Reflexology

Written by: 
Richard Thomas, medical writer

What is the history behind reflexologyAn integrated approach based on the concept that each body part has a corresponding point on the feet, which is massaged during therapy. and how might it be used therapeutically? This page explains.

In all likelihood - given that massaging your own feet is a natural instinct - reflexologyAn integrated approach based on the concept that each body part has a corresponding point on the feet, which is massaged during therapy. may date back to prehistoric times, making it one of the oldest forms of therapeutic massage.

Reflexology is a form of foot massage carried out for therapeutic benefit. It involves the application of finger or thumb pressure to the soles and sides of the foot.

Applying pressure to specific parts of the foot, especially the sole, is said to ease ailments elsewhere in the body.

So, for example, if pressure is applied to the part of the toe thought to relate to the head and neck, it is claimed that this will relieve headaches and neck pain. Some therapists use a chart to help demonstrate to patients how reflexologyAn integrated approach based on the concept that each body part has a corresponding point on the feet, which is massaged during therapy. is believed to work.

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Background and theory

The word 'reflexologyAn integrated approach based on the concept that each body part has a corresponding point on the feet, which is massaged during therapy.' is a relatively recent Western term for a form of therapy that goes back at least 5,000 years and which may be even older. The therapy is sometimes also known by a number of other terms such as:

  • Reflex zone therapy
  • Reflex therapy
  • Metamorphic technique
  • Micro-reflexologyAn integrated approach based on the concept that each body part has a corresponding point on the feet, which is massaged during therapy.
  • Zone therapy.

Reflexologists mainly work on the feet, though sometimes may apply pressure to the hands and ears as well.

Both the theory and practice of reflexologyAn integrated approach based on the concept that each body part has a corresponding point on the feet, which is massaged during therapy. are closely linked to the traditional Chinese techniques of acupressureA complementary therapy derived from acupuncture, which uses finger pressure rather than the fine sterile needles used in acupuncture. (shiatsu in Japan) and acupunctureA complementary therapy in which fine sterile needles are inserted into the skin at specific points.. Examples of 'foot acupressureA complementary therapy derived from acupuncture, which uses finger pressure rather than the fine sterile needles used in acupuncture.' can be seen in ancient Egyptian pictographs and in both native North and South American traditions. This suggests that therapeutic foot massage was common throughout the ancient world.

In all likelihood - given that massaging your own feet is a natural instinct - reflexologyAn integrated approach based on the concept that each body part has a corresponding point on the feet, which is massaged during therapy. may date back to prehistoric times, making it one of the oldest forms of therapeutic massage.

Modern reflexology

Reflexology as we know it today was developed and refined by European and American exponents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (though some researchers claim a book on the subject was published in Europe in 1582).

This followed research on 'reflexes' and 'reflex zones', notably by the Russian clinical psychologist Ivan Pavlov, the German physician Alfons Cornelius, and the North Americans William Fitzgerald, Edwin Bowers and Joseph Shelby Riley.

However, it was the work of Riley's nurse assistant, Eunice Ingham (1879-1974), that really established reflexologyAn integrated approach based on the concept that each body part has a corresponding point on the feet, which is massaged during therapy. as the recognised and widely practised therapy that it is today. Ingham is credited with having coined the term 'reflexologyAn integrated approach based on the concept that each body part has a corresponding point on the feet, which is massaged during therapy.' in the 1930s and it was she, along with her nephew Dwight Byers, who fully refined the system that most modern reflexologists now use.

How does reflexology work?

Despite the fact that reflexologyAn integrated approach based on the concept that each body part has a corresponding point on the feet, which is massaged during therapy. is today popular all over the world, opinion is still divided over how exactly the points, or reflexes, on the feet relate to and may influence organs in other parts of the body.

The theoretical model of how reflexologyAn integrated approach based on the concept that each body part has a corresponding point on the feet, which is massaged during therapy. works is not explained by conventional physiology.

  • Some reflexologists assert that the therapy is based on the same principles as acupunctureA complementary therapy in which fine sterile needles are inserted into the skin at specific points., with its concepts of 'universal energy' (chi), 'meridians' (lines of energy) and 'acupoints' (energy points or reflexes).
  • According to this theory, pressure to the reflex points on the foot is said to clear 'blockages' to the free flow of universal energy in the same way as acupunctureA complementary therapy in which fine sterile needles are inserted into the skin at specific points..
  • Other reflexologists insist that the basis of treatment is a proper understanding of the body's central nervous system, combining physiology and psychology.

See acupuncture for more on the 'energy' theory behind traditional Chinese medicine.

What conditions can reflexology help?

While there is much anecdotal evidence about reflexologyAn integrated approach based on the concept that each body part has a corresponding point on the feet, which is massaged during therapy.'s benefits, as with many complementary therapies, very few good quality trials have been conducted on this therapy, and research into its benefits is still very much in its infancy.

Although foot massage is undoubtedly relaxing, there is to date little good scientific evidence to support specific therapeutic uses.1,2 Despite this, reflexologists are widely consulted, and are credited by many patients as having successfully alleviated symptoms in a range of conditions such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Back pain
  • Colic in babies
  • Constipation
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Sinusitis
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Lung disease
  • Post-operative recovery
  • Incontinence.

However the scientific evidence remains weak and to date the best results have been seen in depression, hypertensionHigh blood pressure., immune systemThe organs specialised to fight infection. function and stressRelating to injury or concern. reduction only.3,4

What to expect from a therapist

Therapists who specialise in reflexologyAn integrated approach based on the concept that each body part has a corresponding point on the feet, which is massaged during therapy. are now common in many countries, although it is more usual to find that those who practise it do so alongside other therapies, such as aromatherapy and massage. Many beauty therapists also offer reflexologyAn integrated approach based on the concept that each body part has a corresponding point on the feet, which is massaged during therapy. as part of a relaxation or de-stressRelating to injury or concern. programme.

If you consult a reflexologist for treatment for a particular ailment, you will usually first spend some time answering questions about your diet and lifestyle.

This helps the therapist to build up a picture of you, which will help him or her to arrive at an idea of what might have caused the problem in the first place. It is the underlying cause rather than the obvious symptom that the therapist will usually seek to treat.

Although your initial consultation might last an hour, subsequent visits, depending on results, could be as short as 10 minutes. While some patients report immediate relief - especially for minor problems such as headache or stressRelating to injury or concern. - a therapist will usually recommend more than one visit.

During treatment you will usually sit or lie down while the therapist probes some of the reflex points on your feet and concentrates on those that are painful. It is these painful points that are believed to relate to the affected organ or part of the body elsewhere that needs treating.

The therapist usually applies pressure with his or her finger or thumb to the painful spot until the pain has subsided. That is the moment at which it is said to have been effective and the pressure is then taken off.

Self-help

Despite the theory and practice of foot reflexologyAn integrated approach based on the concept that each body part has a corresponding point on the feet, which is massaged during therapy. being simple enough to follow, it is not easy to practise on yourself because of the difficulty of applying the correct pressure to your own feet.

A sympathetic friend or partner can be called on to help, but the greatest benefit will generally come from consulting a properly trained therapist.

Many countries have a single regulatory body that can be consulted to find a qualified therapist. Some, particularly Britain and the USA, have many competing self-regulating bodies, which makes choosing a practitioner more difficult.

Reflexology on its own should not be relied on to treat serious medical conditions. It can, however, be a very effective adjunct or complementary therapy to conventional treatments.

Side-effects and cautions

Reflexology, like aromatherapy, is generally considered a safe therapy. There are obvious cautions - for example, pressure should not be applied to the feet if the person has a suspected injury such as a broken bone, open wound or bruising, or if the person has arthritisInflammation of one or more joints of the body..

Other than this there are few if any reported adverse side-effects and most people report feelings of relaxation and well-being after treatment.

References: 
  1. Raz I, Rosengarten Y, Carasso R. 'Correlation study between conventional medical diagnosisThe process of determining which condition a patient may have. and the diagnosisThe process of determining which condition a patient may have. by reflexologyAn integrated approach based on the concept that each body part has a corresponding point on the feet, which is massaged during therapy. (non conventional).' Harefuah. 2003; 142(8-9): 600-5, 646.
  2. White AR, Williamson J, Hart A, et al. 'A blinded investigation into the accuracy of reflexologyAn integrated approach based on the concept that each body part has a corresponding point on the feet, which is massaged during therapy. charts.' Complement Ther Med. 2000; 8(3): 166-172.
  3. Lee YM. 'Effect of self-foot reflexologyAn integrated approach based on the concept that each body part has a corresponding point on the feet, which is massaged during therapy. massage on depression, stressRelating to injury or concern. responses and immune functions of middle-aged women.' Taehan Kanho Hakhoe Chi. 2006; 36(1): 179-188.
  4. Sudmeier I, Bodne G, Egge I, et al. 'Changes of renal bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. flow during organ-associated foot reflexologyAn integrated approach based on the concept that each body part has a corresponding point on the feet, which is massaged during therapy. measured by color Doppler sonography.' Komplementarmed. 1999; 6(3): 129-134.