What Is Reflexology?
Reflexology is a type of therapy that uses gentle pressure on specific points along your feet (and possibly on your hands or ears as well) to help you feel better. The theory is that this eases stress, and that helps your body work better. It’s also known as zone therapy.
The way reflexology connects spots on the outside of your body to the inside is a bit like acupuncture and acupressure. But those therapies use points all over your body, not just on your feet, hands, and ears. And while reflexologists do use their hands, it isn’t a form of massage.
Like those other therapies, though, reflexology is complementary to medical treatments. It can be done alongside traditional care, but it’s not an alternative to it, and reflexologists don’t diagnose or treat illnesses.
Reflexology may help you feel less stressed, more relaxed, and more energized. But the benefits might go deeper if you have certain health issues.
Some people with medical conditions find that they feel less pain and discomfort if they have less stress, and reflexology may help with that. Researchers reviewed 17 studies of the psychological benefits of the therapy and found that it boosted feelings of well-being and made it easier for people to manage their conditions.
More research is needed to see if reflexology can have a direct effect on specific conditions, but based on what we know so far, it may ease:
- Anxiety among people who've had heart surgery
- Pain during labor
- Arthritis pain
- Some symptoms of multiple sclerosis, like fatigue and uncomfortable skin sensations
- Emotional and physical pain caused by cancer
It may also help:
- Improve sinus issues
- Relieve back pain
- Ease constipation
What You Can Expect During a Reflexology Session
To get to know you and make sure that reflexology is right for you, the therapist will start by asking questions about your health, what you eat, your lifestyle, and any conditions you have. Your answers will help them decide whether to work on your feet, hands, ears, or a combination of those. This is also the time to ask any questions you have.
You’ll probably be in a soothing, spa-like setting with soft music, low lights, and possibly aromatherapy. You might sit in a reclining chair or lie down on a massage table. You’ll keep your clothes on, but wear something comfortable so you can better relax.
Many reflexologists will begin by gently smoothing oil or cream on your feet. Next, they’ll put mild to moderate pressure on one foot at a time using different techniques. They might return to certain pressure points a second time, but they'll cover the entire area during the session, not just the points connected to any trouble spots you might have.
Sessions are usually 30 or 60 minutes long. At some point, you might feel so relaxed that you fall asleep, or you could feel a rush of emotions as energy moves through your body. Afterward, you could feel energized or have a sense of calm.
You might have a reflexology session only occasionally, as a regular “tune-up,” or every week for a set period of time if you’re using it to help with a condition. You might also ask your reflexologist for tips on how to do it yourself between visits. You can get special socks that have a map of all the pressure points to use as a guide.
You may get some benefits from just 5 minutes of reflexology on your hands. It’s easy to do any time you feel stressed, even at your desk. It can be as simple as wrapping one hand around each finger of the opposite hand, one at a time. Start with the thumb and hold for 1 to 2 minutes before moving to the next finger and so on until you reach your pinkie, then switch hands and repeat.
How Does Reflexology Work?
There are different theories about the exact way that reflexology works, but the main concept of all is that different areas of the feet are linked to specific body parts, and that putting pressure on one area of the foot can have an effect on the organ that it corresponds with.
According to zone theory, a foot is divided into five zones that run from toe to heel: The big toe is zone 1, and the pinky toe is zone 5. The body is divided into 10 zones that run from head to foot. Zone 1 aligns with the left and right center of the body, and zone 5 aligns with the left and right sides of the body. When you place pressure on zone 1 in the foot, it can relieve pain in the part of the body that’s linked to that area.
A theory that dates back to the 19th century suggests that reflexology works by stimulating the nervous system. Pressing on areas of the feet in a calming way stimulates the nerves there, which sends a message to the central nervous system. This helps to relax the body and has positive effects on your breathing, blood flow, immune response, and more.
Another theory suggests that reflexology helps offset the way that your brain registers pain. When your feet are massaged, the relaxing sensations may help relieve stress and improve your mood, which may make you less inclined to perceive pain as deeply.
Still another theory suggests that your body contains “vital energy” that is affected by stress. If you don’t work to relieve the stress, your body may not work as well as it should, which may lead to aches or illness. Reflexology is thought to help you maintain the flow of vital energy through your body.
When You Should Avoid Reflexology
Most people, even those in the hospital, can benefit from reflexology. A study on women with advanced breast cancer found it was safe even for people who are very ill.
But you shouldn’t have reflexology if you’re recovering from an injured foot or have gout. Because it may affect blood flow, it’s not for people with blood clots or women who are pregnant.
If you have a chronic condition, a disease that affects your feet or legs, or arthritis in your feet or ankles, ask your doctor first. If your feet are off-limits, you may still be able to have reflexology on your hands or ears.
Finding a Reflexologist
Reflexology is often offered at spas with massage services. Be sure to ask for a trained reflexologist who has taken an accredited program of at least 110 hours and is certified by a national board. The locator on the websites of organizations like the Reflexology Association of America or the American Reflexology Certification Board can be a good place to start.