What is Reflexology and How Does it Work

What is Reflexology?

Reflexology (or foot reflexology) is a therapy based on the principle that there are small and specific areas of innervation in the hands and feet that correspond to specific muscle groups or organs of the body. In this system, the nerve endings in the extremities provide a “map” of the rest of the body. Examples are the base of the little toe representing the ear, or the ball of the foot representing the lung. Through the application of pressure on particular areas of the hands or feet, reflexology is said to promote benefits such as the relaxation of tension, improvement of circulation, and support of normalized function in the related area in the body.

How Does Reflexology Work?

The underlying theory behind reflexology is that there are certain points or "reflex areas" on the feet and hands that are connected energetically to specific organs and body parts through energy channels in the body. By applying pressure to reflex areas, a reflexologist is said to remove energy blockages and promote health in the related body area.

Here are some examples of reflex areas and their corresponding body parts:

  • The tips of the toes reflect the head
  • The heart and chest are around the ball of the foot
  • The liver, pancreas and kidney are in the arch of the foot
  • Low back and intestines are towards the heel

Although the roots of reflexology go back to ancient Egypt and China, William H. Fitzgerald, an ear, nose, and throat doctor, introduced this concept of "zone therapy" in 1915. American physiotherapist Eunice Ingram further developed the zone theory in the 1930's into what is known as modern reflexology.

According to reflexologists, pressure on the reflex points also helps to balance the nervous system and stimulates the release of endorphins that help to reduce pain and stress. 

Reflexology is based on the Chinese principle that certain areas on the soles of your feet or hands – known as reflex zones – containing millions of nerve endings, correspond to other parts of the body.

What is a Typical Reflexology Session Like?

A typical treatment is 30 to 60 minutes long and begins with a health history form and consultation about your health and lifestyle. The reflexologist will use the information to customize the therapy.

You may then be asked to remove your shoes and socks and sit comfortably in a reclining chair or on a massage table.

The reflexologist will assess the feet and stimulate various points to identify areas of tenderness or tension. Brisk movements and massage may be used to warm the hands and feet. Finger or thumb pressure is then applied to the foot using reflexology techniques.

Lotion or oil may be used, and the reflexologist may also use instruments like balls, brushes, and dowels.

There is currently no regulation of reflexology in the United States. Your health care provider may be able to recommend a therapist. You may want to choose a therapist who has been certified by the American Reflexology Certification Board and has at least 200 hours of education at a recognized institution.

How Is Reflexology Different From a Foot Massage?

While a foot massage may feel the same as a reflexology treatment, a reflexologist will work on areas to promote a healing response in the corresponding organs.

A massage therapist giving a foot massage will manipulate muscles and other soft tissues to improve circulation, relieve pain, and heal injuries in the area or to induce overall relaxation.

What Does Reflexology Feel Like?

Most people find reflexology, for the most part, to be very relaxing.

Reflexology shouldn't be painful. If you feel discomfort, be sure to tell the reflexologist. He or she should work within your comfort zone.

Some areas may be tender or sore, and the reflexologist may spend extra time on these points. The soreness should decrease with pressure.

If you're ticklish, not to worry.

The reflexologist applies firm pressure to the feet.

How Will I Feel Afterward?

Most people feel calm and relaxed after a reflexology session. Occasionally, some people feel nausea, sleepiness, and mood swings.