I am fascinated by the benefits of reflexology. For the most part, this is because no one really understands how or why it works so well. It’s amazing that this 6,000-year-old healing art still eludes even the best scientists.
Paul said: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” (1)
You probably already know that I am about as evidenced based as they come. I want to see peer-reviewed research before I am certain of anything. In fact, the information that I provide to patients on my website comes from scientific literature primarily.
Often, however, there is scarce research, and in this case, I need to take a historical perspective. This is definitely true with reflexology, which is an ancient healing practice. It’s been used for millennia, and there are hundreds of thousands of personal testimonials to back it up. This means that the proof is in the pudding?
Table of Contents
What Exactly is Reflexology?
Vitalism is at the core of reflexology. This is the popular concept that an innate intelligence governs our body, promotes self-healing, and monitors us. It is similar to how, after cutting yourself, for example, a bandage might stimulate your body’s natural tendency to clot blood. This is how reflexologist’s see their systematic approach to foot massage and hand massage. They see this form of massage as stimulating the healing response by stimulating the nervous system.
Reflexology has a rich history. There are several theories that explain this beautiful healing art.
How Reflexology Works
Many researchers have been confused about how reflexology works in a scientific way. Actually, no one knows exactly how it works. Still, there is an agreement that reflexology is definitely effective at treating and preventing numerous health conditions. There are four basic theories about how and why reflexology works. (2)
Central nervous system adaption theory
This is a theory that comes from a discovery made in the late 19th century by Sir Henry Head and Sir Charles Sherrington. These men discovered that there are relationships between our bodily organs and our skin as well as external stimuli like massage. The stimulation and connection between these elements can create healing effects within the nervous system.
Gate control theory
This theory talks about how reflexology can reduce pain. It suggests that massage and reflexology improve stress and your happiness, and this helps with pain because pain is actually created inside your brain.
Vital energy theory
This theory has its roots in the idea of the yin and the yang. The theory looks at the idea that stress slows down or stops the flow of vital energy in everyone’s body. Reflexology helps to reinvigorate the flow.
This theory is based on the idea that our feet and hands have their own reflex zones. These reflex zones correspond to certain parts of the body, like organs. Let’s discuss this theory more as it has a rich history.
History of Zone Therapy & Reflexology
It is not certain how often reflexology was used in the ancient world. Still, there are many reports that show reflexology dating back to ancient China (3) about 6,000 years ago. Ancient Egyptians are known to have used reflexology as well. There are numerous markings that have been found in Egyptian tombs showing physicians massaging the feet of their patients. Inscriptions say: “Don’t hurt me” with the practitioner’s reply, ” I shall act so you praise me.” (4)
The Romans likely took their knowledge of reflexology from the Egyptians. From there, it spread around the world for several hundred years. There are even North American tribes that used foot therapy before Columbus arrived in North America. This likely means that these ancient cultures found this healing art on their own.
Later, in the 16th century, we can see where modern iterations of reflexology began. Most people called the healing practice “Zone Therapy.” History books are not very exact when it comes to this form of therapy; however, the International Institute of Reflexology states:
“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.”
“Zone Therapy” was first used as a term by William Hope Fitzgerald, MD (1872 – 1942). He used the term in the early 20th century and put together a protocol that is now the basis for modern-day reflexology. He used numerous columns, bands, hooks, probes, tools, electricity, light energy, and other stainless steel instruments to create painkilling responses in the feet and hands of his patients. The work of Fitzgerald was brought to the attention of the public in 1915 by Edwin Bowers, who wrote an article that was published in Everybody’s Magazine entitled “To stop that toothache, squeeze your toe.”
Bruce Barton, the magazine’s editor, described this: (5)
“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.”
What Fitzgerald had discovered was amazing. Putting pressure on certain zones of the feet and hands could relieve pain, and it could also help the underlying causes of the pain. Zone therapy was controversial up until the 1930s, and only oral health professionals and osteopaths generally received and used it.
Fitzgerald’s work was continued by Eunice Ingham, a physical therapist (1889–1974). Ingham painstakingly mapped the feet along with the glands and organs that each part of the feet corresponded to. Today, reflexologists all around the world continue to use Ingham’s work.
Seven Benefits of Reflexology
78 health disorders and 168 studies were evaluated by Dr. Kevin and Dr. Barbara Kunz. They found four main ways that people can be helped by reflexology (6):
- Reduces pain.
- Improves symptoms.
- Has an impact on organs.
- Creates a relaxation effect.
The mechanisms and details behind the positive facts listed above are not completely certain. Still, reflexology has been highly successful at helping the body to take care of the following health concerns. If you suffer from any of these 7 health concerns, I recommend giving reflexology a try.
1. Anxiety Relief
Reflexology has the amazing ability to help with stress and anxiety. (7) Sixty-seven post-menopausal women were randomly given either nine sessions of nonspecific foot massage or reflexology in a trial conducted in 2002. The women then completed a health questionnaire (the Women’s Health Questionnaire or WHQ), and the effectiveness of the reflexology was evaluated. Researchers saw that reflexology led to a decrease in anxiety of 50 percent. This was two times that of the control or nonspecific foot massage group!
2. Minimizing Headaches
Researchers in Denmark wanted to know how well reflexology would work on people who had migraines and headaches. They did this in the 1990s. One study that was published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine in 1999. The study had 78 reflexologists treat 220 patients for a duration of six months. (8) After just half the time had passed, 81 percent of the patients said that their headache problems had considerably improved. Nineteen percent of the study’s participants who used to take drugs to help with their migraines are headaches were able to stop taking these drugs.
3. Helping to Control Type 2 Diabetes
Those with type II diabetes commonly battle nerves and pain related conditions. Reflexology has not been proven to affect blood glucose levels, but it could help with this nerve pain. (9) The journal, Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, found that reflexology helped with the improvement of the nerve conductivity, the reduction of pain, and the correction of vibration and thermal sensitivity contact concerns in diabetic patients. It also helped to improve control of glucose levels, which could mean that someday, reflexology could be regularly prescribed for those with type II diabetes.
4. PMS Symptoms
Roughly 50 percent of women who are at the age of menstruation have menstrual pain or dysmenorrhea. There are numerous other side effects that occur during a woman’s menstrual week as well. (10) A recent study from the Iranian Isfahan University of Medical Sciences looked at how reflexology work in contrast to taking ibuprofen for premenstrual syndrome. There were two groups. The first group was the control group, and each woman received 400 mg of ibuprofen once every eight hours. They took this dosage for a duration of three days for three months of their monthly cycles. The other group had 10 reflexology sessions that were each 40 min. long for two consecutive monthly cycles.
At the end of the trial, it was found that reflexology was able to promote healing as well as manage pain. In fact, reflexology was found to be, “associated with more reduction of intensity and duration of menstrual pain in comparison with Ibuprofen therapy.” It’s also important to note that the third month of the trial where ibuprofen was given to the control group but reflexology was not performed on the test group, the reflexology effects had continued so that the pain management of reflexology was not even necessary, and even though the reflexology treatments were not performed, those patients still felt better than those who were taking ibuprofen.
5. Relieving Sinusitis
The University of Wisconsin School of Medicine took 150 adults who had chronic sinus infections symptoms and looked at how a reflexology treatment compared with a nasal irrigation treatment. (11) They did this for two weeks. The study found that, “There was a significant and equivalent improvement in Rhinosinusitis Outcomes Measure 31 score after 2 weeks of intervention in each treatment group.” In the end, 35% of the patients reported that they could decrease the use of their sinus medications because of the reflexology treatments, and 70% of the participants benefited overall from the reflexology treatments.
6. Cancer Treatment Support
It has not been proven that cancer cells are directly affected by reflexology. However, the British journal Nursing Standard did a controlled study that found that 100% of the cancer patients in this study said they had significant improvement in the quality of their life after only three reflexology treatments. Areas of their lives that were enhanced included sleep and urination, happiness, isolation, pain, mobility, fatigue, appearance, constipation, diarrhea, breathing, communication, fear of the future, and appetite. (12)
7. Heart Health
It has been well-established that a risk measure for heart disease called baroreceptor reflex sensitivity has been greatly reduced with the help of reflexology. These findings were published in 1997 in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine. Amazingly enough, it was found that the baroreceptor receptor areas of the brain were directly related to pressure points on the feet. We don’t exactly know how heart health can be improved by reflexology, but when coupled with other therapies that reduce pain, anxiety, and stress, there seem to be limitless possibilities! (13, 14)
When you’re trying to find natural health solutions, sometimes ancient wisdom can be some of the most cutting edge.