Reflexology is a 4,000-year-old healing art that has only a few medically backed studies to prove it’s benefits but has a large amount of personal testimonies praising it’s worth.
One of the most significant studies on reflexology was published in the journal of Multiple Sclerosis and found that “specific reflexology treatment was of benefit in alleviating motor, sensory and urinary symptoms in MS patients.”
As many people who have participated in eastern medicine know, the body’s internal organs and nervous system are connected to various areas of the body including the feet.
In this article, I will demonstrate the benefits of reflexology, how it works, and its use as an ancient healing therapy.
What is Reflexology?
At the core of reflexology is vitalism, the popular concept which explains that our bodies are governed by an innate intelligence that monitors and promotes self-healing.
Similar to how a gauze or bandage helps stimulate the natural blood-clotting response to cutting yourself by accident, reflexologists believe that their systematic approach to hand and foot massage stimulates the nervous system to trigger a healing response. (1)
The history of reflexology is quite rich, as are the theories attempting to explain this mysterious healing art. Let’s take a look at each of these in a little more detail …
How Reflexology Works
As mysterious as its origin, the science behind reflexology has eluded researchers for years and no one knows exactly why it works. Nonetheless, research studies across the globe pretty much all agree: reflexology is quite effective at helping prevent and treat a plethora of heath conditions.
There are four primary theories that best describe how reflexology works. (2)
1. Central Nervous System Adaption Theory
This theory is based on the late 19th century discovery by Englishmen Sir Henry Head and Sir Charles Sherrington that uncovered a relationship between our skin and organs, in which external stimuli (i.e., application of pressure on the hands or feed) causes the nervous system to trigger a desired healing effect.
2. Gate Control Theory
The gate control theory refers to pain being an experience subjectively created by the brain, hence the pain-relieving characteristic of reflexology occurs because massage improves mood and stress.
3. Vital Energy Theory
Bordering on the ancient concept of yin and yang, this theory claims that stress impedes the flow of the “vital energy” that exists in each human body — reflexology helps keep the flow uninhibited.
4. Zone Theory
Based on the principle that our hands and feet can be charted into “reflex zones” that correspond to organs and other parts of the body, the history of reflexology and zone therapy are so closely linked together that it deserves a much greater explanation. (See below.)
Top 7 Reflexology Benefits
After evaluating 168 studies and 78 health disorders, Dr. Barbara and Dr. Kevin Kunz identified four primary ways that reflexology helps people. (3)
- Creates a relaxation effect
- Has an impact on organs
- Improves symptoms
- Reduces pain
The details and mechanisms behind these four positive effects are still uncertain. Nonetheless, reflexology has been shown to be highly effective at helping the body manage the following seven health concerns, and I recommend giving it a try if you suffer from any of them.
1. Relieves Anxiety
Anxiety and stress go hand-in-hand, and reflexology can help. In 2002, a trial was conducted where 67 menopausal (ages 45 to 60) women were randomly given 9 sessions of either reflexology or nonspecific foot massage (the control group).
Evaluating its effectiveness in treating anxiety based on the Women’s Health Questionnaire (WHQ), researchers discovered that while reflexology was not shown to be more effective than non-specific foot massage in the treatment of psychological symptoms occurring during the menopause, it nonetheless led to a 50% decrease in anxiety, which surpassed the control group two-fold. (4)
2. Helps Headache Pain
Already effective at alleviating stress and anxiety, researchers in Denmark in the 1990s took a look into how reflexology could help headache and migraine patients.
One of the landmark studies, published in a 1999 edition of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, took 220 patients and had 78 reflexologists treat them for six months.
After just three months, 81% of the patients claimed that their treatments either considerably helped or completely healed their headache problems, and 19% who previously took drugs to manage their condition were able to stop their medication altogether. (5)
3. Helps Fight Type 2 Diabetes
Not proven to affect blood glucose levels just yet, there are several ongoing clinical trials testing whether or not reflexology helps with nerve and pain-related conditions that type 2 diabetics commonly battle.
Just this past year, the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine showed that reflexology not only helped to reduce pain, improve nerve conductivity, and correct thermal and vibration sensitivity concerns, it improved glycemic control — this suggests that someday, perhaps soon, we may learn that this ancient healing art can help prevent or treat type 2 diabetes. (6)
4. Reduces PMS Symptoms
Premenstrual syndrome takes many forms and literally affects each women differently, though 50% of women experience dysmenorrhea (menstrual pain).
Comparing how ibuprofen versus reflexology could potentially help women suffering from this all-too-often debilitating condition, 68 students with primary dysmenorrhea from the Iranian Isfahan University of Medical Sciences were treated with either a 400 mg of ibuprofen once every eight hours for three days during three consecutive monthly cycles or 10 reflexology sessions at 40 minutes for two consecutive monthly cycles. (7)
It is important to note that the reflexology group only received two months of treatment, whereas the ibuprofen group had two months.
In addition to being “associated with more reduction of intensity and duration of menstrual pain in comparison with ibuprofen therapy,” it appeared that reflexology actually promotes healing and not just pain management.
It was discovered that, during the third month when only ibuprofen was given (and no reflexology), the long-term healing effects of reflexology continued on and still surpassed the pain management quality of ibuprofen even though zero treatments were performed!
5. Helps Heal Sinusitis
Taking 150 adults with chronic sinus infection symptoms, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine researchers tested how they fared with nasal irrigation compared to reflexology for two weeks.
According to the study, “There was a significant and equivalent improvement in Rhinosinusitis Outcomes Measure 31 score after 2 weeks of intervention in each treatment group.” All in all, 70% of the volunteers benefited from the treatment, and 35% reported to decreasing their sinus medication because of the treatments. (8)
6. Fights Cancer
Although not proven to affect cancer cells directly, the British journal Nursing Standard published a controlled study where 100% of patients claimed that they enjoyed significant improvement in their quality of life after just three treatments.
Some of the categories that they said were enhanced included: appearance, appetite, breathing, communication, constipation, diarrhea, fatigue, fear of future, isolation, mobility, mood, nausea, pain, sleep and urination. (9)
7. Promotes Heart Health
Ever since a 1997 article published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine, it has been well-established that reflexology can significantly reduce baroreceptor reflex sensitivity (a risk measure for heart disease). (10)
Fascinatingly, the results uncovered that there are certain pressure points on the feet that correspond to the same part of the brain as the baroreceptor reflex. (11) We’re still uncertain how reflexology can help with heart health, but coupled with the benefits for relieving stress, anxiety and pain relieving qualities, it seems more than likely.
History of Reflexology & Zone Therapy
No one really knows the extent to which reflexology and similar hand/foot therapies were used in the ancient world. Nonetheless, various sources report that reflexology dates back 6,000 years to ancient China. (12)
Ancient Egyptian tombs, for example, have markings portraying physicians apparently massaging their patients feet with the inscription: “Don’t hurt me” with the practitioner’s reply, ” I shall act so you praise me.” (13)
History tells us that the Roman Empire gained their knowledge from Egypt, and the practice spread throughout the world in the course of several hundred years.
Interestingly, North American tribes are known to have utilized forms of foot therapy dating to pre-Columbian times, which suggests that ancient cultures “stumbled” upon this healing art form independent of themselves.
It is not until the 16th century that we can trace back reflexology back to its modern form: to a healing art referred to as “Zone Therapy,” the direct precursor to reflexology. Our history books are a little sketchy when it comes to the details, however, according to the International Institute of Reflexology,
“Zone Therapy was used as far back as 1500 A.D. The American president, James Abram Garfield was said to apply pressure to his feet to relieve pain. During the 16th Century a number of books were published on Zone Therapy, one was written by Dr. Adamus and Dr. A’tatis and another by Dr. Ball in Leipzig.” (14)
First coining the term “Zone Therapy” in the early 20th century William Hope FitzGerald, MD (1872 – 1942) put together a systematic protocol that has become the basis for reflexology, as we know it today.
Using a wide variety of tools including bands, combs, electricity, hooks, light energy, probes and stainless steel instruments to stimulate various pain-killing responses in the hands and feet, FitzGerald’s work was first brought to the public by Edwin Bowers in his 1915 article, “To stop that toothache, squeeze your toe,” which was published in Everybody’s Magazine. (15)
As described by the magazine’s editor, Bruce Barton, (16)
“For almost a year Dr. Bowers has been urging me to publish this article on Dr. FitzGerald’s remarkable system of healing known as Zone Therapy. Frankly, I could not believe what was claimed for Zone Therapy, nor did I think that we could get magazine readers to believe it.
Finally, a few months ago, I went to Hartford unannounced, and spent a day in Dr. FitzGerald’s offices. I saw patients who had been cured of goiter; I saw throat and ear troubles immediately relieved by Zone Therapy; I saw nasal operations performed without any anesthetic whatever; and — in a dentist’s office — teeth extracted without any anesthetic except the analgesic influence of Zone Therapy.
Afterward I wrote to about fifty practicing physicians in various parts of the country who have heard of Zone Therapy and are using it for the relief of all kinds of cases, even to allay the pains of childbirth. Their letters are on file in my office.”
Fitzgerald discovered something fascinating: the application of pressure on various zones of the hands and feet not only relieved pain, but also relieved the underlying cause as well. Up until the 1930s, zone therapy remained a controversial healing art in the medical world and was generally only received by osteopaths and dentists.
Physical therapist Eunice Ingham (1889 – 1974) continued Fitzgerald’s work and painstakingly mapped the feet with all the corresponding organs and glands of the body, as we know it today. Ingham’s work continues on as a legacy to reflexologists all across the world.
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