Reflex action

Anne-Marie Flanagan,
Junior, Pregnancy and Baby, September 2004

For a faster labour with less pain, instead of putting your feet up try putting them in the hands of a Reflexologist.

First time round, labour was not at all how I’d envisaged it. My daughter was 12 days late, I had to be induced, the pessaries didn’t work, I was put on a drip and it all ended in an emergency Caesarean. When I fell pregnant with baby number two I vowed that things were going to be different. I wanted a normal delivery and I was going to use whatever means possible to achieve it. On a friend’s recommendation, I opted to try out reflexology.

Reflexology is a complementary therapy that involves the application of pressure to specific reflex points in the feet. A reflexologist working on sinus problems will, for instance, focus on the front of the big toe, while if lower back pain is the problem, the therapist will work around the heel. By applying gentle pressure with the thumb and forefinger, reflexologists can detect imbalances in the body, release energy blockages and improve circulation. The aim is to restore balance and encourage the body’s natural healing processes.

“Reflexology helps the body do what it does naturally, cleaning out toxins and bringing a sense of equilibrium,” says Simon Duncan, Chief Executive of the Association of Reflexologists. It is, he says, particularly beneficial in pregnancy. “If a woman is relaxed during her nine months, then she’s much more likely to have an easier labour.”

I started having treatments six months into my second pregnancy with an hourly session every two weeks, increasing to weekly sessions in the last month. My main anxiety was about being overdue, so my reflexologist Sue Heavens helped me to unwind. “I would start by warming up the feet – moving them slowly and gently until they became flexible,” she says. “I would then focus quite extensively on the centre of the foot, the Solar Plexus, which helps with stress management.” Often blissfully asleep, I was oblivious to which particular area was being treated – but after each session, I remember feeling totally invigorated.

On the week of my due date I had two sessions, and asked Sue to help get things moving. She focused on the inside of the heels, which relate to the uterus, and the area underneath the big toe that corresponds to the pituitary gland (which is in charge of hormones). Sure enough, my labour started at around seven o’clock the next morning, ending two hours later with an emergency home birth on the hall landing and the safe delivery of my gorgeous little boy. You couldn’t have had two more different births -and I know which one I preferred.

Studies carried out in the UK and Denmark have shown that reflexology can dramatically speed up labour and reduce pain. In a UK trial in the late Eighties, 37 pregnant women completed a course of ten reflexology sessions. For these women, the second stage of labour lasted an average of 16 minutes, compared to the expected one to two hours. The theory is that stimulating the pituitary gland encourages it to release hormones that strengthen contractions, accelerating labour. In a Danish study at the Gentofte Hospital in Copenhagen, meanwhile, 68 women tried reflexology instead of drugs during labour. An impressive 61 per cent said that they experienced ‘outstanding pain relief’.

One of the authors of the UK study was Dr Gowri Motha, who runs a holistic birthing unit in London, The Jeyarani Centre. “The study also showed that reflexology could help to relieve many traditional pregnancy conditions such as heartburn, back pain, nausea, and swelling,” she says. Thirty-seven-year-old Dee Campbell had a very quick first birth, and believes that fortnightly reflexology treatments in the last trimester helped. “As a first-time mother, I’d been anticipating a long labour and was absolutely terrified at the prospect,” she admits. Despite being induced because of bleeding, she says that the actual delivery was fantastic. “It took just four hours to give birth with no drugs,” she says. “Even the hospital staff were shocked that my son, Aslan, was delivered so quickly.”

Lucy Reynolds, 39, is another convert. Her daughter Anna, now 15 months, was born after a five-hour labour that Lucy describes in glowing terms. “It was brilliant – a really positive and natural experience, just as it should be.” Lucy also believes that reflexology helped her to become pregnant in the first place. “I had tried everything I could beforehand, even fertility drugs, but with no success,” she says. “I’m positive that the reflexology helped me to conceive.”

Some women take it even further. After having two hospital deliveries, Debbie Craddock – herself a reflexologist – desperately wanted a home birth for her third child. “I had a three-hour session of reflexology during the early stages of labour, and it gave me the strength and confidence I needed to carry on at home.” The therapist worked on Debbie’s feet as her contractions began to build. “I was very relaxed, lying on my sofa while she worked on my feet,” she says. “It gave me incredible confidence and I knew I could do it. I had a fabulous water birth, exactly as I’d hoped for.”

Reflexology is safe throughout pregnancy, although it should be approached with caution during the first 13 weeks. Some reflexologists may refuse to treat you until you reach week 14. The UK’s governing body, the Association of Reflexologists, says that only experienced reflexologists who have been trained to work on women at all stages of pregnancy should treat women in the first 13 weeks – and if there is any doubt, then treatment is not recommended.

Pregnancy conditions and circumstance where reflexology is contraindicated include pre-term labour and, if you are 32 weeks or more into pregnancy, placenta praevia (low-lying placenta) and hydroamnios – excess amniotic fluid around the baby. There are also a number of medical conditions that should be diagnosed and, if appropriate, treated by a midwife or doctor before you start reflexology treatment, including multiple pregnancies, vaginal discharge, uterine pain, epilepsy, diabetes and any other health problems such as heart, kidney or liver disorders. If you are in any doubt, then consult your doctor before starting treatment.

If you’re overdue, or worried about being overdue, bear in mind that reflexology can’t be used as a quick-fix last resort before a medical induction: a one-off treatment won’t generally be enough. “It’s not magic and the body has to have time to adapt, so I would urge all pregnant women to see a reflexologist at least ten weeks before their due date,” says Simon Duncan. Even if you remain unconvinced by the idea or are reluctant to pay for the treatment, there is one technique that Duncan says can help everyone: simply rotate your ankles both clockwise and anti-clockwise for several minutes every day. In reflexology terms the ankle area corresponds with the hips, so by making your ankles more flexible, your pelvic area will benefit too. Now that’s got to be worth a try.

The History of Reflexology

Reflexology is not a 20th-century invention – it’s been around in one form or another for thousands of years. One of the earliest examples of its practice was discovered on a wall painting in an Egyptian tomb dating back to 2350BC. Early forms were also practised in Asia, alongside therapies such as shiatsu and acupuncture, and in Native North American folklore.

Its modern day roots are based in America, where, in 1915, ear, nose and throat specialist Dr William Fitzgerald introduced ‘zone therapy’. He concluded that pressure on specific parts of the body could have an anaesthetising effect on related areas. He found that the body’s energy flows through zones, which run from foot to head, and found that pressure applied to a reflex point in one zone of the foot could affect other parts of the body.

In the Thirties, US physiotherapist Eunice Ingham further developed zone therapy into what is now called reflexology, with her ‘Reflex Method of Compression Massage’, producing maps of the feet and hands that are seen as the blueprints for practitioners today.

Although reflexology has been around for thousands of years, it’s still not universally accepted. In the US, for example, there is some confusion as to what reflexology actually is, and how it should be classified. Therapists in some states have to apply for a licence in the business category entitled ‘adult entertainment’, while others have to undergo an annual physical to make sure they are free from contagious diseases. “We’re lobbying hard for our own separate category, but in the meantime it is humiliating,” says Helena Vind, who has a practice in Los Angeles. She says the treatment is still relatively unknown – in contrast to her home country of Denmark, where about a quarter of the population have experienced reflexology and many large businesses employ therapists. Denmark is also one of the few countries investing money into research, thanks to government funding.

RESOURCES

Further Reading

The Gentle Birth Method by Dr Gown Motha and Karen Swan MacLeod (Thorsons Element, £14.99)

New Natural Pregnancy by Yehudi Gordon (foreword) and Janet Balaskas (Gaia Books, £8.99)

Alternative Therapies For Pregnancy And Birth by Pat Thomas (Vega, $14.95)

The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Reflexology by Frankie Avalon Wolfe and Russell McAllister (Alpha Books, $16.95)

WEB RESOURCES

ASSOCIATION OF REFLEXOLOGISTS www.aor.org.uk

BRITISH REFLEXOLOGY ASSOCIATION www.britreflex.co.uk

REFLEXOLOGY ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA www.reflexology-usa.org

REFLEXOLOGY ASSOCIATION OF AUSTRALIA www.reflexology.org.au

Junior. Pregnancy and Baby, September 2004

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