What is it?

Reflexology is a form of bodywork where pressure is applied to hands and feet to produce internal responses from the body. This therapy is based on the principle that there are specific areas of innervation in the hands and feet that relate to or connect with specific muscles or organs. For example, the base of the foot represents the lower back and pelvic areas, whereas the tip of the middle toe corresponds to the head/brain areas.

The way reflexology connects spots on the outside of your body to the inside is akin to acupuncture and acupressure. But those therapies use points all over your body, not just your feet, hands and ears. And while reflexologists use their hands, it isn’t a form of massage.

Core philosophy

Modern reflexology is based on the principle that the foot has “reflex” points that correspond to the various structures and organs throughout the body. According to the philosophy of reflexology, all the organs, glands and parts of the body have representing reflexes on the feet. Reflexologists claim that any health problems in the body can usually be detected in the corresponding area of the foot. Reflexology practitioners believe that by massaging or stimulating the reflexes using specific techniques, there will be a direct effect on the corresponding organ.

The goal of reflexology is to trigger the return of homeostasis in the body, a state of equilibrium or balance. The most important step towards achieving this is to reduce tension and induce relaxation. Relaxation is the first step to normalisation and when the body is relaxed healing is possible. Blood vessels are not constricted, circulation is greatly enhanced and every cell in the body can be properly supplier with nutrients and oxygen. The body’s organs can function normally.

Reflexology leverages the concept of Chinese meridians as one of the foundational blocks for the practice. The Chinese discovered the meridian system approximately 3,000 years ago and the concept has gone from strength to strength to become a well-developed and researched science today. The meridians are a network of electrical pathways covering the body and it is analogous to the zones known in Reflexology. There are twelve major meridians, each passing through one side of the body and having an identical image on the other side.

The energy passing through the meridians is known as “Chi”. Chi is derived from the air we breathe and the food we eat and it is considered to be the energy of life. Healthy habits in diet, exercise, sleep, etc., will maximize Chi. Poor habits will create imbalances that may ultimately result in disease. A closer study of the meridians reveals that there are six main meridians found in the feet, specifically the toes, namely the meridians that penetrate the main organs; liver, spleen/pancreas, stomach, gallbladder, bladder and kidneys. A reflexology treatment will therefore stimulate and clear congestions along all these meridians, allowing energy to flow freely and return the body to a state of balance.

Though this is the predominant philosophy behind reflexology, there are additional theories on how this practice works. One theory states that the body’s entire nervous system tends to adjust to outside factors, including touch and that a reflexologist’s touch may help calm the central nervous system. Others believe that the brain creates pain as a subjective experience and that reflexology can reduce pain through calming touch, which may help to improve someone’s mood and reduce stress.

Irrespective of the train of thought, reflexology is a practice that has been around for some time and that is getting increased popularity as a way to increase one’s overall sense of wellness.


There is evidence of some form of foot and hand therapy being practiced in China as long ago as 2330 B.C. and also at the same time in Egypt. The North American tribes of Indians are known to have practiced a form of foot therapy for hundreds of years. Similarly, manipulation of feet for positive purposes was practiced in the ancient cultures of India, Japan and Russia. Not much is known about the theories or even the names given to such practices in ancient times.

Zone Therapy was used as far back as AD 1500. The American president, James Abram Garfield was said to apply pressure to his feet to relieve pain. During the 16th Century a number of books were published on Zone Therapy, one was written by Dr. Adamus and Dr. A’tatis and another by Dr. Ball in Leipzig.

Reflexology started to become systematized again thanks to Dr. William Fitzgerald who called it Zone Therapy and drew it to the attention of the medical world between 1915 and 1917 (through a famous article titled “To stop that toothache, squeeze your toe”. In 1917 Dr. Fitzgerald wrote “Zone Therapy or Relieving Pain in the Home”. Two years later, they enlarged this book and published it under a second title “Zone Therapy or Curing Pain and Disease”.

Subsequently, other American medical doctors, including George Starr White and Joe and Elizabeth Riley also wrote books on the subject. Eunice Ingham was an American massage therapist and physiotherapist who studied zone therapy under the supervision of Dr. Joe Riley. She went on to become the main pioneer of modern reflexology and during the 1930s she refined “Zone theory” into “Foot Reflexology”. In 1966 Doreen Bailey, a former student of Eunice Ingham, returned to England from America and became the pioneer of reflexology in England.

There are many modern contributors to the field of reflexology. Ann Gillanders has worked with reflexology since the 1970s, amassed a wealth of experience and knowledge and written several best-selling books about reflexology. Chris Stormer’s analysis of how to interpret physical aspects of different areas of the feet, as described in his book “The Language of the Feet” has become well-known and a standard text cited by many reflexology tutors. As of this day, reflexology continues to be an increasingly popular practice, one that can benefit people of all ages.

Benefits and uses

There are a plethora of purported ways in which reflexology can help to create a happier body and mind. Reflexology offers common benefits and one of them is reducing stress by applying pressure to the specific area on feet and hands which may induce general relaxation while relaxing the targeted area concurrently.

In simple sentence, people choose reflexology because:

  • The treatment is free from any drugs and chemicals, and it is a wide option for many health problems.
  • Its ability to reduce pain.
  • It helps the body maintain its dexterity and locomotion ability.
  • It promotes general sense of relaxation especially overused or tired hands, feet and the whole body parts.
  • It stimulates the release of body’s pain-relieving chemical.
  • As a prevention from any illness.
  • It promotes recover process from any injury, particularly at any region on the hands and feet.

As a general rule, pain is a stressor in the body system and any injury occurs to any part of the body will cause the whole system to be stressed. Endorphin is a body’s natural pain-relieving chemical will be released as a response to reflexology and it teaches the body how to adapt any injuries. As a result, reflexology generally improves body health condition and well-being at the  physical, emotional and spiritual levels.

Who practices it

Professionals who practice reflexology take courses in certified schools that typically involve 150 to 300 hours of study combined with hands-on practice. A reflexology program provides not only the technical training needed for the practice but also fundamental business concepts and other essential aspects of the profession.

Subjects covered include:

  • Reflexology history, theory and techniques
  • Reflexology maps of the feet
  • Anatomy and physiology
  • How to customize sessions based on client-specific issues
  • Ethics and professionalism
  • Relevant business practices and marketing
  • Supervised classroom or clinical work

Certification requirements for reflexologists vary from state to state. Many reflexology school programs result in reflexology certification that meets state requirements; however, others may deliver a diploma without certification.

Massage schools are now teaching reflexology as one of the techniques a practitioner can learn, but it is important to recognize that massage therapists have a different orientation than reflexologists. A massage therapist is focused on manipulating the soft tissues, and soft tissue manipulation techniques do not apply to the feet. A reflexologist applies pressure to reflex points, and by an internal mechanism, not directly related to manipulation of the tissue, creates relaxation and release of tension.

The American Reflexology Certification Board offers national certification to candidates who meet requirements for education and hands-on practice and pass a certification exam. To maintain the certification, the practitioners must pay a renewal fee every year and complete continuing education units every two years. The Board offers an easy way to find certified reflexologists in different areas.

What to expect

A typical session starts with a chat about the patient’s health history and an explanation on what to expect from the session. It is typical to sign a consent form, acknowledging that reflexology is not a substitute for medical treatment and does not treat specific illnesses.

The patient will remain fully clothed and will typically lie down. The practitioner will sanitize feet, hands and ears and will assess these areas for wounds, rashes, sores, warts, etc. Generally a session lasts between 30-60 minutes and the patient can rest or talk during the session.

A complete reflexology therapy session uses many different techniques and includes all of the points on both feet and perhaps the hands and ears. If there is a specific condition, such as migraines, the reflexologist will carefully feel and world the area corresponding to the presenting problem.

It is important to understand that the reflexologist stimulates the nervous system to do the work of balancing and releasing. “Releasing pain” is not the model; the goal is rather to bring the whole body into balance, and then the pain will subside. Experiences with reflexology sessions vary from a general feeling of relaxation, to a sense of “lightness” or tingling in the body, as well as feelings of warmth or a sense of “opening” from the practitioner’s pressure to the specific body area or organ.

After the session, various reactions may occur. The are generally subtle and are often not recognized by many people as a result of the reflexology therapy. These may include increased energy, relief from pain, enhanced sleep, more mobile joints, skin rashes or pimples (due to the elimination of toxins) and frequent bowel movements.

The number of sessions varies and is determined by the client’s health and reasons for seeking reflexology. But in general, results from a reflexology are often subtle and are cumulative. Thus, a patient is more likely to see greater benefits from regular sessions than if the patient had a session once every six months.

Interesting facts

  • In a 2011 study funded by the National Cancer Institute, experts studied how reflexology treatments affected 240 women with advanced breast cancer. All women were undergoing medical treatment, such as chemotherapy, for their cancer. The study found that reflexology helped to reduce some of their symptoms, including shortness of breath. Participants also reported an improved quality of life. (Source)
  • In one small study from 2000, researchers looked at the effects of one 30-minutes foot reflexology treatment on people being treated for breast or lung cancer. Those who received a reflexology treatment reported lower levels of anxiety than those who received no reflexology treatment. (Source)
  • In a 2014 study that was slightly larger, researchers gave people undergoing heart surgery a 20-minute foot reflexology treatment once a day for four days. They found that those who received the reflexology treatment reported significantly lower levels of anxiety than those who didn’t. (Source)

Closing statement

Reflexology is featured on the menus at thousands of spas, in addition to being practiced by trained massage therapists in private practice and certified reflexologists at medical facilities around the globe. This practice has boomed over the last few decades and its popularity continues to emerge.

Like other Complementary Alternative Medicine practices, there has not been enough well-funded studies to bring evidence to fully validate the profession. However, there is no question reflexology has a bright future and there are countless articles coming out daily in its support and numerous advocates clamoring its benefits.