ReflexologyDr Carol Samuel is a trained reflexologist who carried out the experiment as part of her PhD studies. She said it was the first time this therapy had been scientifically tested as a treatment for acute pain.
Dr Samuel concluded the results suggested that reflexology could be used to complement conventional drug therapy in the treatment of conditions associated with pain such as osteoarthritis, backache and cancers.
The experiment involved 15 subjects who attended two sessions, in which they were asked to submerge their hand in ice slurry.
In one of the sessions they were given foot reflexology before they submerged their hand, and in the second session they believed they were receiving pain relief from a Tens machine, which was not actually switched on.
The researchers found that when the participants received reflexology prior to the session they were able to keep their hand in the ice water for longer before they felt pain, and that they could also tolerate the pain for a longer period of time. The study found that people felt about 40 per cent less pain, and were able to stand pain for about 45 per cent longer. Statistical analysis showed the compared to control data, reflexology increased acute pain threshold (F(1,14) = 4.5958, p < 0.05) and tolerance (F(1,14) = 5.1095, p < 0.05).
Dr Samuel said: "As we predicted, reflexology decreased pain sensations.
"It is likely that reflexology works in a similar manner to acupuncture by causing the brain to release chemicals that lessen pain signals."
Dr Ivor Ebenezer, co-author of the study, said: "We are pleased with these results. Although this is a small study, we hope it will be the basis for future research into the use of reflexology."
Dr Ebenezer said: "Complementary and alternative therapies come in for a lot of criticism, and many have never been properly tested scientifically.
"One of the common criticisms by the scientific community is that these therapies are often not tested under properly controlled conditions.
"When a new drug is tested its effects are compared with a sugar pill.
"If the drug produces a similar response to the sugar pill, then it is likely that the drug's effect on the medical condition is due to a placebo effect.
"In order to avoid such criticism in this study, we compared the effects of reflexology to a sham Tens control that the participants believed produced pain relief.
"This is the equivalent of a sugar pill in drug trials."
Reflexology is a complementary medical approach, which works alongside orthodox medicine, in which pressure may be applied to any body area but is commonly used on either the feet or hands. More reserach is needed with larger subject groups but this study represents an exciting starting point in studying the effects of reflexology on pain.