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Three MSU Studies Find Reflexology Helps Cancer Patients

Gwen Wyatt and Alla Sikorskii

Three studies funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) have established the validity and credibility of reflexology as a therapy able to reduce symptoms and enhance physical functioning for cancer patients.

Gwen Wyatt, PhD, RN, FAAN, has spent her career looking at ways to improve the overall physical and emotional well-being of cancer patients. In partnership with Alla Sikorskii, PhD, MSN, they have received more than $8 million dollars in NCI funding to find new ways to improve the quality of life of cancer patients.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the premier funder of scientific research in the United States, and NCI is the largest of these institutes. This work represents a big step forward for the reflexology profession to be included in this type of research. Below is an overview of all three NCI funded clinical studies on reflexology and quality of life.

NCI Study #1.
The goal of this study was to test reflexology when given in addition to conventional medical care to assist in improving quality of life for women undergoing chemotherapy for late stage (III & IV) breast cancer. In this clinical trial, participants were randomly assigned to three groups. All groups received standard medical care. Group A received reflexology, while group B received placebo (manual foot manipulation/foot massage). Group C received standard medical care only.

This study was completed in December 2010. The results revealed significant reduction in shortness of breath with the reflexology group, compared to foot massage. The procedures were safe for all patients, as no adverse events were reported. Results show that reflexology produces results different from foot massage.

A full report was published in 2012 in Oncology Nursing Forum.

NCI Study #2.
The goal of this study was to test foot reflexology delivered by a friend or family member in the home for women with breast cancer. In this study, participants were randomly assigned to two groups. Group A received reflexology and conventional medical care while group B received conventional medical care only.

A certified reflexologist trained the friend or family caregiver in the reflexology protocol from the previous study. To make it easier to learn, friends or family members were given a laminated reference sheet with the nine specific reflexology points. The patient and caregiver agreed to do one session per week for four weeks, although they had the option to do as many per week as they wished. As with the first study, weekly assessments/ questionnaires as well as longer interviews took place throughout. This study was completed in April 2016. Results will soon be published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management.

NCI Study #3.
The goal of this study is to assess reflexology and meditative practices conducted by or with a friend or family caregiver as the caregiver and to adjust each intervention to the individual cancer patients’ needs. After the initial four weeks of randomly assigned reflexology or meditation, each patient is assessed to see if symptoms have improved. If symptom of fatigue has not improved, the patient is once again randomly assigned to four more weeks of therapy. Some will get an additional 4 weeks of the same therapy to test if a higher dose of therapy will decrease symptoms, and others will switch to the second therapy to test if the combination of therapies will decrease symptoms. The two therapy groups are compared to the no-therapy group. The study explores patient and caregiver characteristics related to the different therapies and symptom outcomes.

This study is similar to the second study in that a certified reflexologist trains a caregiver in the protocol. The difference is that this study involves both men and women with cancer. It is a Sequential Multiple Assignment Randomized Trial (SMART), meaning that patients are randomly assigned to their intervention group either once or twice at two different points in time during the study. Some patients receive reflexology or meditation from their caregiver for eight weeks, and some receive a combination of reflexology and meditative practices from their caregiver. Some patients receive conventional medical care only. Weekly assessments/questionnaires and longer interviews take place throughout. Oncology centers in Michigan, Illinois and Arizona are working with this study. It will be 2020 before it is complete.

Summary of Studies
These studies have expanded the validity and credibility of reflexology as a therapy able to reduce symptoms and enhance physical functioning for cancer patients. Both symptom reduction and improved physical function contribute to better quality of life.

  • via the College of Nursing website

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