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What is reflexology?

What is Reflexology?

I am always amazed at the number of new clients who ask me 'what is Reflexology?', or know very little about what it is and what benefits it can bring.

So firstly, what is reflexology?

Reflexology is a holistic therapy carried out on the feet. The therapist will work points on the feet to bring about relaxation and balance to the body. If differs from a traditional massage in that each reflex point represents a different organ or area of the body, so the whole body can be treated via the foot.

Reflexology cannot be used to diagnose illness, but the therapist will often know which area of the body is out of balance as the reflex point will feel tender, sore or gritty, indicating that something is happening in that area.

Benefits of reflexology include improved blood circulation, promotes relaxation, and lowers cortisol levels (stress levels).

How did reflexology begin?

In 1880, Acupuncture found its way to Europe, and in 1893 Sir Henry Head published his research proving a direct relationship between pressure applied to the skin and internal organs. His ‘zones’ were later redefined into Dermatomes.

Later, Dr William Fitzgerald travelled to the Far East and retuned with a method for naturally anaesthetising the body by placing clamps in certain areas, and in 1917 published ‘Zone Therapy'. Through Dr Joe Shelby Riley, who in 1919 published ‘Zone Therapy simplified’, Eunice Ingham, a physiotherapist in America, heard about this method, and started mapping the tender areas on patients feet where they had a known condition. In this way, she created the first foot map and named it ‘Reflexology’. She went on to publish ‘Stories the feet can tell’ in 1938 and began a 40 year lecturing career. In 1945, she published ‘Zone therapy and Gland Reflexes’ which was later revised and published as ‘Stories the feet have told’. Eunice Ingham is known as the grandmother of reflexology and it is through her that Reflexology as we know it was born.

Is there any scientific research into the benefits of Reflexology?

We now have scientific studies that show definite links between 1) working a reflex point and corresponding action in the brain and 2) working a reflex point and corresponding action in that organ/area of the body. (see references 1, 2 and 3) What we don’t have yet is a study that shows a definite link between the brain and the organ from a reflexology point of view. There is a unpublished PhD Thesis from a Korean student where a person was put in an MRI scanner in combination with an ultrasound to prove how it is possible to explore this link between the brain and the organs, but as yet there a no funded studies.

The major area of research into reflexology has been in cancer support. In the UK, reflexology is reported to be available in 62% of cancer care units. The best of these studies is by Sharp et al. This is a randomised controlled trial that set the reflexology intervention group against a self-initiated support control group (SIS) and a touch control group of scalp massage. The result was after 18 weeks, the psychological outcome scores used were significantly better in the intervention group over the control groups. After extending the trail over a prolonged period, both touch therapies were significantly better than the control group, but only the reflexology had a clinically worthwhile effect on quality of life.

Source: (Is reflexology as effective as aromatherapy massage for symptom relief in an adult outpatient oncology population? Authors: Jeannie Dyer, Karen Thomas, Cathy Sandsund, Clare Shaw) and (A randomised, controlled trial of the psychological effects of reflexology in early breast cancer. Published by European Journal of Cancer 2010 Vol 26; Number 2, pages 312-322. Authors Donald M Sharp, Mary B Walker, Amulya Chaturvedi, Sunil Upadhyay, Ab-del Hamid, Andrew A Walker, Julie S Bateman, Fiona Braid, Karen Ellwood, Claire Hebblewhite, Teresa Hope, Michael Lines, Leslie G Walker).

Reviewing pain through cancer, there have been several studies that suggest there is a place for reflexology in the care plan. The are two studies carried out by the American researcher, Nancy Stephenson, implying reflexology can be beneficial in reducing pain. Firstly, a small trial, where the patients were their own control, in lung and breast cancer patients. The results showed that both groups showed significant decrease in anxiety following a reflexology treatment The other study was another small trial looking at a difficult to treat group of metastatic cancer patients. The result was reported as an “immediate positive effect of reflexology for patients with metastatic cancer who report pain”, although this study was not on going.

Source: (The Effects of Foot Reflexology on Anxiety and Pain in Patients With Breast and Lung Cancer. Published in Oncology Nursing Forum 2000 VOL 27; Part 1,pages 67-76. Authors: Stephenson NL, Weinrich SP, Tavakolil AS), and (The effect of foot reflexology on pain in patients with metastatic cancer. Published in Applied Nursing Research Nov 2003 Vol 16 Issue 4, 284-286. Authors: Nancy Stephenson, Jo Ann Dalton, John Carlson.)

Another study in America on post-operative pain and anxiety amongst patients with digestive cancer showed that together with standard post-operative analgesia, compared to a control group of usual pain management, the reflexology group showed statistically less pain, anxiety and a requirement for analgesia than the control group.

Source: (Effects of Reflexotherapy on Acute Postoperative Pain and Anxiety Among Patients with Digestive Cancer. Published in Cancer Nursing Vol 31, No 2, 2008. Authors: Shiow-Luan Tsay, Hsiao-Ling Chen, Su-Chiu Chen, Hung-Ru Lin, Kuan-Chia Lin)

A further study also showed the effects of reflexology in a group of cancer patients versus an control group of ‘Placebo Reflexology’. The overall difference between the two groups when all other quality of life issues were calculated was highly significant.

Source: (Does reflexology impact on cancer patients’ quality of life? Published by Nursing Standard – London Vol 14; ISSU31, Pages 33-38. Authors: Hodgeson H)

A recent exploratory study of reflexology with a pain and tolerance threshold compared a sham TENS machine treatment as the control in an ice bath experiment. The results showed the pain tolerance was significantly increased with the reflexology group at 60 minutes, 90 minutes and 120 minutes.

There was a reduction of the heart rate at 60 minutes too, indicating that the results may be due to the process of blocking the detection of painful stimulus by sensory neurons triggered by the reflexology treatment. “These results suggest the possibility that reflexology may be useful on its own or as an adjunct to medication in the treatment of pain conditions in man”.

Source: (“Exploratory study on the efficacy of reflexology for pain threshold and tolerance using an ice-pain experiment and sham TENS control”. Published by Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice Volume 19, issue 2, Pages 57-62, May 2013. Authors Carol A. Samuel Ivor S. Ebenezer)

There have been other studies, but these are the highlights.

Where can I find more information?

The Association of Reflexologists have a website as well as Professional Reflexology or you can visit me at my practice. Please call or email for more information.

Related posts:


1 (Somatotopical relationships between cortical activity and reflex areas in reflexology: A functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Tomomi Nakamaru, Naoki Miura, Ai Fukushi-ma and Ryuta Kawashima. Neurosci-ence Letters Volume 448, Issue 1, 19 December 2008, Pages 6-9.)

2 (Reference: “Changes of Renal Blood Flow during Organ-Associated Foot Reflexology Measured by Colour Doppler Sonography” Sudmeier, I. Bodner, G. Egger, I. Mur, E. Ulmer, H. Herold, M. Forschende Komplemen-tarmedzin 1999 Vol 6; Number 3, pages 129-134)

3 (Somatotopical relationships between cortical activity and reflex areas in reflexology: A functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Tomomi Nakamaru, Naoki Miura, Ai Fukushi-ma and Ryuta Kawashima. Neuroscience Letters Volume 448, Issue 1, 19 December 2008, Pages 6-9.)


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