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What is hospice reflexology?

By Valerie Hartman

My hospice, Holy Redeemer Hospice, has a team of complementary therapy nurses who use their skills in a variety of ways to help patients with symptoms, and to help caregivers cope with stress.  This nursing team can provide sessions using massage, reflexology, healing touch, and aromatherapy.

The complementary therapy nurses all like to teach about the simplest forms of touch that can help connect caregivers to their loved ones during difficult times. They also like to teach about the clinical benefits (symptom relief) for patients and caregivers under stress.  Since teaching is such a big part of what nurses do in their role, I want to use this opportunity to blog about one bodywork therapy that is designed to relieve and restore most everyone enduring stressful times in a healthcare crisis:  reflexology.  Reflexology was designed to bust stress.

What is reflexology?

Reflexology is an ancient healthcare practice that restores balance to the body, and increases circulation by alleviating stress.  Each hand has 1000 nerve endings, each foot has 7,200.  The giver (reflexologist) uses a thumb walking technique which applies pressure to the many nerve endings of the hands or the feet, or the ears of the receiver. This thumb pressure stimulates nerve endings, sends an impulse to the spinal nerves that reach nerve endings of internal organs, glands, and boney structures (like the hip or the shoulder).  Not only do the impulses relax the whole nervous system, they can interrupt pain impulses helping to reduce pain sensation.

Clinical stress

Therapeutic bodywork can relieve the physical discomforts brought on by fear. In hospice, patients and caregivers face so much change and uncertainty, the experience of worry causes the nervous system to be uniquely taxed. This level of stress literally causes physical symptoms. For the hospice caregiver stress shows up as:

  • sleeplessness,
  • muscle aches and pain,
  • digestive changes,
  • difficulty concentrating,
  • fatigue, and
  • anxiety.

For the patient, physical symptoms from a disease can be made worse:

  • shortness of breath,
  • nausea,
  • restlessness,
  • sleeplessness,
  • irritability,
  • anxiety and
  • muscle tension.

All of these symptoms can lead to a diminished sense of wellness and hope for ever feeling relief again.

How can reflexology help?

Reflexology can be used to quickly calm the overtaxed nervous system. Reflexology is one therapy that works directly on nerve endings and that brings real direct nervous system relief.  I worked closely with a patient recently who told me that reflexology was his preferred therapy for feeling, “relief that he wanted to last forever.”  He mentioned repeatedly that reflexology made him feel like “himself” before he got sick with cancer.  His pain before a session would be rated at six and after a session at zero.  The relief of reflexology does not last permanently; expect results to last for hours or a day.  But that break in the tension cycle is what provides someone the ability to cope, and hope (often described as a feeling of ‘Heaven’ or ‘relief of suffering’).  For the caregiver, a reflexology session will restore lost energy.

How can reflexology work for caregivers?

If you are a caregiver, consider adding reflexology weekly for stress relief.  Most malls have kiosks with chair massage and reflexology at very affordable rates.  Ten to fifteen minutes of work can be therapeutic.  A half hour is even better, and would be enough.

If you have a loved one on hospice services, reflexology might be helpful.  Ask your hospice provider if they have a reflexologist or a massage therapist with reflexology certification available.  Hospice programs are not required to provide massage and bodywork therapies as a standard of care, but many hospice providers are finding ways to provide them.   Not all reflexologists are trained in hospice reflexology*, so if a reflexologist does provide a session to your loved one, request light pressure and avoidance of any tender areas on the feet or hands.

For more information on the clinical work of reflexology please visit:

*Please note that hospice reflexology is adapted to light pressure, while avoiding tender points.

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