If you’ve ever stubbed your toe on the edge of the bed, you’ll know just how incredibly sensitive your feet are. Fun fact: They’re actually one of the most sensitive parts of the body—containing over 7000 nerve endings—which can be both a blessing and a curse. While getting a good foot rub can feel blissful, stepping on a Lego piece can make you want to call 911.
It’s actually this level of sensitivity that—some believe—makes our feet the gateway to overall health. That’s the theory behind reflexology, a type of massage that involves applying pressure to the feet (and sometimes hands and ears). The belief is that certain points or "reflex areas" on the feet are connected energetically to specific organs and body parts. “Different points on the feet can help stimulate and pass energy to organs throughout the rest of the body.” explains Juhi Singh, Chinese herbalist and acupuncturist.¹ “For example, points on the tip of the toes can stimulate the head, while the ball of your foot can reflect in your heart and chest.”
What’s the history of reflexology?
Reflexology is based on the ancient Chinese belief that qi or “vital energy” flows through everyone’s body. When this qi becomes blocked, it can cause imbalances and illnesses of many types. Reflexology aims to keep this energy flowing through the body, keeping it healthy and balanced. Reflexologists use maps of the foot to apply pressure to the specific body parts that need healing, for example it’s believed that:
+ The tips of the toes connect to the head
+ The heart and chest connect to ball of the foot
+ The liver, pancreas, and kidney are connected to the arch of the foot
+ The lower back and intestines are connected to the heel
Later studies seemed to back up these theories. For example, in the 1890s, British scientists found that nerves connect the skin to our internal organs and that the body’s nervous system adjusts to outside factors, including touch.
How is reflexology different from massage?
While the goal of a massage is generally to relax muscles, alleviate tension, lower stress and improve circulation, reflexology uses a targeted approach on pressure-points to restore energy flow throughout the body.
What is a reflexology session like?
The treatment typically lasts 30 to 60 minutes and will begin with a health history form and discussion about health, lifestyle and goals to customize the session. You’ll be asked to remove your shoes and socks, and sit comfortably in a reclining chair or on a massage table. After assessing your feet to identify areas of tenderness or tension, the reflexologist will rub, press and squeeze points on your feet. The reflexologist may also use tools like balls, brushes and dowels along with lotions or oils to make the treatment as effective as possible. Sounds great to us!
What are the benefits of reflexology?
A 2011 study² funded by the National Cancer Institute looked at how reflexology affected 240 women undergoing medical treatments for advanced breast cancer. The study found that reflexology helped reduce some of the women’s symptoms such as shortness of breath and also helped elevate mood and improve quality of life. The study also showed, however, that reflexology didn’t have any effect on pain levels.
A 2014 study³ investigated the effect of a 20-minute foot reflexology treatment once a day for four days on the anxiety-levels of people undergoing heart surgery. Participants who received the reflexology treatment reported significantly lower levels of anxiety than those who didn’t. This can be largely attributed to the fact that human touch—forms of massage in particular—is a relaxing, anxiety-lowering process.
While others report improved circulation and increased energy after reflexology, the treatment’s effectiveness on other medical issues has not fully evaluated.
Things to know before you go
Reflexology isn’t currently regulated in the US, so it’s best to get a recommendation from your healthcare provider. You can also choose a therapist who has been certified by the American Reflexology Certification Board.⁴
In addition, you should wait at least one hour after the massage before eating and ensure you drink water following the treatment to flush out toxins and lactic acid building. Ask your doctor first if you’re pregnant, have existing foot problems, injuries or any blood vessel issues.
Should I try reflexology?
While the effectiveness of reflexology is largely subjective, it’s believed that a reflexologist’s touch may calm the central nervous system to improve mood, reduce stress and promote relaxation. In essence, if you’re experiencing a specific issue, it makes sense to visit a qualified medical practitioner for diagnosis and treatment, but reflexology may be used as a supplemental therapy or for overall self care.