Stress, insomnia, digestive problems, joint pain, menopausal flushes and memory loss: these are common conditions that can be hard to treat, leaving sufferers in despair.
Some turn to complementary therapies such as reflexology, which works by stimulating pressure points on the feet that correspond with particular parts of the body.
An estimated 35,000 reflexologists are practising in Britain and a growing number are using the face, rather than the feet or hands, to deliver this therapy. According to experts, facial reflexology is effective because the face has a large number of nerves and blood vessels.
Facial reflexology combines massage with theories based on acupuncture and Chinese concepts of energy lines, or meridians. According to Chinese medicine, our energy flows through the body via 12 invisible meridians. If these energy lines become blocked, imbalances occur and can result in insomnia and even irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Feeling the tension
Facial reflexologists say they can feel a change of texture as a result of these imbalances under the upper layer of skin on the face. They feel like lumps of porridge. By working over the face with the fingertips, they can break down these deposits, boosting the energy, circulatory and nervous systems.
"The brain is the control centre of the body and the face is much closer to it than the feet are, so face reflexology can work faster," says leading facial reflexology practitioner Nikke Ariff.
Ariff, who has a clinic in London, says each session begins by stimulating the acupuncture points on the face using acupressure. Besides being "energy points" they are, according to Ariff, important blood-circulation and nerve-supply areas.
She warms the face and corresponding body areas, releasing muscle tension and allowing more blood to flow through. The theory is that the face is a micromap of the body so, by working on a particular point of the micromap, you can affect the corresponding body part, calming it if there is inflammation or stimulating it if there is sluggishness.
The reflexologist uses the fingertips to make deep, sweeping massage movements or short, fast strokes. Sessions last for 45-50 minutes.
Ariff says: "The treatment relaxes the body and when the body relaxes, you start to heal."
Often clients are so relaxed by the therapy that they drift off into a dreamy state, described as "going under".
The treatment is popular with those suffering from stress-related conditions such as insomnia, tension headaches and IBS.
Although IBS is normally treated through changes to diet and, if necessary, medication to alleviate abdominal pain and constipation or diarrhoea, there are those for whom such treatments do not work or who are reluctant to stick to them and those for whom reflexology may provide relief.
The medical director of digestive diseases charity Core, Dr Anton Emmanuel, also consultant gastroenterologist at University College London, cites a study in which constipated patients received reflexology and bowel behaviour was monitored.
Not only did 18 out of 19 patients feel less stressed, their bowel movements also became normal. Dr Emmanuel believes the effects of reflexology on IBS-sufferers are about more than relaxation. "It may have an effect on the nervous system. Pain is perceptual: any intervention to alleviate pain has to work on the brain and the nervous system. Reflexology could do something to the brain's reflex control of the gut, in a way that is comparable with how conventional IBS treatments work."
Others remain sceptical that reflexology is anything more than massage. David Colquhoun, Professor of Pharmacology at University College, London, says while facial reflexology may be relaxing, any claims of a nerve connection between the face and other parts of the body such as the pancreas are "purely invented".
Yet its fans report that not only does facial reflexology alleviate symptoms, it improves health and emotional wellbeing. As Ariff says: "It is a holistic therapy so it addresses the whole body, not just the specific problem, which is why we work on the whole face."
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