Reflexology is a technique in which pressure is applied to specific points on the feet (and sometimes the hands) to promote relaxation and improve overall health. Proponents of reflexology believe that the foot surface contains a coded map of the entire body and that particular points on the feet correspond to particular organs, glands, and body systems. Pressing these points with the fingers and thumbs is thought to encourage healthy functions in the corresponding areas of the body.
The precise origins of reflexology are obscure, but ancient illustrations and other records reveal that Chinese, Indian, and Egyptian peoples worked on the hands and feet to foster good health.
Modern reflexology grew out of a technique known as "zone therapy," which was developed in the early 1900s by American physician and ear, nose, and throat specialist William H. Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald claimed that applying gentle pressure to specific areas on the hands and feet could trigger health benefits in corresponding "zones" of the body.
In the 1930s, Eunice Ingham, a physical therapist and a colleague of Fitzgerald, took the therapy, further postulating that working on just the feet (not the hands) was the best way to affect the health of the rest of the body. Ingham contributed a crucial tool to the discipline: She drew up detailed "maps" of the feet that showed exactly how particular parts of the foot relate to other body parts. She found, for example, that the toes correspond to the head and neck; that the balls of the feet reflect the lungs, heart and chest; that points on the right foot relate to the right side of the body and that points on the left foot relate to the left; and so on. Charts based on her maps are still used by reflexologists today.
How Does Reflexology Work?
Exactly how reflexology works remains unclear, although several possible explanations have been put forward. One is that the body contains an invisible life force, or subtle energy, similar to the concept of qi in traditional Chinese medicine. When this energy is blocked, illness can result. The nervous system provides a "keyboard" to access, control, and release the subtle energy patterns. It is thought that stimulating some of the more than 7,000 nerve endings on the foot can unblock and increase the flow of this vital energy to various parts of the body and thus promote healing. The reflexology theory is consistent with the theory behind acupuncture and acupressure, in which mapped points on body parts such as the ear or hand are treated to affect corresponding remote organs or body zones.
A more conventional medical theory suggests that the pressure exerted by reflexologists releases nerve transmitter chemicals such as endorphins and monoamines, compounds that control pain.
Health Benefits of Reflexology?
Reflexology is recommended as an adjunct therapy, and is never the main treatment for a condition. Proponents say that it is particularly useful for stress-related conditions, including headaches and digestive disorders. It may also be helpful for asthma and irritable bowel syndrome, for easing symptoms of PMS (premenstrual syndrome), for skin conditions such as acne and eczema, and for chronic pain from conditions such as sciatica and arthritis.
Although scientific evidence is limited, a few studies have shown reflexology to be beneficial. In one study, 35 California women who suffered from PMS were divided into two groups. One group received true reflexology and the control group got a sham treatment. The women who received the real treatment reported a significantly greater decrease in PMS symptoms.
In another study of 220 Danish patients with tension or migraine headaches, 81% reported that reflexology sessions reduced or cured their headache pain.
And, in yet another recent study, it was found that breast and lung cancer patients experienced less anxiety after reflexology. The breast cancer patients also experienced a decrease in pain.
What Can I Expect From Reflexology?
When you see a reflexologist, you will probably begin with a conversation about your general health and lifestyle. The practitioner may inquire about chronic health problems or any issues that are currently concerning you. You will then be asked to remove your shoes and socks and to sit in a reclining chair or lie down on a padded table. The reflexologist may show you a map of the foot that pinpoints specific areas–called reflex points or reflex areas–that relate to other parts of your body.
At first, the practitioner will rub your feet lightly for a few minutes to warm them up and feel for tense areas. When an area of the foot feels taut and sensitive, that's a sign, practitioners say, that the corresponding body part has an energy blockage. The reflexologist will then focus on these tense areas for the duration of the session, which may last from 30 to 60 minutes.
As a particular area of the foot is pressed, you may feel a tingling sensation in the part of your body being treated. The practitioner may use significant pressure, but the therapy should never be painful. Any discomfort you feel should ease as the tension dissipates under the practitioner's touch.
Treatments may be given once a week initially and then taper off to an occasional basis. Once you learn where the appropriate points are for your condition, you can perform reflexology on yourself or have it done by a friend.
Cautions about Reflexology
- Reflexologists are not qualified to diagnose or treat specific diseases.
- If you have a foot injury, blood clots, thrombosis, phlebitis, or other vascular problems in your legs, talk to your doctor before you have reflexology.
- If you are pregnant or think you may be, speak to your obstetrician before having a reflexology treatment. If you decide to have a treatment, let the reflexologist know that you are pregnant.
- If you have a pacemaker, kidney stones, or gallstones, let the reflexologist know before your treatment.
Choosing a Reflexology Practitioner
The best way to find a good reflexologist is to get a referral from your primary-care physician or from a physical therapist or other bodyworker you know and trust. Massage therapists, chiropractors, and podiatrists may practice reflexology as part of their treatments. Insurance coverage may be available if the reflexology is practiced by a physical therapist and you have a condition for which manual therapy is covered by your plan.
While there are no state laws regulating the practice of reflexology in the United States, there are training programs that do provide certification. The American Reflexology Certification Board (ARCB) in Littleton, Colorado, is one organization that certifies reflexologists who undergo 100 hours of training and pass a licensing exam.