using ice water. 

One of the main strengths, as the authors see it, was that it was placebo controlled. As we've previously discussed a placebo is used in studies to control for the effect by which patients seem to report or have actual benefits from inactive substances / or sham treatments.

So, how do you placebo control reflexology? Well you need to do something that is as close as possible to reflexology, but without the active component. The investigators used a TENS machine that wasn't switched on, this isn't really a very effective placebo as it is nothing like the active treatment. It also means it is difficult if not impossible to 'blind' the participants. This means it is highly likely the participants knew when they were getting the treatment (reflexology) and when they were getting the placebo. The obvious placebo would be a foot massage.

Another problem is the investigators weren't blinded , now this would be more difficult but is still important to try to do. 


 In fairness they accept some other limitations in their study such as the small numbers.

These are pretty basic components of designing a study and mean the authors should probably be a bit cautious about their results. Previous meta-analysis done by researchers has failed to show positive effects for reflexology and also raised the issue of poor quality studies.

If you want a skeptical take on reflexology try this at