Used to be, mentioning "reflexology" could get you some pretty funny looks. People wondered what cult you had joined -- or thought you were practicing a new kind of yoga.
But all that's changing.
Now, thanks to both growing interest in alternative health therapies and the explosion of day spas in Western New York, reflexology is becoming more widely known -- and used -- in this area.
"I get it once a week, sometimes twice," said Joyce Archambeault, who has been receiving reflexology in Amherst for 8 1/2 years. "I love it."
Reflexology dates back almost 100 years in this country, and was partly developed in Rochester. Some think the practice might be on the verge of new popularity.
Still, more than a few of you are probably wondering right now: reflex-what?
So, to explain: Reflexology is not a foot massage, although it might look like one. Rather, it's the manual manipulation by a trained practitioner of pressure points on the hands and feet that, users believe, correspond to various specific areas and functions of the body, such as glands, organs and muscles.
And, practitioners and some users claim, the benefits are immediate.
"It's a natural thing to have done," said Joan Q. Frank, a certified reflexologist from Akron who has practiced for 26 years. "It's a healing tool. It's like having your whole body taken care of, through your hands and feet."
Those who practice or seek out the therapy say it helps with relaxation and stress relief; improves the overall operation and well-being of the body, returning it to a "normalized" state; improves circulation; and can even help treat some medical conditions and illnesses, when paired with regular medical care.
"In conjunction with modern medicine, it has helped me a lot," said Wendy Castiglia of East Aurora, who was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years ago, at age 28, and who has used reflexology as a complement to standard cancer care. She has been clear of cancer for four years. "It makes me feel better, and that's a big thing."
Daryl D. Weisberg, a reflexologist at the Aurora Wellness Center in East Aurora, said that kind of whole-body wellness is what reflexologists strive for. "We treat the whole body," she said. "A relaxed body is a healthier body."
But not all reflexology sessions are the same.
The multiplication of spa-based reflexology services in Western New York obscures the fact that certified reflexologists -- certification offered by the International Institute of Reflexology being the oldest and most standardized -- receive supervised training and must keep their credentials up to date.
But some people offering reflexology services are not certified.
And, there are some skeptics out there about the practice of reflexology in general.
One, Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist in Allentown, Pa., who operates the popular Web site Quackwatch.com, argues that reflexology is a "quack therapy" that offers no real benefit to those who receive it.
"If you lie on a table and have a foot massage, you might feel rested. Whether it's worth $15 for 15 minutes is up to people. But it has nothing to do with health," said Barrett, who also serves as medical consultant to Amherst's Prometheus Press. "It has nothing to do with medicine."
>Used in ancient Egypt
Reflexology has its roots in ancient medicine, dating back to ancient Egypt and China, practitioners say.
In its modern form, the practice got under way in the United States when "zone therapy" -- the manipulation of pressure points on the body to help heal other areas -- was developed by a handful of doctors in the first half of the 20th century.
In 1938, a woman from Rochester named Eunice Ingham published "Stories the Feet Can Tell," a book that offered many testimonials about successful treatments through reflexology, as well as a detailed "map" of the feet and hands, showing which pressure points corresponded to which parts of the human body. The "Ingham method," as it came to be called, standardized the practice of reflexology for decades to come.
"Her books are still very popular," said Dwight C. Byers, Ingham's nephew, who grew up with his aunt in Rochester and today runs the International Institute of Reflexology in St. Petersburg, Fla. "The Ingham method that she taught is copyrighted and trademarked. There's a lot of different charts out there. There is a lot of imitation -- all these spas want to add it, and massage therapists think if they just rub the feet, they can do it. They think they can get it right. But that gives us a bad name."
Reflexology is, unlike acupuncture, entirely noninvasive.
A session can last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. And it usually costs less than a back massage -- $30 to $50 per session is typical.
Reflexology is also not supposed to be painful.
"Sore areas indicate something wrong with that part of the body," said Weisberg. "A reflexologist that's good will be able to use the amount of pressure demanded by that foot. A reflexologist will not work to the point that it's painful."
>Not a substitute
Most reflexologists will tell you that the therapy is meant to be used as a supplement and complement to routine medical care -- not as an alternative to it.
"Use this in conjunction," advised Frank, who practices at Rchambeau's Salon and Day Spa in East Amherst and at a local chiropractor's office. "This is an adjunct to being healthy -- to getting well and staying well."
A treatment, therefore, is not intended to cure cancer or fix diabetes or a back injury.
However, practitioners say -- and some users attest -- that the therapy can help stabilize those kinds of problems, improve the overall functioning of the body, and relieve stress.
"People feel just great" during and after a session, said Weisberg, who has been practicing since 1996. "They feel like they are floating in air, they get so relaxed. Sometimes they fall asleep, and I just wake them up at the end of the session."
Sue Hadley, an East Aurora resident who sees Weisberg for regular sessions, said reflexology helped her in a way she would never have anticipated -- it helped clear up her chronic sinus and cough problems.
"After three or four visits, the cough was starting to go away, and then it went away [totally]," Hadley said. "I was kind of waiting for it to come back again, but it didn't. It's been great for me."
Archambeault, who has been receiving the treatments for close to a decade, said that she believes reflexology has helped her with a chronic condition that would have been much worse had she not gotten her weekly reflexology sessions.
"It makes me feel so much better," she said.
And though skeptics like Quackwatch's Barrett would disagree -- "Every quack therapy has testimonials," he said -- those who practice and seek out the therapy see it as an ancient, natural extension of overall good health care.
Said Byers, president of the reflexology institute:
"We're helping nature to heal itself, the body to help itself," he said. "We say, go to your doctor, let him do what he's going to do. We're going to help nature cure the problem quicker. If you have a health condition, this is going to help you get better faster."