Women with fertility problems are turning to reflexology - and the results are so impressive, now a hospital trial has begun, says Rebecca Hardy

When Paula Lavin, 34, decided that she wanted a second baby, the doctors said that it was "highly unlikely" that she would ever conceive naturally. But Paula was determined: her first child was born after four harrowing years of fertility treatment, and this time she wanted to try a natural approach. Her doctors were highly sceptical. Undeterred, she booked an appointment with a reflexologist. Two months later, she was pregnant.

"I couldn't believe it," she says. "It had taken me four years and four IVF attempts to have my first baby Matthew. I hadn't had a period in five years, and then, after the first reflexology session, I had one. That in itself was a mini-miracle."

Bizarre maybe, but to Devon-based reflexologist Jane Holt, Paula's case is far from unusual. In 15 years of working in reflexology, the ancient healing art that works on pressure points in the feet and hands, she says she has successfully treated recurrent miscarriages and ovulation problems. Such is her fertility-boosting reputation that a hospital trial has been set up. The Derriford Hospital in Plymouth launched the research in 2001 when Jane approached them with claims that she had successfully treated 13 out of 23 women who couldn't conceive.

The trial, due to be completed next year, is looking at how effective reflexology is in prompting ovulation. One group of women is receiving eight reflexology sessions, while another group has a sham treatment. Dr Umesh Acharya, a consultant in gynaecology and reproductive medicine who is working on the study, says: "The first stage is to find out whether reflexology works over foot massage. If this is so, the next step would be to compare its success rate to drugs that prompt ovulation, such as clomiphene."

Jane herself is quick to play her success down. "I don't want to give anyone false hopes," she says. "Reflexology is not a miracle cure-all, but it can help all kinds of factors that play a part in preventing conception. Blocked tubes, chlamydia and endometriosis can all affect your ability to conceive, and reflexology can help those conditions. It brings people into balance, helps hormones perform better, relieves stress and promotes lymph circulation."

The hospital trial is one of the first to take such claims seriously. Up until now, research has been thin on the ground. One study in 1994 by the Danish Reflexologists Association found that, of 61 women under 35 who had been trying to get pregnant for more than two years, 15 per cent became pregnant within seven to eight months of receiving regular reflexology sessions. Of two thirds of the women who had menstruation problems, 77 per cent experienced a significant improvement, with the majority totally getting rid of the problems.

Of course, there is always the issue of timing: the probability that, with or without the treatment, some of the patients would have got pregnant anyway. Some of the stories are difficult to ignore, however. Take the case of Tina Budd, 33, who spent three years trying to get pregnant. After two years of being on the ovarian stimulant clomiphene with still nothing happening, she was told that she would need surgery to see if her tubes were blocked. Unhappy with the choice, Tina decided to visit a reflexologist. "For years, I had always had very light periods, but the day after my first session I had a really heavy period that lasted for five days," Tina says. "I had six sessions in all, and at the end of the last session, Jane said: 'There's nothing I can do now, come back next year if you don't conceive.' But I never went back. Two weeks later, I found out that I was pregnant."

To reflexologists, her story is far from uncommon. Renée Tanner, chairperson of the International Federation of Reflexologists, says that she has helped over 60 per cent of infertile women who come to her to conceive. Some of the women, she says, had tried IVF two or three times. "It is so common," she says, "that I will always warn my reflexology students to ensure that they are taking adequate contraception. In virtually every class I teach, someone will get pregnant."

Like most reflexologists, Renée stresses that reflexology will not work for everyone. "If someone has been told that they cannot physically have a child, there's no point in having reflexology. But for women who can't conceive but have no medical reason why not, it is certainly worth trying." Meanwhile, reflexologist Jenny Mullan claims to be a dab hand at normalising periods. She says: "Many women come to me who have come off the pill and don't have regular periods. I work on the pituitary glands and the ovaries to address this. Once they have a normal cycle, they can work out when they are ovulating, which makes conception more likely and easier to plan."

How it works is something of a mystery. The basic premise is that by touching certain reflex points on the feet, which correspond to certain areas of the body, energy blockages are released. The idea of energy flow in the body is a popular one in complementary therapies ranging from reflexology to acupuncture. But, like many complementary therapies, scientific proof is hard to find. "Our belief is that reflexology is trying to balance the system, but nobody knows how," says Renée Tanner. "We have a theory that it works through the neurological system, but so far there is no confirmation. That's why we want someone to put money into scientific research to find out what is happening."

To many reflexologists, the aim is clear: to provide a strong enough case for reflexology to be offered on the NHS to the one in six couples in the UK who can't conceive. Not only, they say, would it be a cheaper alternative to IVF and IUI, but it would be less stressful and could be used in conjunction with other treatments. IVF, which costs between £1,000 and £4,000 per cycle, can be a long and stressful process where people are more likely to fail than succeed. A recent study by Leeds University and the Bridge Clinic in London shows that, despite improving success rates, women still have at best a 24 per cent chance of having a baby through IVF, with the figure dropping to 20 per cent for those over 35. Meanwhile, the drug clomiphene has a history of nasty side effects and has been linked to ovarian cancer. Of the 70 per cent of women who ovulate after taking the drug, 20-60 per cent will get pregnant. It also causes multiple births in up to 10 per cent of women.

Jane Knight, a fertility expert and nurse who is also director of Fertility UK, says that too many women are shunted down the IVF route before fully considering the alternatives. "The sledgehammer of IVF is needed at times, but other times it isn't. Sometimes I think we are very bad at screening people and pushing everyone down the same track."

Tina Budd thinks she was pressured into taking clomiphene too quickly: "I wish that I had been offered reflexology before taking the drug. The stress of taking it and knowing that I could have a multiple birth was horrendous. I wanted a baby, but not three."

According to the reflexologist Jane Mullan, more of the women coming to her are dissatisfied with the present medical system. Jane Knight agrees: "Women are desperately looking for alternatives, and are increasingly feeling that they are not getting the service from their GPs, so they are searching the internet and trying other things. There is increasing evidence that stress-reducing techniques such as reflexology can help women to conceive. However, there is a danger that we get into a situation where reflexologists promise to work miracles and people don't get the medical advice that they need."

A do-it-yourself fertility boost

To help with fertility problems, reflexologists gently but firmly press on the reflex points for the hypothalamus, thyroid, adrenals, ovaries, Fallopian tubes and uterus. Try the following on your own hand to boost fertility:

1) Treat the thumb, especially the first joint and the area behind the nail, by making tiny movements all over like a crawling caterpillar. This covers the hypothalamus and pituitary gland.

2) Work in a similar way, backwards and forwards, across the middle of your palm. Move from the thumb to the little finger about four times. This helps to energise the stomach and spleen to encourage blood flow, the adrenal glands to balance hormones, and the solar plexus for relaxation.

3) Now treat the spine and nerve supply by using the thumb of the opposite hand to give a deep rub down and back along the edge of the thumb. Work from top to bottom about four times each way.

4) Work in a circle around the base of the palm and wrist, using two fingers. This treats the uterus, Fallopian tubes and ovaries.