Reflexology is the practice of massaging, percussing, and applying pressure to certain areas of the foot, hand, or ear to achieve a wide range of full-body medical effects from pain relief to tempering aggressive children. While practitioners of reflexology typically do not claim to be able to cure diseases or chronic medical conditions, patients often visit reflexologists to treat a variety of symptoms such as chronic pain, high blood pressure, and post-operative stress.
Medical practices similar to modern reflexology have been practiced in ancient China, Egypt, and Japan. Texts unearthed from archeological digs describe contemporary reflexologists using hand and foot massage and pressure techniques similar to the techniques that are practiced today. A revival of reflexology occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when British and Russian researchers and physicians began supporting the concept of manipulating one part of the body to affect another through massage, heat, and herbal application.
A key contributing factor to the modern emergence of reflexology was the research of Nobel Laureate Ivan Pavlov, who is famous for his work on classical conditioning in dogs. Pavlov’s “reflex system” research concluded that organ systems responded involuntarily to external stimulation, such as stress or pain. This was later adopted into the idea that mild stimulation, such as applied pressure, can invoke therapeutic effects in certain areas of the body. Reflexology was popularized in the United States in 1909 by Dr. William Fitzgerald, an eye, ear, and nose specialist from Connecticut, and is currently available in most parts of the country. Around the world, reflexology is especially prevalent in Asia, in which a traditional Eastern medicine approach is favored, and Europe, where innovative western techniques are practiced.
Modern reflexology is derived from the same principles as acupuncture, an ancient Chinese medical art which relies on needle stimulation of certain points on the body that correspond to Qi points. Qi, as explained by traditional Chinese medicine, is the life force that flows through all living things, and disturbances and blockages of Qi are responsible for illness and disease. The basic concept of reflexology is that there are “reflex areas,” similar to Qi points, on the feet and hands that correspond to different parts of the body, including specific limbs and organs. Practicing reflexologists often refer to a “reflexology chart” that maps the reflex areas of the foot or hand and the body part which they are linked to. When a symptom that a patient complains about can be traced back to one or more body parts, the corresponding reflex area is stimulated through special massage and pressure application techniques to balance out and restore Qi flow to that part of the body and alleviate the symptom. Modern reflexology techniques may involve the use of tools such as electronic massagers and percussion machines to enhance the stimulation of reflex areas to achieve a greater therapeutic effect.
While many patients do report significant therapeutic effects from reflexology, there is still much skepticism among the traditional scientific and medical community. Few published controlled clinical trials have found the practice to be more than a temporary relief from physical symptoms. In a 2002 study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine, researchers claimed that reflexology techniques are not a valid method of disease diagnosis based on the inaccuracy of reflexology charts. A 2008 reflexology efficacy meta-anaylsis published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing found that out of five controlled clinical trial studies, only one reported a statistically significant treatment effect and that overall, “There is no evidence for any specific effect of reflexology in any conditions, with the exception of urinary symptoms associated with multiple sclerosis.” Thus, while the practice shows some promise under certain conditions, it is not a scientifically accepted form of medical diagnosis or treatment. Finally, as with other types of unproven alternative medicine, critics claim that reflexology may delay other, more mainstream established treatments that have definitively been proven to reduce pain and stress.
In worldwide practice, reflexologists must undergo professional training and be licensed, usually as a massage therapist, by the government before being able to practice. Reflexologists are also often encouraged, but not required, to register with a national reflexology organization, which may or not be administered or overseen by a governmental organization that deals with alternative medicine. Because of the non-invasive nature of reflexology and the absence of a pharmaceutical component, this form of alternative medicine is more or less seen as a specialized form of massage treatment. However, practitioners are typically not allowed to make unverified medical claims beyond what is empirically observed.
This article was updated on 9/28/2011.