Are you struggling with pain, anxiety, or chronic stress? According to the fundamental tenets of reflexology, it’s possible to treat any of those problems by manipulating pressure points on your hands, ears, and feet. Some people have even reported experiencing improved digestion, immune response, and fertility after trying reflexology.
Reflexology traces its roots back to acupressure. In this system, it is believed that applying pressure to specific areas of the feet, hands, and ears can improve the body’s own ability to heal interconnected body parts associated with those points.
Foot massage techniques designed to improve overall health arose over three thousand years ago in what is currently known as India and China. However, some basic forms of foot massage probably existed long before that. By 2500 BCE, Chinese physicians had divided the human body into zones, using longitudinal meridians, which informed how they treated patients. The Classic of Medicine, attributed to the possibly mythical “Yellow Emperor” Huangdi, is one of the earliest extant medical texts to describe acupressure, a fundamental tenet of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that would later form the basis of reflexology. Although reflexology and TCM are separate practices, reflexology relies on bodily meridians and energy flow theories based on Chinese medicine practices.
Over time, reflexology emerged in other cultures, including Ancient Egypt, via parallel evolution or cultural exchange. Reflexology was brought to the contemporary United States by Eunice Ingham, a physiotherapist who popularized reflexology for Western audiences during the twentieth century.
Reflexology is a complementary or “alternative” medicine practice that manipulates acupressure points on the feet, ears, and hands to heal medical problems elsewhere in the body. It can be used to treat a variety of conditions. While most available evidence shows that reflexology can reduce stress, anxiety, and pain, people who have experienced it have also reported that their fertility, digestion, or immune response also improved or even that their cancer went into remission.
The fundamental idea behind reflexology is that specific points on the feet, hands, or ears correspond to organs or glands in the rest of the body. Therefore, applying pressure to a point can stimulate healing in other areas to which it is connected. Reflexology practitioners encourage the body to heal itself by massaging the feet, hands, or ears, targeting points that are believed to be related to various health problems. Rather than entering the body invasively, as a drug would, reflexology stimulates your body to heal itself.
No study has yet established the underlying principles by which reflexology functions, although several possible explanations exist.
by Robyn Michele Jones, MA, CMT, RCST®
by Dominique Clothiaux, RCST®
Thus far, relatively few studies have clinically evaluated reflexology’s effectiveness, and most of them have been too small to produce generalizable results. A few studies are noteworthy, however.
A recent meta-analysis of 26 studies, published in 2020, showed that foot reflexology significantly reduced anxiety and depression and improved sleep quality among adults.
A small study investigating the effects of reflexology on PMS symptoms was published in 1993. Researchers separated 35 people who had experienced PMS symptoms into two groups: one group underwent two months of foot, hand, or ear reflexology; during the same period of time, the other group received a placebo treatment that mimicked reflexology. The group that received actual reflexology treatment showed a significantly more significant decrease in PMS symptoms than the control group. However, a sample consisting of 35 people is relatively small and may not adequately represent the larger population. Further research is warranted.
Another study, published in 2000, showed that foot reflexology significantly reduced anxiety among 23 breast and lung cancer patients. This study also evaluated reflexology’s effect on pain, but those results were more ambiguous. Some patients experienced a decrease in pain, but only according to one out of three pain measures. Since this was a small study, one should exercise caution when drawing general conclusions based on its results.
On the other hand, a 2014 review of 17 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of reflexology concluded that the overall quality of existing research into reflexology was low. Furthermore, most of the studies this group analyzed revealed no significant differences between the positive effects of reflexology and positive changes that members of a sham treatment group experienced.
If you choose to explore reflexology with a guide, your first session will probably be divided into three sections: intake, treatment, and closing.
During intake, the practitioner will ask about your health history to determine whether reflexology is a good fit for you. Then, they will explain how reflexology works and set expectations. Some may ask you to sign consent and other legal forms.
At the beginning of treatment, the practitioner will assess your feet, ears, or hands so they know how to best prepare for your sessions (e.g., if you have a cut on your foot, they will know to wear gloves and avoid pressing on the open wound). If you’re exploring foot reflexology, your practitioner may wash and soak your feet before beginning treatment. During treatment, which usually lasts from thirty minutes to one hour, the practitioner will apply pressure to various pressure points on your body. Depending on what makes you feel most comfortable, you may talk or relax during this time.
At the end of treatment, your practitioner will probably gently transition out of the session by holding or stroking your foot, ear, or hand.
During a reflexology treatment, you may react physically or emotionally in unexpected ways. For example, you may cry, laugh, fall asleep, feel cold, thirsty, light-headed, or cough. Some people feel more relaxed, some feel pain, and some might notice that their hands or feet start to sweat. All of these reactions are normal, and it’s likely that however your body responds, your practitioner has probably seen it before.
In the hours or even days following treatment, patients often feel better but may feel tired, cry (indicating an emotional release), or even have diarrhea as their system releases toxins. If any of these symptoms manifest for you, be gentle with yourself.
Note that your reflexology practitioner will never make a diagnosis unless they are also a doctor acting in that capacity. Reflexology does not diagnose illnesses and cannot substitute for types of treatment that do.
As always, the most important question to ask yourself before choosing a guide is, “Do I feel comfortable with this person?” You deserve to work with someone with whom you feel safe and have a good rapport. The best practitioners encourage questions and answer them openly and readily.
People in many different professions use reflexology. Some doctors and nurses use it to supplement more conventional Western medical treatments, whereas some practitioners exclusively practice reflexology. Unless your reflexology practitioner is also a doctor, they shouldn’t diagnose you with anything.
Although no license is required to practice reflexology, certifications are available. For example, the International Institute of Reflexology teaches a variant based on Eunice Ingham’s work. Different organizations teach different styles of reflexology, but the basic principles remain the same.
People with certain health conditions should avoid reflexology. For example, you shouldn’t receive reflexology treatment on body parts that are injured or strained. For example, if you have gout or a broken toe, foot reflexology won’t be a good fit for you. People who have blood clotting issues should also avoid reflexology because it improves circulation, and increased blood flow could knock a clot out of place and move it toward your heart or brain.
If you choose to pursue reflexology while pregnant, your practitioner will modify your treatment compared to that of individuals who aren’t pregnant to avoid or reduce pressure to the uterine and ovarian points. Some people have reported that reflexology can induce contractions, so proceed with caution.
Although some people have reported success using reflexology to treat core issues that they believed were causing their cancer (e.g., anxiety or anger), no formal research has substantiated these claims. Some studies have concluded that reflexology eases anxiety and physical pain, but in the absence of substantive research supporting that reflexology can heal life-threatening issues (either directly or, as some cancer survivors have claimed, by treating underlying psychophysiological issues such as anxiety), it makes sense to view reflexology as a complement to other methods of treatment.
Finally, little research about reflexology exists. Therefore, if you feel more comfortable relying on methods of treatment that Western science has extensively supported, you may wish to hold off on reflexology treatment, at least until and unless more research proves that it produces positive results.
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