Monday, July 4, 2011

Reflexology and alternative medicine

First the definition: Reflexology is a Chinese and Indian system of diagnosis and treatment dating from 3000 bc . . . based on the belief that the whole body is represented on the foot (mostly on the soles of the feet), and that the internal organs can be stimulated by pressing particular areas of the foot (less commonly the hands) (Source: Gravett P. Making sense of English in alternative medicine. Edinburgh: Chambers, 1993.)

The things I find reflexology interesting is that in China (mainland) there are numerous "foot massage parlors" where enthusiasts go to do massage for relaxation purpose as well as treating it a place for chatting among friends, or with the massasier; on the other hand, many in the West treeat foot massage or reflexology as a kind of alternative medicine.

The term "alternative medicine" is a misnomer.  It's like one can choose either A "regular medicine" or B "alternative medicine".  In the contemporary free world, everybody wants to exercise his choice.  But is it really a value-free choice (i.e. that depends on our personal taste), or is it an exercise of judgment towards medicine, or western medicine, as it is practiced in our hospitals and clinics today?

Recently I came across an article published in the Medical Journal of Australia: "Is reflexology an effective intervention? A systematic review of randomised controlled trials" (MJA 2009; 191 (5): 263-266) written by a MD in UK (Edzard Ernst, MD, PhD, FMedSci, Director Complementary Medicine, Peninsula Medical School, Universities of Exeter and Plymouth, Exeter, United Kingdom.) The conclusion is that reflexology has yet to prove its effectiveness in curing diseases or diagnostic tool as practitioners claimed, in short such claims are unfounded.

There are potential dangers in relying on reflexology, as the author argued as follows:

"Most proponents of reflexology would argue that this method is free of risks. However, if used as a diagnostic tool, it will generate false-positive and false-negative diagnoses. Moreover, if employed as an alternative therapy to treat serious conditions, reflexology can be life-threatening.  Thus, the notion of an entirely benign intervention does not withstand critical evaluation."

The author also raised an interesting question:  In addition to its pleasantly relaxing benefit (which benefits have prompted Chinese to flock into foot massage parlors in the Mainland), why people still choose reflexology as an "alternative medicine", despite lacking in scientific evidence?  I find the following citation rather interesting, and good food for thought for our medical profession as well as every scientific minded citizen who may need to give advice or psychological support to their friends or relations one day:

"Alternative medicine does not merely offer unfounded hope of cure: it offers meaning to someone who may feel that the scientific facts of their case do not translate into personal meanings, and who feel their illness, their suffering, indeed themselves, caught in the stony, unreciprocating “gaze from nowhere” that is created by the ever more abstract and complex discourse of the community of scientific minds." (Raymond Tallis: The mystery and the paradox of scientific medicine. Clin Med 2008; 8: 75-78)

Finally it is interesting to note that prominent masters of classical Taoist meditation (Taoist yoga, internal alchemy or Neidan) did not treat their practice as "alternative medicine".  It is true that texts written by these masters had been unanimous in preaching health-related beneficial effect of their practice and in particular the claim that their practice could "cure latent diseases",  Yet at the same time, they clearly pointed out that once a disease was out, a person had to seek advice from a medicine practitioner (of course a Chinese medical practitioner) rather than a chi-meditation master. 

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