Healing from the feet up

Reflexology is widely used for stress and other ailments, and some hospitals now offer treatments, writes Iva Pocock.

Reflexology is widely used for stress and other ailments, and some hospitals now offer treatments, writes Iva Pocock.

Complementary therapies have blossomed in Ireland over the last 20 years, both in availability and quality. Reflexology, based on the principle that reflexes, or areas in the feet and hands, relate to the internal organs and other parts of the body, is one example. Thanks to the dedication of a small number of therapists, it is now well established as a complementary therapy, available from both private practitioners and in medical centres, from maternity hospitals to hospices for cancer patients.

Olive Gentleman, who in 1988 founded, and until recently ran, the Holistic School of Reflexology and Massage in Dublin, played a key role in reflexology's development. As complementary therapists, reflexologists cannot diagnose any ailments during their treatments, which involve stimulation of the reflexes through the application of gentle pressure on the feet, or in some cases the hands. Only doctors can diagnose, says Gentleman, but reflexologists can, if they detect any cause for concern during their work, suggest clients visit a doctor. The therapy is considered excellent for promoting wellbeing, boosting the immune system and beating stress.

Gentleman, a small woman with energy levels most people half her 75 years of age would be glad of, is held in high esteem by many of her colleagues.


"Olive is a perfectionist who demands such high standards," says Margaret O'Brien, just one of the many nurses who trained in reflexology. "She's known the length and breadth of Ireland in reflexology schools."

Shirley Cross, another nurse who received an International Therapy Examination Council qualification in reflexology after studying with Gentleman in 1996, agrees, saying she has played a "pioneering role" in promoting and developing reflexology in Ireland. Since Cross qualified she has seen a huge change in attitude to reflexology, as evidenced by the establishment of a complementary therapy unit in Moore Abbey, a centre for people with disabilities in Monasterevin, Co Kildare, where she used to work.

"You wouldn't have heard tell of that 10 years ago," says Cross, who now works in a similar unit in Cheeverstown. "Reflexology has got more and more popular by word of mouth. Doctors are now actually referring clients and it's part of a multidisciplinary team in centres for people with disabilities."

It is also now available in two maternity hospitals - the Coombe and Holles Street. Since 1997, mothers in the Coombe can avail of reflexologist Catherine Chambers, who has visiting rights from the hospital to advertise and give treatments there, although she's not a member of staff.

"If the midwifery staff believe someone has had a very dramatic delivery or a mother's baby has died she \ is available," explains Dr Sean Daly, Master of the Coombe. "The service provided in the hospital is patient-driven, not midwifery- or obstetrics-driven," he explains. "There are no clinical trials that I know of that show it'll improve any particular problem but if reflexology makes a woman feel better that's fine."

Chambers says the patients who have it really enjoy it. "Childbirth is such a shock to the system and it's great for helping ease out those tensions." In some cases reflexology is provided free of charge to patients but in general they pay Chambers directly for each session.

Over in Holles Street, reflexology is just one of a number of therapies available from the complementary therapy unit which has been spearheaded by midwife tutor Sister Gertie Cull. In midwifery for more than 25 years, Sister Cull last year presented a paper on the hospital's complementary work at an international midwifery conference in Vienna. More than 50 midwives at the hospital are now qualified to give reflexology, which Sister Cull says is particularly good for bladder and vomiting problems.

"It assists a client in taking responsibility for their own health and offers a choice from the more traditional model of care." There are also psychological benefits of "an hour's personal attention, exchange of energy, rest, stillness and quiet in a therapeutic environment", writes Sister Cull.

Patients who participated in the initial implementation of the reflexology clinic in the hospital presented with a range of problems including pre-menstrual tension, endometriosis, depression, hypertension, back pain, infertility, insomnia and stress-related issues. They were referred to the midwife therapists by consultant obstetricians, psychiatrists, midwives, social workers and chaplains. After the patients' six to eight reflexology sessions they were referred back to their consultants, and in many cases, to counsellors, "as often unresolved issues come to the surface following this therapy", explains Sister Cull. The response the team received was encouraging - open questionnaires provided an opportunity for clients to feed back on their experience.

"I attended reflexology at 37 weeks gestation when I was going through what I call a 'rut' of not sleeping, bad moods, feelings of despair and not \ able to cope with my 14-month-old daughter. I can now accept things better and make time for some peace at some stage of the day," wrote one patient.

Another said: "I had fallen into bad sleeping habits. After the reflexology session I had a deep night's sleep and my sleep pattern adjusted itself."

Sister Cull is not the only Irish reflexologist to discuss the therapy at international level. Maura Murray, chairperson of Ireland's largest governing and examining body, the Irish Reflexologists' Institute (IRI), this year attended the European reflexologists' gathering, as well as a worldwide conference in Jamaica. In 2006, the institute will host the European event in Limerick University.

"We're expecting at least 100 people from Ireland and up to 350 from Europe," says Murray. The IRI currently has more than 1,500 registered reflexologists from both the North and South and is represented on a Department of Health working group in order to progress its goal of achieving Government registration of reflexologists.

Murray herself got involved in reflexology because she had a fascination with feet. "I had been reading about reflexology for 20 years and had collected over 80 books." Then the opportunity came up to study and "in the autumn of her youth" she qualified after years of entertaining as a stand-up comedian.

But reflexology is no laughing matter. It is now one of Ireland's top complementary therapies.

For further information, visit the website of the Irish Reflexologists' Institute at www.reflexology.ie