Reflexology is a therapeutic method of relieving pain by stimulating predefined pressure points on the feet and hands. This controlled pressure alleviates the source of the discomfort. In the absence of any particular malady or abnormality, reflexology may be as effective for promoting good health and for preventing illness as it may be for relieving symptoms of stress, injury, and illness.
Reflexologists work from maps of predefined pressure points that are located on the hands and feet. These pressure points are reputed to connect directly through the nervous system and affect the bodily organs and glands. The reflexologist manipulates the pressure points according to specific techniques of reflexology therapy. By means of this touching therapy, any part of the body that is the source of pain, illness, or potential debility can be strengthened through the application of pressure at the respective foot or hand location.
Reflexology is a healing art of ancient origin. Although its origins are not well documented, there are reliefs on the walls of a Sixth Dynasty Egyptian tomb (c. 2450 B.C.) that depict two seated men receiving massage on their hands and feet. From Egypt, the practice may have entered the Western world during the conquests of the Roman Empire. The concepts of reflexology have also been traced to pre-dynastic China (possibly as early as 3000 B.C.) and to ancient Indian medicine. The Inca civilization may have subscribed to the theories of reflexology and passed on the practice of this treatment to the Native Americans in the territories that eventually entered the United States.
In recent times, Sir Henry Head first investigated the concepts underlying reflexology in England in the 1890s. Therapists in Germany and Russia were researching similar notions at approximately the same time, although with a different focus. Less than two decades later, a physician named William H. Fitzgerald presented a similar concept that he called zone analgesia or zone therapy. Fitzgerald's zone analgesia was a method of relieving pain through the application of pressure to specific locations throughout the entire body. Fitzgerald divided the body into 10 vertical zones, five on each side, that extended from the head to the fingertips and toes, and from front toback. Every aspect of the human body appears in one of these 10 zones, and each zone has a reflex area on the hands and feet. Fitzgerald and his colleague, Dr. Edwin Bowers, demonstrated that by applying pressure on one area of the body, they could anesthetize or reduce pain in a corresponding part. In 1917, Fitzgerald and Bowers published Relieving Pain at Home, an explanation of zone therapy.
Later, in the 1930s, a physical therapist, Eunice D. Ingham, explored the direction of the therapy and made the startling discovery that pressure points on the human foot were situated in a mirror image of the corresponding organs of the body with which the respective pressure points were associated. Ingham documented her findings, which formed the basis of reflexology, in Stories the Feet Can Tell, published in 1938. Although Ingham's work in reflexology was inaccurately described as zone therapy by some, there are differences between the two therapies of pressure analgesia. Among the more marked differences, reflexology defines a precise correlation between pressure points and afflicted areas of the body. Furthermore, Ingham divided each foot and hand into 12 respective pressure zones, in contrast to the 10 vertical divisions that encompass the entire body in Fitzgerald's zone therapy.
In 1968 two siblings, Dwight Byers and Eusebia Messenger, established the National Institute of Reflexology. By the early 1970s the institute had grown and was renamed the International Institute of Reflexology®.
Reflexology promotes healing by stimulating the nerves in the body and encouraging the flow of blood. In the process, reflexology not only quells the sensation of pain, but relieves the source of the pain as well.
Anecdotally, reflexologists claim success in the treatment of a variety of conditions and injuries. One condition is fibromyalgia. People with this disease are encouraged to undergo reflexology therapy to alleviate any of a number of chronic bowel syndromes associated with the condition. Frequent brief sessions of reflexology therapy are also recommended as an alternative to drug therapy for controlling the muscle pain associated with fibromyalgia and for relieving difficult breathing caused by tightness in the muscles of the patient's neck and throat.
EUNICE INGHAM 1889–1974
Eunice D. Ingham was born on February 24, 1889. A physical therapist by occupation, she was a colleague of Dr. Shelby Riley, who along with Dr. W. H. Fitzgerald actively developed zone therapy, a similar but distinct therapy from reflexology. Unlike reflexology, zone therapy does not connect the zones with the body as a whole. In the 1930s, Ingham discovered an unmistakable pattern of reflexes on the human foot; she subsequently devoted the rest of her life to publicizing the message of reflexology until shortly before her death on December 10, 1974.
Ingham traveled and lectured widely about reflexology, initially to audiences of extremely desperate or aging patients who had lost hope in finding relief. Because of their sometimes astonishing improvement, reflexology became better known and respected among the medical community and gained credibility for its therapeutic value. Ingham described her theories of reflexology in her 1938 book, entitled Stories the Feet Can Tell, which included a map of the reflex points on the feet and the organs that they parallel. The book was translated into seven languages, although it was erroneously published as Zone Therapy in some countries, an error which led to misunderstanding about the true nature of reflexology and inaccurately linked it to zone therapy.
Reflexology applied properly can alleviate allergy symptoms, as well as stress, back pain, and chronic fatigue.
The techniques of reflexology can be performed conveniently on the hand in situations where a session on the feet is not practical, although the effectiveness of limited hand therapy is less pronounced than with the foot pressure therapy.
In a typical reflexology treatment, the therapist and patient have a preliminary discussion prior to therapy, to enable the therapist to focus more accurately on the patient's specific complaints and to determine the appropriate pressure points for treatment.
A reflexology session involves pressure treatment that is most commonly administered in foot therapy sessions of approximately 40–45 minutes in duration. The foot therapy may be followed by a brief 15-minute hand therapy session. No artificial devices or special equipment are associated with this therapy. The human hand is the primary tool used in reflexology. The therapist applies controlled pressure with the thumb and forefinger, generally working toward the heel of the foot or the outer palm of the hand. Most reflexologists apply pressure with their thumbs bent; however, some also use simple implements, such as the eraser end of a pencil. Reflexology therapy is not massage, and it is not a substitute for medical treatment.
Reflexology is a complex system that identifies and addresses the mass of 7,000 nerve endings that are contained in the foot. Additional reflexology addresses the nerves that are located in the hand. This is a completely natural therapy that affords relief without the use of drugs. The Reflexology Association of America (RAA) formally discourages the use of oils or other preparations in performing this hands-on therapy.
In order to realize maximum benefit from a reflexology session, the therapist as well as the patient should be situated so as to afford optimal comfort for both. Patients in general receive treatment in a reclining position, with the therapist positioned as necessary—to work on the bare feet, or alternately on the bare hands.
A reflexology patient removes both shoes and socks in order to receive treatment. No other preparation is involved.
Reflexology is extremely safe. It may even be self-administered in a limited form whenever desired. The qualified reflexologist offers a clear and open disclaimer that reflexology does not constitute medical treatment in any form, nor is reflexology given as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. The ultimate purpose of the therapy is to promote wellness; fundamentally it is a form of preventive therapy.
People with serious and long-term medical problems are urged to seek the advice of a physician. Diabetes patients in particular are urged to approach this therapy cautiously. Likewise pregnant women are cautioned emphatically to avoid reflexology during the early phases of pregnancy altogether, as accidentally induced labor and subsequent premature delivery can result from reflexology treatment.
A consultation with a reflexologist is recommended in order to determine the safety and appropriateness of reflexology therapy for a specific health problem or condition.
Because reflexology is intended to normalize the body functions, the therapy does not cause a condition to worsen. Most patients find that pain diminishes over the course of the therapy. It has been noted, however, that some patients experience greater discomfort in the second session than in the first session, because a significant easing of pain and tension is generally associated with the initial therapy session. As a result, when pressure is reapplied to the tender points of the foot during the second session, the sensitivity has been heightened. This increase in sensitivity may cause minor additional discomfort for the patient.
Research & general acceptance
Although only one controlled trial of reflexology therapy, done in 1993, has been documented in medical journals, this therapy is practiced worldwide at different levels of medical care. In Russia, for example, only licensed physicians may legally perform reflexology treatment. In contrast, the practice is a commonplace home-style remedy in the Netherlands. The Internet "Home of Reflexology" lists at least 66 professional organizations worldwide, including New Zealand and Malaysia. Associations include the following:
- Academy of Reflexology Austria
- Association of Finnish Reflexologists
- Chinese Society of Reflexologists
- Hellenic Association of Reflexologists
- Indian Society for Promotion of Reflexology
- International Council of Reflexologists (HQ: San Diego, USA)
- Israeli Reflexology Association
- New Zealand Reflexology Association
- Polish Instytut of Reflexology (Polish Language)
- Reflexology Association of America
- Reflexology Association of Australia
- Rwo-Shr Health Institute International (Malaysia)
- The South African Reflexology Society
Ongoing legislative debate ensued during the 1990s regarding the legal status of the reflexology trade. The reflexology community, along with legislators and other bodywork practitioners, engaged in reassessment of the reflexology business and its relationship to massage therapy and massage parlors. Organizations and individuals brought judicial appeals of certain court cases that threatened the legitimate licensing of reflexologists as practitioners of alternative medicine. Such professional reflexology interests as the RAA documented in detail the disparities between reflexology and massage, citing the purpose of reflexology, which is to stimulate internal body functions (glands and organs) as opposed to the topical muscular and joint relief associated with massage. In a status update in 1998 the Association reported that 19 states had laws requiring the licensing of massage/reflexology therapists. Licensing laws established educational requirements and required candidates to pass written, oral, and/or practical examinations.
Also at issue was a trend among municipalities to license massage parlors (and reflexologists) under the business codes affecting the adult entertainment business. B. and K. Kunz reported that judicial decisions in two states—Tennessee and New Mexico—had excluded the practice of reflexology practice from the laws pertaining to massage parlors. Those courts held that reflexology is a business separate and distinct from massage parlors, and deserving of its own respective licensing standards. In Sacramento, California, reflexologists petitioned successfully to become licensed as practitioners of somatic therapy rather than as providers of adult entertainment. Likewise, in the Canadian province of Ontario, a nonprofit organization to register reflexology
Reflexology is taught by means of a series of seminars, classes, and training films. Certification is earned after a six month program that includes 200 hours of training. The certification training breaks down as follows: 28 hours of preliminary seminar training; 14 hours of advanced seminar training; 58 hours of self-directed study; and 100 hours of practical experience, including administering reflexology to a minimum of 15 people.
Specific aspects of the training include instruction in the assessment of the pressure points on the feet and hands through a study of human anatomy. Students also learn to give reflexology sessions to patients along with specific techniques for working with the hands.
Certification & advanced certification
As part if its function, the independently organized American Reflexology Certification Board (ARCB) certifies the competency of reflexology practitioners on an individual basis. The ARCB does not evaluate schools and teachers. Prerequisites for individual certification include completion of educational requirements and passing a standard qualifying examiniation. Successful candidates receive the title of Board Certified Reflexologist.
Minimum qualifications to take the certification examination include attendance at an advanced seminar within two years prior to taking the examination. In addition, the applicant must have attended preliminary seminars for two full days—in addition to the required day of advanced seminar training—and the applicant is required to have a minimum of six months of practical experience in administering the therapy. Applicants are examined by means of both written tests and practical demonstrations.
Continuing education certification is available. Advanced training focuses on mastering the ability to perform hand reflexology. The therapist also receives instruction in new and advanced techniques of basic reflexology. Some reflexology training classes may be applied toward degree programs in other disciplines, depending on the specific course of study and the certification of the respective training institutions involved.
The RAA provides published standards of practice for reflexologists.
Byers, Dwight. Better Health with Foot Reflexology: The Original Ingham Method. 1983.
Dougans, Inge. The Complete Illustrated Guide to Reflexology. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1996.
Stein, Diane. All Women Are Healers: A Comprehensive Guide to Natural Healing, Ch. V, "Foot and Hand Reflexology." Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1990. This source includes Dr. Fitzgerald's zone maps as well as modern reflexology maps.
International Institute of Reflexology. P.O. Box 12642. St. Petersburg, FL 33733-2642. (727) 343-4811. Fax: (727) 381-2807. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reflexology Association of America. 4012 Rainbow St. KPMB#585. Las Vegas, NV 89103-2059.