Foot Reflexology is the practice of applying pressure to different zones of the feet using specific thumb, finger, and hand techniques.
These zones reflect different parts of the body, and can therefore effect change in that part of the body when the foot is properly massaged.
Some people believe that foot reflexology can trigger healing — that it promotes the bodies own healing powers.
Others say that aside from having a relaxing effect, reflexology is a fictional science that does not have healing effects.
So who should we believe?
We here at FeetFeat subscribe to the idea that if something works for you, whether placebo effect or otherwise, and it doesn’t cause any harm, keep at it. Who are we to say foot reflexology does nothing for you if you feel better after every session?
But, we’re going to dive into this method anyways and see what comes of it.
What is Foot Reflexology?
As stated above, Foot Reflexology is the practice of applying pressure to different zones of the feet using specific thumb, finger, and hand techniques. These zones reflect different parts of the body, and can therefore effect change in that part of the body when the foot is properly massaged.
Watch this video for a great introduction to reflexology:
A few things we found interesting about this video:
- They do not diagnose. They don’t want to scare people into thinking they’ve got something wrong in the body based on a foot reflexology treatment. And they may make a recommendation to go see a general practitioner if there was an area that bothered them, but they never diagnose.
- Reflexology is very much about energy. It’s about the transfer of energy, the release of negative energy, and the infusion of positive energy.
- You’ve had a full-body stimulating treatment so eating heavy can make you feel lethargic. Drink a lot of water or herbal teas, and eat lightly for the rest of the day.
- You might get a headache while you’ve got the “healing crisis” going on. This is when your body breaks down the toxins and removes any waste. This is temporary — 24 to 48 hours.
The History of Foot Reflexology
While reflexology may have existed in some form long ago, it was first introduced in the United States in the early 1910s by William H. Fitzgerald, M.D. He referred to it as “Zone Therapy.”
William H. Fitzgerald, M.D.
In his book (which gets more and more fascinating as I continue reading!), Zone Therapy; or, Relieving Pain at Home, Dr. Fitzgerald states the following:
“Pressure applied upon the zones corresponding to the location of the injury will tend to relieve pain. And not only will it relieve pain, but if the pressure is strong enough and long enough it will frequently produce analgesia, or insensibility to pain, or even a condition of anesthesia in which minor surgical operations may be successfully done.”
He claimed that not only did this practice work, but it worked rather well for zone therapy specialists.
It should also be noted that the editor of this book kicked things off by saying he anticipated a lot of criticism from other physicians and people who used the methods unsuccessfully and that he was ready to disregard those criticisms. He stated they don’t know the science behind zone therapy or why it works, but it has helped “a great many people” and “nobody can possibly be harmed.”
As you might expect, Fitzgerald and Zone Therapy were met with a lot of skepticism. But, just as there are today, there were die-hard believers in the therapy who swore by its effectiveness and used it regularly.
Joe Shelby Riley, M.D.
Dr. Riley, who was trained by Dr. Fitzgerald, continued researching and developing Zone Therapy to make it more closely resemble what it is today. He added eight horizontal divisions to the feet and hands that follow the anatomy of the body. He worked with the reflexes of the feet and their corresponding effects throughout the body.
Eunice D. Ingham
Eunice D. Ingham was a physical therapist who worked with Dr. Riley. She was very interested in this work with foot reflexes and continued to refine Dr. Riley’s work. She worked with hundreds of patients and was able to check and re-check the reflexes of the feet and how they correspond to the organs of the body. Once she was confident with her work, she published a book called Stories the Feet Can Tell Thru Reflexology and began traveling around the world speaking about her therapy with other medical professionals.
Eunice’s major contribution to working with reflexes was that alternating pressure, rather than having a numbing effect, stimulated healing. She mapped the entire body into “reflexes” on the feet, renaming “zone therapy” reflexology.
She toured the world speaking about foot reflexology for many years and was joined in the latter stages by her nephew Dwight C. Byers.
Dwight C. Byers
Dwight took ownership of Eunice’s work and continued touring. He took the seminars to countries outside the US and in the 1980s, formed the International Institute of Reflexology (IIR). According to the IIR website, the Institute has over 25,000 members around the world and they continue to train and certify people on reflexology through frequent seminars and other training methods daily.
Foot Reflexology Chart
This chart shows the zones of the feet and which points relate to which corresponding body part. It takes a lot of practice to memorize these points and be able to pinpoint them on any size foot. To help, we’ve created a printable foot reflexology chart. You can also find reflexology charts on Amazon.
Left Foot Reflexology Chart
Here is an image of a left foot reflexology chart showing the sole of the left foot, along with the medial and lateral sides of the foot.
Right Foot Reflexology Chart
Here is an image of a right foot reflexology chart showing the sole of the right foot, along with the medial and lateral sides of the foot.
Printable Foot Reflexology Chart
We have formatted this reflexology chart into an 8.5″ x 11″ printable pdf document which can be accessed here: Printable Foot Reflexology Chart
Foot Reflexology Benefits
Here are some of the reported benefits of foot reflexology. We can’t say these are scientifically proven benefits, but they have been linked to reflexology.
- Stimulates Nerve Function
- Increases Energy Levels
- Improves Circulation
- Promotes Relaxation
- Increases Vitality
- Reduces Stress
- Eliminates Toxins
- Strengthens the Immune System
- Reduces Pain Levels
- Speeds Healing
- Restores and Maintains the Bodies Natural Equilibrium
Some of the medical conditions which can reportedly be treated with reflexology include:
- Anxiety & Stress
- Asthma & Bronchitis
- Back Pain
- Chronic Fatigue
- Digestive Issues
- Headaches & Migraines
- Hip & Knee Pain
- Menstrual Cramps & PMS
- Neck Pain
- Pregnancy & Post-Partum Symptoms
- Shoulder Pain
- Sinus Congestion
- TMJ & Jaw Pain
- Urinary Problems
Foot Reflexology Techniques
The following video from Howcast is an excellent demonstration of five basic foot reflexology techniques that we’ll go through in more detail below. You can find some additional foot reflexology techniques on the Howcast website, and they’ve compiled their videos into a handy reflexology playlist on YouTube which you can see here.
- Thumb Walking. Using the foremost joint of your thumb, press down and maintain pressure, then come up slightly, move forward on the foot just a fraction of an inch, and then press back down again.
- Finger Walking. This technique is generally used on the tops or sides of the feet. It’s the same idea as thumb walking but performed with the index finger. You can finger walk between all of the metatarsals on top of the feet, bracing the bottom of the foot with your thumb.
- Hook and Back Up. With the hook and back up, you use your thumb to press into a point and then pull back out a little bit. You can generate a lot of pressure with this technique so make sure you aren’t hurting your patient.
- Rotation on a Point. This combines thumb walking with a rotation of the foot. This is a good technique for walking the diaphragm line (refer to the foot reflexology chart above).
- Press and Slide. Again using your thumb, press down and slowly slide the thumb across the foot.
Foot Reflexology Training: Schools, Classes, & Courses
The best way to learn foot reflexology techniques is through hands-on experience and practice. The aforementioned International Institute of Reflexology conducts several 2-day workshops starting with the basics in their Phase 1 course, and culminating in a certification exam in their Phase 4 course. Each workshop lasts two days and costs a few hundred dollars per workshop.
Likewise, you can become certified through the American Reflexology Certification Board by completing the ARCB Exam. There are, of course, some prerequisites you must meet before completing the exam, such as 110 hours of classroom instruction.
As far as online courses go, there is a great one on Udemy called Learn Advanced Reflexology and TCM for Health Practitioners. At the time of this writing, the course is available for only $10 and is extremely well-reviewed on the site. They do make a couple of notes about the target audience that you should be aware of: “This course is not suited for anyone who wants a basic Reflexology course. This course is not suited for anyone who has never practiced any form of bodywork or massage before.”
This wikiHow article also has some practical tips on becoming a Reflexologist.
DIY Foot Reflexology Massage
This quick video from ModernMom shows a foot reflexology massage routine you can do on your own to help soothe, energize, and relieve stress.
We also like this video by Howcast which shows how you can use simple tools around the home or office to simulate reflexology.
Tools mentioned in the video and some others we found through research include the following:
- Wooden Foot Roller & Massage Ball Combo. This wooden foot roller from TheraFlow uses the power of reflexology to ease your muscles, tissues, and tendons.
- Pebble Foot Massage Mat. As mentioned in the video, you can stand on one of these reflexology mats to add pressure to certain zones of your feet.
- Dual Foot Massager Roller. Store this wooden foot roller and massage ball under your desk or in a drawer. You can use both to roll your feet over while you control the pressure applied.
- Physiotherapeutic Device with Foot Reflexology, Acupuncture, and Infrared Therapy. This device was developed based on traditional reflexology and acupuncture theories to improve blood circulation, lymphatic drainage, metabolism, provide an alternative therapy to relieve stress, fatigue, aches and pains, and promote all-round better health and well-being.
Foot Reflexology Case Studies
Now that we’ve got a good understanding of what foot reflexology is and how it works, let’s take a look at some real-life case studies to see how effective this therapy actually is.
Reflexology for Patients With Multiple Sclerosis
A study was done on multiple sclerosis patients. Twenty people who all suffered from moderate to severe multiple sclerosis were split into two random groups. One group received reflexology treatment from actual reflexologists, while the other group underwent a sham (fake) version of reflexology that was essentially a foot massage.
Patients received 1 hour of reflexology (or fake reflexology) therapy for 8 weeks. They were then tested at both 8 and 16 weeks, tracking symptoms and the impact of the therapy.
The study found that after 8 weeks, both groups showed minuscule improvements (not statistically significant), but there was no noticeable difference between the groups. After 16 weeks the groups were tested again and it was found that their results returned to baseline levels.
The results do not support the use of reflexology for symptom relief in sufferers of moderate to severe Multiple Sclerosis. In fact, it was determined that the small uptick in both groups was the result of a placebo effect.
Reflexology for Managing Patients With Diabetic Neuropathy
In this study, 58 patients diagnosed with diabetic neuropathy were split into two groups of 29; the reflexology group and the control group. The purpose of this study was to determine the efficacy of reflexology as a complementary therapy in addition to pharmacological methods. The outcome measures were pain reduction, glycemic control, nerve conductivity, and thermal and vibration sensitivities.
The results of this experiment were that the reflexology group showed statistically significant improvements in all outcome measures versus those of the control group.
Reflexology proved useful as a complementary therapy for individuals diagnosed with diabetic neuropathy.
Reflexology for Patients With Advanced-Stage Breast Cancer
This was another study testing the efficacy of reflexology as a complementary therapy for women with advanced-stage breast cancer. 385 women were split into three groups; reflexology, lay foot manipulation (LFM), and conventional care (which included chemotherapy and/or hormonal therapy).
The results of this case study found that the reflexology group showed statistically significant improvements over the other groups in terms of physical functioning (unclear exactly what that means). It also showed that reflexology was useful in decreasing the severity of dyspnea (difficulty breathing) in women who were suffering from breast cancer.
Reflexology can be recommended as a complementary therapy in addition to evidence-based care for usefulness in relieving dyspnea and enhancing functional status among women with advanced-stage breast cancer.
Reflexology for PMS Symptoms in Women
In this study, a group of 35 women were split into random groups to receive ear, hand, and foot reflexology treatments, or placebo treatments. Symptoms were tracked 2 months before treatment, 2 months during reflexology treatment, and 2 months after treatment. The treatment sessions were once per week for 8 weeks, at 30 minutes per session.
The study showed that women who received true reflexology treatment showed a significantly greater decrease in PMS symptoms over the placebo group in this time period.
While this test was a relatively small sample size, it concluded that reflexology may help lessen the severity of symptoms in women with PMS.
Reflexology for Symptom Control in Colorectal Cancer Patients
This study was comprised of 60 patients who were split into three groups; classical foot massage, reflexology, and standard care. As you might guess, the classical foot massage group received foot massages using classical techniques twice per week. The reflexology group received reflexology therapy focused on “symptom-oriented reflexes” twice per week. All three groups maintained their standard chemotherapy treatment schedule.
The results of this study were that the classical massage group showed a reduction in pain levels and distention incidence. The reflexology group showed a reduction in pain levels, fatigue levels, distention incidence, and urinary frequency.
Both classical foot massage, as well as reflexology, showed an improvement in symptom management over the control group. In addition to the standard care, these methods showed positive signs as complementary therapies.
Dangers of Foot Reflexology
“Reflexology has almost no potential for direct harm, but its ability to mislead well-meaning people into believing that it can be used for screening for health problems, or that it has real therapeutic value could lead to serious problems.”
- Don’t rely on reflexology to diagnose pain. It is not a scientifically proven therapy and there are still many questions unanswered. When you have a disease or a health condition, getting prompt treatment is necessary to keep it from getting worse. It’s important to see a doctor and get a proper medical diagnosis instead of relying on a reflexologist.
- Don’t rely on reflexology as a single means of treatment for a health condition. While it has shown to be a somewhat useful complementary therapy, there is potential for danger if it is used as the sole treatment method for a health condition. It is very important to get proper, proven, medical care first, and then you can always complement that treatment with reflexology.
We find foot reflexology to be a fascinating therapy, if scientifically unproven. Those who practice and believe in it have seen countless benefits, while those who doubt it’s efficacy believe it’s nothing more than a glorified foot massage.
From our research, we believe foot reflexology to be a fine complementary therapy for those suffering from health conditions. Whether it actually helps or simply creates a placebo effect is up for debate, but if you experience benefits (or even perceived benefits) from a foot reflexology therapy session, then we say go for it.
Never rely solely on reflexology to diagnose and/or treat a serious condition. Always get proven medical care first. But, if reflexology is something you feel strongly about and want to use it as a way to supplement other treatments (or use it as preventative maintenance), we don’t see any harm in that.