Recent research proved one reflexology session increased the pain threshold and tolerance of healthy people who were undergoing an ice-pain experiment. No such increases were observed when the same people were given a session of sham transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). 

The study, “Exploratory study on the efficacy of reflexology for pain threshold and tolerance using an ice-pain experiment and sham TENS control,” involved 15 volunteer participants, 11 female and four male, with an average age of about 38 years.

The research required each subject to attend two sessions that took place one week apart and lasted for about four hours each. For one of these sessions, the subjects would receive reflexology and undergo an ice-pain experiment. For the other session, the same subjects would receive the sham TENS session and undergo an ice-pain experiment.

The ice-pain experiment involved each subject placing his or her nondominant hand—up to the first wrist crease, flat and with fingers slightly splayed—into an insulated box containing crushed ice slurry. As soon as the hand was immersed, the researchers started a timer to measure the subject’s pain threshold and pain tolerance, which were the two main outcome measures for this study.

Pain threshold was defined as the time it took for the subject to find the experience painful, which was marked by the subject saying “now.” Pain tolerance was defined as the time it took until the subject could no longer keep his or her hand in the crushed ice slurry, which was marked by the subject saying “out.” A third outcome measure was the participant’s heart rate before and after the ice plunge.

Subjects completed one baseline ice immersion cycle, followed by a 15-minute rest period. After this, the 45-minute reflexology or sham TENS session took place. Following the session, another 30-minute rest C period occurred. Participants were then again asked to plunge their nondominant hand into the crushed ice slurry.

Once again, researchers measured each subject’s heart rate before and after the ice plunge, along with recording each subject’s pain threshold and tolerance levels. The ice plunge and evaluations were also repeated at 60, 90 and 120 minutes after the reflexology or sham TENS session.

Research results revealed increases in the mean pain threshold of subjects 60, 90 and 120 minutes after they received the reflexology session; however, these increases were significant only at the 60-minute mark. Another finding was the subjects’ pain tolerance increased significantly 60, 90 and 120 minutes after receiving reflexology. In addition, the reflexology session resulted in a significantly lower heart rate among subjects for the first 60 minutes after the session.

“In conclusion, the present findings demonstrate for the first time in a controlled study that reflexology produces antinociceptive effects,” state the study’s authors. “These results suggest the possibility that reflexology may be useful on its own or as an adjunct to medication in the treatment of painful conditions in man.”

Authors: Carol A. Samuel, Ph.D., and Ivor S. Ebenezer, Ph.D.

Sources: School of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences, Institute of Biomedical and Biomolecular Sciences, University of Portsmouth, United Kingdom. Originally published in 2013 in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 19, 57-62.

This research report ran in the print edition of MASSAGE Magazine‘s August 2013 issue.