A casual foot rub — or even massaging your own feet — can be profoundly relaxing. But if you want to get the most out of it, consider tapping into the power of reflexology. Reflexology is an ancient healing practice that involves applying pressure to specific areas of the feet, hands, or ears to stimulate a healing response.
Reflexology is based on a system of points on the body, similar to acupuncture points, that correspond to an orderly arrangement resembling the shape of the human body overlaid on the feet, hands, and outer ears. For example, the tips of the toes are linked to the head while the balls of the feet are associated with the heart and chest.
There’s evidence that the use of reflexology spans several thousand years. Ancient statues of Buddha in both India and China include reflexology symbols. The 3,000-year-old Chinese classic treatise on health and disease, The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, includes a chapter on “Examining Foot Method” which is a reference to reflexology. An Egyptian tomb dating back to 2330 BC contains a pictograph believed to be of foot reflexology points. It’s said that Marco Polo translated a Chinese massage book into Italian and so introduced reflexology and therapeutic massage to Europe.
Reflexology is now one of the most popular alternative health techniques on the planet. Its use has skyrocketed in the United States and Europe. It is the second most popular form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatment in Ireland and more than 20 percent of the population of Denmark has given it a try.
As anyone who has enjoyed a foot massage can attest, reflexology is relaxing! It excels at treating any condition with a stress-related component, such as anxiety, tension headaches, insomnia, PMS, and digestive disorders. Millions of people around the world use it to complement medical treatments for conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and pain relief.
How Does Reflexology Work?
According to traditional Chinese medicine, reflexology works much like acupuncture by restoring balance to the body’s qi — its energy flow or life force. No one knows for sure how either of these techniques work but researchers have some ideas. Here are the four most popular scientific theories on how reflexology works, based on the latest research.
First, it is suggested that reflexology works by increasing circulation to the corresponding organ or area of the body. This has been supported by observing changes in blood flow with the use of sonography.
The second, and most promising theory, is the nerve impulse theory which proposes that reflexology enhances nerve connection and modulation of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS controls involuntary body functions such as heart rate, respiratory rate, digestion, and blood pressure.
Thirdly, reflexology may work by stimulating the release of endorphins, a group of roughly 20 feel-good brain chemicals that reduce pain and diminish the negative effects of stress.
And, of course, some researchers believe that reflexology works “only” because of the placebo effect. However, the power of the placebo effect should never be dismissed! Placebos can exert a variety of proven, measurable physical and psychological effects, including altering blood pressure, heart rate, brain activity, and pain perception.
Benefits of Reflexology
While it’s pretty clear that reflexology has a long history of use and millions of fans who use it for stress relief and general well-being, what does the scientific research show? The University of Minnesota has compiled a list of reflexology benefits backed by scientific research. Here are some of the highlights of what they have found.
A review of 168 research studies concluded that reflexology can increase blood flow to organs, enhance organ function, lower high blood pressure, reduce anxiety, cause positive changes in brain wave patterns, and reduce pain linked to arthritis, kidney stones, and diabetic neuropathy.
Reflexology can alleviate the pain of migraines and tension headaches and is at least as effective as Flunarizine, the prescription calcium channel blocker used for treating migraine headaches.
One study, which involved participants sticking their feet into icy water (any volunteers?), found that reflexology resulted in a 40 percent reduction in pain and a 45 percent increase in pain tolerance.
An Israeli study reported that multiple sclerosis patients experienced improvements in pain, motor, sensory, and urinary issues after eleven weeks of reflexology.
And perhaps most impressive were the results with cancer patients. A study in the American Cancer Society journal found that one-third of cancer patients used reflexology as a complementary therapy. Reflexology reduced patients’ pain and anxiety. It also delivered a remarkable 100 percent improvement in quality of life categories such as appearance, appetite, breathing, concentration, digestion, fatigue, fear, isolation, mobility, mood, nausea, pain, and sleep.
What To Expect During A Reflexology Session
If you are new to reflexology, here’s what you can expect. A typical session usually lasts 30 to 60 minutes. You stay fully clothed, except for removing any footwear, and usually lie down on a massage table or sit in a comfortable chair. You simply relax and let the reflexologist do her magic.
She will massage, stretch, and press specific areas of the feet with various degrees of pressure depending on your health and your goals for the treatment. Occasionally, just as with a full-body massage, it can get little uncomfortable. Generally, the points that are painful indicate those areas that need the most work and are usually linked to organs or parts of the body that are diseased, damaged or need a boost in healing energy.
Research shows that even a single reflexology session can help you relax, reduce anxiety, improve blood flow, and decrease pain. So while one session might make you feel great, you’ll get the best results with a series of treatments.
How to Find A Reflexologist
Reflexology’s popularity is definitely on the rise, so finding a reflexologist should not be hard. Here are some resources to help you get started.
In the United States, check out the International Institute of Reflexology referral list or the American Reflexology Certification Board for a list of certified reflexologists. You can also find spas that offer reflexology among their services at SpaFinder.com.
In the United Kingdom, you can find a qualified reflexologist at the Association of Reflexologists.
And in Australia, you can do a search at Reflexology Association of Australia to find a reflexologist.
Compared with many other hands-on practices, you should find that reflexology gives you excellent value for your money. If you can’t find a reflexologist near you or can’t afford one, you can also perform reflexology on yourself. Or you may simply seek to augment your reflexology treatments with some simple massages you can do at home between sessions.
There are reflexology charts available (also called reflexology maps) that show the specific areas of the feet, hands, and ears that correlate with different organs and systems in the body. You can also find videos online that walk you through a reflexology session.
Is do-it-yourself reflexology as beneficial as having work done by a trained professional? Probably not, but it can certainly be helpful. In fact, one study found that applying self-reflexology gave patients with peripheral neuropathy substantial relief of symptoms.
You can learn to do reflexology to reap its benefits anytime you’ve got a few minutes to spare. You can easily do a little self-massage when sitting at your desk, in the car, or while watching TV. And you can always exchange foot massages with a friend or significant other.