Every quarter I get a copy of the International Therapist magazine which always has a lot of interesting articles often on research and developments in the area of holistic therapies. This time I was excited to read about a study into the effects of ‘Antenatal reflexology and pregnancy and labour outcomes’ by Dr Julie McCullough. As a reflexologist and scientist Dr McCullough followed her interest in pregnancy and maternity care. McCullough joined an established research team at Ulster University who were investigating pregnancy-related low back pain and/or pelvic girdle pain. (LBPGP). This is a condition which is experienced by between 66% and 71% of women during pregnancy with 20% to 65% experiencing PGP. This condition can continue up to 10 years after the pregnancy with varying degrees of mobility and pain.
McCullough carried out the study over a 2 years period between 2012 -2014. The participants in the study were 90 first time mums who were experiencing LBPGP. The participants were split into 3 groups and were given treatment in the 3rd trimester for a 6 week period:
Group 1 – Received a 30-minute reflexology session for 6 weeks in along with usual antenatal care
Group 2 – Had the sham treatment which was a 30-minute footbath treatment
Group 3 – Received the usual antenatal care for LBPGP.
The pain and frequency threshold was measured on a Visual Analogue Scale (VAS) scale from 0-10cm. Each participant also gave saliva samples at the beginning and end of the 6 weeks to measure stress hormones, *cortisol and *beta-endorphin.
The Results of the study
A total of 64 women completed the study 24 in the reflexology group, 15 in the footbath group and 25 in the usual care group. During the 6 week period, the LBPGP frequency increased for the participants having the footbath treatment whilst the usual care group reduced by 0.63cm on the VAS scale and the reflexology group reduced by 1.63 cm (Close et al, 2015) A change of 1.5cm or more on the VAS pain scale is classified as a clinically important change (Ostelo et al, 2008; Gallagher et al 2001), which means it is significant to the patient. (Farrar et al, 2000)
Over the 6 week period, it was found that *Beta-endorphin levels increased by 8.8% for the foot bath group and 10.1% for the usual care group. In the reflexology group, the beta-endorphin levels reduced by 15.2%. Cortisol increased by 31.8% in the footpath group, 31.4% in the usual care groups and 18.8% in the reflexology group.
Labour data was collected for the 2nd stage of labour which is considered more accurate than the 1st stage. It was found that the women in the reflexology group 2nd stage labour was 44 minutes shorter compared with the usual care and the foot bath group.
Points to consider
From the results we can take away the following; reflexology has helped reduce pain significantly for participants of the study, beta-endorphin levels have been reduced, 2nd stage labour has also been reduced significantly. This fantastic news for pregnant women who want to have more natural options for pain reduction and who would like to reduce 2nd stage labour.
However as always, studies of this kind are small and more participant would make the results more compelling. Going forward further studies of this kind to cross-reference and ts would be welcomed. It’s important to note that the results of this study doesn’t guarantee that the benefits of reflexology will be the same or similar for everyone. Finally, McCullough identifies we now know reflexology effects the hormone production in pregnant women, research now needs to be done to find out ‘why’ and ‘how’ reflexology affects hormone levels.
*Beta-endorphins are released to counteract pain felt in the body.
*Cortisol is a steroid hormone which controls blood sugar levels, controls salt and water balance, acts as an anti-inflammatory, influences blood pressure and helps the development of the foetus.
Reference: International Therapist Magazine Spring 2018 Issue 124