Some time in the mid-90s, my mom posted a mysterious map above her manicurist station at the salon. She'd been professionally perfecting and polishing nails my whole life, but this new addition to her workplace had nothing to do with fingertips and focused on other body parts entirely: the hands and feet.
I was barely old enough to do long division (spoiler alert: I still can't), but I quickly learned the definition of my mom's new training modality — reflexology. All these years later, I still find that those unfamiliar with the practice mystified by its meaning and purpose, so here's a brief tutorial on the massage technique that might just become one of your new favorite self-care tactics.
What Is Reflexology?
"Reflexology uses specific touch techniques to work on the feet, hands and ears to help relieve stress throughout the body," says San Francisco-based reflexology practitioner and teacher, Robin Varga. "It's a non-invasive technique that not only eases stress, but can also help the body's natural healing process. And it feels wonderful because it focuses on our feet and hands, two very neglected parts of our bodies. It feels great and can be therapeutic."
The general concept behind reflexology is that different areas of the hands and feet correspond to different organs and systems throughout the body. By applying pressure to various points on these body parts, practitioners aim to relax, relieve or stimulate areas of the body in need of tender loving care. Hand and foot charts, like the one my mom had plastered above her manicurist station, are meant to guide practitioners in their work, offering a roadmap of the pressure points and their respective bodily counterparts.
The top of the big toe, for example, is thought to affect the pituitary gland; the heel corresponds to the lower back and glutes; and the center of each foot represents each kidney. On the hands, the fingertips supposedly connect to the brain and sinuses, the lower palms to the intestines, and the base of the thumbs to the neck.
Where Did Reflexology Originate?
Some researchers believe reflexology's roots are in China and the practice dates back about 5,000 years, but others think it began in in the Egyptian culture around 2330 B.C.E. By the 14th century, it had made its way to Europe under the name "zone therapy," and when Dr. William Fitzgerald (often referred to as the father of modern reflexology) started singing its praises in the United States around the turn of the century, he credited several Native American tribes for incorporating foot massage into their healing regimens.
Depending on who you attribute the practice to, the roots of the philosophies and body maps differ. If reflexology is being used as a form of Chinese medicine, practitioners may consider it a technique to improve the flow of qi, loosely translated to "vital energy." By unblocking the flow of qi, practitioners believe they can restore balance in the body and aid in disease prevention.
Other practitioners may rely on reflexology as a way to access the nervous system, which 19th-century British scientists discovered is connected to the skin and internal organs. By methodically touching the skin, practitioners believe they can help calm and soothe nervous system distress, mood issues and emotional turmoil.
As for reflexology charts, the current models may be modern interpretations of ancient Chinese texts that were translated into Italian (by Marco Polo!) in the 1300s, and then adapted by Fitzgerald in 1917, who wrote about 10 vertical zones that extend through the length of the body. Dr. Shelby Riley also expanded on Fitzgerald's work, developing a map of horizontal zones that inform the pressure point maps of the hands and feet, as well as others on the outer ear.
But it was Eunice Ingham who many credit with the creation of today's modern charts. According to Ingham, the feet are the most sensitive and responsive to treatment, which is why she developed foot-specific maps that were introduced to non-medical circles in the 1930s.
What Does Science Say?
Most people would agree that massage of any kind typically feels pretty nice, but does reflexology actually do anything other than incite pleasant feelings?
"There is scientific evidence to support the effectiveness," Varga says. "In 1993, a double-blind study was done through the American Academy of Reflexology by Bill Flocco and Terry Oleson and there are many case studies which explain and show the efficacy of reflexology."
Flocco and Oleson's small study, "Randomized Controlled Study of Premenstrual Symptoms Treated with Ear, Hand, and Foot Reflexology," was published in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. The researchers found that of the participants, 35 women with premenstrual syndrome, the subjects randomly assigned to receive reflexology experienced a greater decrease in symptoms than the women in the placebo group.
A more recent 2012 study titled "Health-related quality-of-life outcomes: a reflexology trial with patients with advanced-stage breast cancer" found that women undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer who received regular reflexology treatments showed significant improvements in their ability to walk, carry groceries and climb stairs, compared to their counterparts who did not receive reflexology. The researchers concluded that "reflexology can be recommended for safety and usefulness in relieving dyspnea and enhancing functional status among women with advanced-stage breast cancer."
However, while there have been studies that demonstrate potential benefits of using reflexology as an adjunct therapy, there's no science to back up the pressure point theory itself. According to a 2011 systematic review of randomized clinical trials concluded "that the best clinical evidence does not demonstrate convincingly reflexology to be an effective treatment for any medical condition." So while applying pressure to specific areas of your hands and feet is definitely not guaranteed to alleviate any sort of illness, the low-risk option may be a nice complement to other forms of health care and wellness strategies, and most people can feel safe seeking it out.
"The time needed to see results varies from person to person," Varga says. "Many factors play a part: type of ache or pain, complaint, issue, etc. Also, how long someone has had the issue can sometimes influence the recovery time. My experience shows that 99 percent [of people] feel at least some sense of relaxation after the first session."
Varga does, however, caution that expectant moms might want to steer clear. "During the first trimester of pregnancy, there are areas on the feet, hands and ears that shouldn't be reflexed, though the remainder of the area can be touched," she says. As birth doula and co-founder of Birth Day Presence, Jada Shapiro, told Parents.com, the risk is that reflexology may bring on uterine contractions, so working with a trusted expert is key.
"As for side effects, a little drowsiness, a burst of energy, queasiness, or slight headache can sometimes occur," Varga says. "Usually these are brief, if at all, and with proper hydration, can be eliminated."
How to Become a Reflexologist
The type of education and training required to become a reflexologist depends on a practitioner's geographic location. Some states mandate up to 1,000 hours of education, plus a written licensing exam, while other states don't require certification of any kind. One way for would-be reflexologists to learn about the rules in their specific state is to contact the Reflexology Association of America. The site also has a search tool for anyone looking to find a professional in their area.
"I was trained as a massage therapist at The National Holistic Institute (NHI) in Emeryville, California," Varga says. "During that training, I was introduced to foot reflexology ... [and] I knew immediately that I would pursue reflexology further. Following that training, I enrolled in The American Academy of Reflexology and now, 27 years later, I am still loving this work. I also teach a few times a year, helping to encourage new interest in the field."