The right therapeutic focus - when pain is caused by stress

Two case stories illustrating reflexology sessions with stressed individuals

By Dorthe Korgsgaard and Peter Lund Frandsen, February 2014 

Pain is a very common, but at the same time often overlooked sign of stress. More and more of our clients have elevated stress levels and it is necessary to know the signs and symptoms of stress, what is does to the body and which questions to ask to find out.
How can we best help with reflexology? As one of our clients – a well known stress coach in Denmark – said after the first session: ”Do you realize what a fantastic tool foot reflexology is for stress, because working on the feet brings about the most unique sensation of grounding!” An interesting viewpoint which has since been confirmed by lots of clients.

Let us take a closer look at stress and pain with the following cases from our practice:

Case 1: Rita, 32

Independent marketing consultant, appears healthy, normal weight, healthy eating habits.
Presents in the clinic with muscular pains in several places, especially the arms, during the past 2 months. She takes anti-inflammatory medication (NSAID) with some effect. Several sessions with physiotherapy whith only temporary pain relief.
Two years ago she had one month of sick leave because of stress, but doesn’t think stress is an issue anymore.

We asked the following questions:
Q: How do you sleep at night? A: Often wakes up around 4-5am, some nights no sleep at all, other nights sleeps ok.
Q: How is your digestion? A: Slow transit with 3-4 days between bowel movements.
Q: Do you often catch infections? A: Recently suffered from a cold, nothing severe, but couldn’t seem to get rid of it for a long time.
Q: How is your mood? Do you laugh now and then? A: Funny you ask me that, my friends say I have become so serious lately.
Q: Do you feel pains constantly or only with movements? A: They are more or less constant also at night, but it varies where I feel them most.
Q: Is your heart feeling calm? A: For a long time I have felt palpitations and skipped beats from time to time.
Q: On a scale from 0 to 10, how would you judge your current stress level? A: 8

Our conclusion
The fact that anti-inflammatory drugs help, that massage does not, and that she has nightly pains, indicate inflammation in joints/muscles. Rita’s sleeping pattern is a clear sign of stress. Her immune system is suppressed and she is constipated, both of which points at a misbalance of the autonomic nervous system with two much sympathetic activity.
Interestingly, she doesn’t think an 8 on the stress scale is high (!), maybe she is accustomed to living with a lot of stress?

Prioritizing the reflexology sessions
Based on the findings above our first priority would be to work with the following systemic (all body) stress reducing techniques:

  1. We begin the session with heart meditation, asking Rita to focus on her heart while the therapist gently holds her feet, until she feels the heart calming down.
  2. Tuning in and centering techniques (working bilaterally on the spine reflexes).
  3. Autonomic nervous system with extra focus on the vagus nerve.
  4. Phrenic nerve, plexus and respiratory diaphragm
  5. The seven sphincters of digestion (see illustration) and intestines
  6. Hormonal system

Having helped the whole system relax, we would then start to address the current local pain symptoms in the arms by working:

  1. Spinal nerves of the neck and upper thorax (nerve reflexology)
  2. Brachial plexus and arm nerves (nerve reflexology)
  3. Spine
  4. Shoulder and arms

After 4 sessions with 3-4 day intervals, Rita felt her situation beginning to change. The muscle pains subsided and she was able to sleep through most nights. Less palpitations but still some constipation. Stress score down to 5.
Having completed 8 sessions all symptoms had cleared, the stress score was down to 3.5 and we decided to conclude the course of sessions.

Six sphincters of digestion (the seventh is the anus reflex)

Case 2: Ann, 64

Married, retired corporate executive, lives in 50/50 in Denmark and Spain.
She seeks our help because of burning pains in the mid-thoracic spine, radiating to the right shoulder and arm and up into her jaw.
One year ago she was diagnosed with facet joint syndrome of T7 – T12. The pains make it difficult falling asleep and she takes sedative medication. No heart pathologies. During three years she has suffered from inflammatory bowel disease. Lately she has had periods of pain or cramps in the diaphragm. She sometimes finds it hard to tell if the pains come from the back or from deeper inside. She says, she has no reason for being stressed.

We started reflexology with the focus on her facet joints and muscles using nerve reflexology techniques and classical reflexology. But this had a limited effect and only for a few days. This is important information telling us we need to take a different approach.
We ask more stress related questions, and find out she had a fearful experience one year ago, when her husband had a severe heart attack and nearly died. She starts crying when telling the story and her heart beats strongly.
Knowing this, we changed the therapeutic focus to stress as described above. For some sessions we worked entirely with stress techniques and digestion rather than the facet joints. We used the following sequence:

Initiating the session as described in Rita’s case above (step 1 and 2)

  1. Autonomic nervous system with extra attention to T7-T12, which is where Ann feels her pains. And this is also the origin of sympathetic nerves innervating blood vessels for shoulders, arms, plus organs in the upper abdomen and parts of the intestines.
    The vagus nerve is worked intensely and we use a linking technique combining the vagus nerve with the T7-T12 level of the spine to help reduce the sympathetic overdrive in the painful area.
  2. Phrenic nerve and diaphragm: no particular reflex reactions.
  3. Seven sphincters and digestion: Important because of IBD.
  4. Hormonal system: Low priority
  5. Chakra foot reflexes: These react strongly with Ann, and we conclude all sessions working with this technique to generally balance her energy flow.

Ann agrees to change her diet and consult a psychotherapist as well as receiving reflexology.
Her reactions are interesting: At first she experiences more pain in the facet joints, arms and jaw, and is close to cancelling the sessions. The second time her bowels start to relax and at the same time pains in the back and arms improve significantly even though we didn’t address these reflex areas directly.
Following her third session pains are almost completely gone, no organ pains and no discomfort at bed time, but still slightly unstable bowels.
We end sessions after the fourth visit because she is moving to Spain. She continues doing heart meditation, keeping a healthy diet and she has realized the importance of working with the chock that shook her system and elicited a prolonged stress response.

These two cases illustrate:

  • The importance of seeing stress as a possible cause of pain.
  • The benefit of a good knowledge and large palette of therapeutic techniques.
  • How interesting and beneficial a bit of detective work can be for the outcome of reflexology.

More info
Description of the techniques used in these case stories can be found in other articles available at this website.
For a more thorough learning experience we recommend our workshop Round about: Stress.

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