Reflexology is a form of massage applied to specific areas of the foot that are linked to organs within the body. It is used to treat and prevent disease and relieve stress. Reflexologists, or “body managers”, are now popping up in all parts of the world and are specifically attracting a largely female patient base. This paper investigates the practice, theory, and potential uses of reflexology.
Possible references to reflexology areas, or zones, have been found in Egyptian tomb writings as far back as 5000 years ago. Other sources argue that reflexology is a relatively new form of therapy. The zonal maps used today, however, have only been around since the 1930’s. Eunice Ingham was a physiotherapist and masseuse who wrote a book titled Stories the Feet Can Tell and it marked the beginning of reflexology within the complimentary therapy field.
Uses of Reflexology
People visit reflexologists for a number of reasons: detoxification, sleep problems, allergies, relaxation, spiritual and emotional disbalance, improvement in circulation, pain, immune system enhancement, as well as others.
The body manager will often tell the client what form of treatment he/she needs based on the diagnosis the client has received from another health care practitioner. Reflexologists do not themselves offer a diagnosis since no formal medical background is required of them. Even though many of the therapists may have special training, there is no regulatory body at the time to govern or standardize the practice. Therapists are often self-taught, or they may simply have learned from another practitioner. Nevertheless, there are also some physicians and physiotherapists that have also found benefit in reflexology and use it within their practice. These practitioners have a greater understanding of the body due to their previous training and may be able to provide more complete and holistic treatment.
How it’s done
The theory of reflexology is based on zonal maps of the feet that correspond to areas within the body. These reflex areas are able to trigger reactions in parts of the body quite far from the feet by longitudinal nerve pathways of the organs that terminate in the soles. Thus, different parts of the feet, from the toes to the bottom of the heel, are believed to be in direct contact with a body organ. Some reflexologists identify these reflex zones on palms of the hands, ears, eyes, and even the tongue. Interestingly, this theory coincides with Traditional Chinese Medicine’s ancient practice of mapping organs on distal body parts.
A typical session lasts for about forty-five minutes. You sit or lie in a comfortable position with the legs raised slightly. The therapist then starts with gentle but firm pressure on the foot. Then deeper finger and thumb techniques are used, such as creeping the fingers from one area to another like a caterpillar, on zones that need special attention. The theory is that blockages, crystal formations and lumps obstruct the smooth flow of energy throughout the body and breaking up these stagnations treats and prevents disease. Once these stagnations are broken down by gentle pressure, the body can easily eliminate the deposits via the kidneys. This is when patients typically may feel tired, sleepy, light-headed, have increased excretory function or flu-like symptoms because the stored substances have been mobilized in the blood for exit via the kidneys. This is a detoxification process and is part of the healing crisis in reflexology.
Now a days therapists have varied the practice of reflexology. Types of treatment include vacuflex reflexology, holistic style, and metamorphic style. In vacuflex, cups similar to the Tradition Chinese cups are applied to the feet. Suction cups replace the massages previously done by hand for detoxification. Holistic style is often more gentle because the focus is relaxation and promotion of healing. In Metamorphic reflexology, massage is applied to the feet, as well as other parts, to break-up stagnant energy and clear blockages.
When not to use Reflexology
Reflexology massage is generally a very safe and harmless therapy. At a basic level it seems to be a form of massage that can be used to promote relaxation and decrease anxiety. For these uses most people can see a body manager without much to worry about, however identifying some contraindications may benefit those who extend the therapeutic range of reflexology to other conditions, such as:
-lymph problems of the lower body that would be exacerbated by increased circulation
-vascular problems of the lower body that would be exacerbated by increased circulation
-skin problems that would be sensitive to massage
Anectodal evidence and testimonials are unfortunately the main source of information that we have at this time on reflexology. A few studies do exist that were able to show that reflexology reduced anxiety and reviews of current research literature indicate more positive than negative results. One study on breast and lung cancer patients found that patients who had received foot reflexology had a decreased level of anxiety (Stephenson, 2000). Another study conducted on thirty-eight women with premenstrual syndrome showed almost a 30% higher improvement in the patients receiving reflexology compared to those that simply received a massage not directed at specific zones. Points were chosen based on their correspondence with organs responsible for PMS symptoms (Oleson, 1993). On the other hand, no significant difference in medication usage or lung function was evident on bronchial asthma patients who received foot reflexology compared to another form of treatment (Peterson et al, 1992). From a research perspective, more clinical trials are needed before reflexology can be recommended as a medical treatment. Nevertheless, as practitioners of complimentary medicine will often tell you, most fields of medicine have only been proven well after practitioners had been using them for years and known that they worked.
According the scientific literature, reflexology is questionable as a medical treatment at this time. Conflicting studies show that more investigation is definitely required. However, a lack of proof is not proof of ineffectiveness. Reflexology is a therapy that seems to have some roots in ancient healing practices throughout eastern medicine. The concept of distal body parts reflecting internal organs is not bizarre even to western medicine. Referred pain of the gallbladder to the back of the right shoulder is exactly that! Modern medicine still has a lot to discover about the body and so it may not be fair to dismiss reflexology all too quickly based on a theory that does not coincide with the present understanding of anatomy and physiology. Furthermore, since reflexology massage is a fairly harmless intervention it may be okay to try if you are suffering from a chronic illness that has no other definitive treatment, or if you’re just looking for a great way to relax. Nevertheless, since the present day practice of reflexology is still relatively new with respect to other complimentary therapies and because its lack of regulation, other well established alternative therapies might be a better options for those with more serious conditions.