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.

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.

How Reflexology Helps

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:

What You Can Expect During a 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.

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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.

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.

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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.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on August 14, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: “The Physiological and Biochemical Outcomes Associated with a Reflexology Treatment: A Systematic Review,” “Reflexology versus Swedish Massage to Reduce Physiologic Stress and Pain and Improve Mood in Nursing Home Residents with Cancer: A Pilot Trial.”

University of Minnesota: “How Does Reflexology Work?” “What Is the History of Reflexology?” “What Are Reflexology Points and Areas?” “How Can I Find a Reflexology Therapist?” “What Can I Expect in a First Reflexology Visit?” “Are There Times When I Shouldn’t Have Reflexology?”

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: "Reflexology."

International Institute of Reflexology: "About Reflexology."

Reflexology Association of America: "Definition of Reflexology."

Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice: “The effects of foot reflexology massage on anxiety in patients following coronary artery bypass graft surgery: a randomized controlled trial.”

Journal of Advanced Nursing: “Effectiveness of reflexology on anxiety of patients undergoing cardiovascular interventional procedures: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.”

Iranian Red Crescent Medical Journal: “The Effect of Reflexology on Pain Intensity and Duration of Labor on Primiparas.”

Iranian Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research: “Comparing the effects of reflexology and relaxation on fatigue in women with multiple sclerosis.”

Multiple Sclerosis: “Reflexology treatment relieves symptoms of multiple sclerosis: a randomized controlled study.”

Palliative Medicine: “Aromatherapy, massage and reflexology: A systematic review and thematic synthesis of the perspectives from people with palliative care needs.”

Complementary Therapies in Medicine: “Effect of self-administered foot reflexology for symptom management in healthy persons: a systematic review and meta-analysis.”

Reflexology Today, the Journal of the American Reflexology Certification Board: “How to Quickly Release Stress in Less Than Five Minutes.”

American Reflexology Certification Board.

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