Foot reflexology is a treatment that’s been practiced for centuries. It involves applying pressure to different points on the bottom of the foot.
According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), these points correspond to different areas of the body. They are believed to have multiple benefits, including reducing stress, aiding digestion, and promoting sound sleep.
“Reflexology is commonly known as a holistic practice performed on the feet,” says Brian Goodwin, aesthetician, herbalist, and international educator at Éminence Organic Skin Care. “The concept is that there are meridian points on the feet that correspond with various organs in the body.”
According to Dustin Martinez, a Los Angeles–based chiropractic physician, research from 2014 shows that reflexology can improve quality of life in several ways.
This involves reducing stress and bringing balance to the body, energy, and mind.
“Reflexology is ancient medicine — it’s been around forever,” he says. “It can be traced as far back as 2330 B.C.”
According to Martinez, reflexology was given its current name in the United States in the early 1900s.
Foot reflexology may help with:
- stress and relaxation
- pain management
- improved sleep
Stress and relaxation
One of the key benefits associated with reflexology is relaxation and stress management. This is achieved by applying pressure to certain points on the feet.
“Relaxation is probably the biggest benefit [of foot reflexology],” says Martinez. “Reflexology helps by increasing blood flow through the body, which helps to decrease stress and anxiety and lower blood pressure. When you feel less stress and less anxious, it’s easy to feel relaxed.”
In the 2015 study mentioned above, the authors observe that a common benefit of reflexology may be reducing stress and inducing general relaxation.
Additionally, the study notes reflexology may be one way to interrupt the pattern of repetitive lifestyle stress by “helping the body systems to return to their natural state.”
Other research supports this.
A 2019 systematic review of reflexology in palliative care for advanced cancer found that reflexology, alongside other complementary therapies of aromatherapy and massage, enhanced well-being and offered people respite and escapism from their condition.
If you try reflexology for stress management or relaxation, consider having multiple sessions. According to the 2015 study, one session may interrupt the stress response, but multiple sessions are recommended for optimal benefits.
Perhaps related to its effects on stress and relaxation, foot reflexology may also help with managing both acute and chronic pain.
Foot reflexology may help reduce pain after an operation. A 2020 study found that foot reflexology significantly reduced pain after kidney transplantation surgery, compared with a control group.
Similarly, a 2018 study found that foot reflexology significantly reduced pain after abdominal hysterectomy surgery, compared with a control group.
There is also evidence to support the effectiveness of foot reflexology in reducing chronic pain. In a 2019 study, foot reflexology significantly reduced pain and anxiety among children with chronic pain.
A 2018 survey study of military members with chronic pain found that after one session of foot reflexology, pain scores were reduced by 43% among males and 41% among females.
Martinez notes that reflexology may help with digestion.
“One of the reflex points found on your feet is connected to your stomach — when this particular point is stimulated, it will increase blood flow to your stomach, helping to improve digestion,” he says.
However, a 2017 study on foot reflexology for children with functional constipation found that reflexology had no effect on bowel movement frequency or consistency.
More research is needed to understand any effects that foot reflexology might have on digestion.
“Reflexology can help reverse some of the stress we put on our eyes just from our daily activities,” says Martinez. “These pressure points help relax the tight muscles caused by looking at our screens all day.”
Considering reflexology may be beneficial in helping you relax and reduce stress, it’s no surprise that some say it may help promote a more restful night’s sleep.
“Because reflexology is moving energy and improving overall circulation, it’s easy to have a restful night’s sleep after a treatment,” explains Martinez.
In the above-mentioned 2020 study on foot reflexology after kidney transplantation surgery, the group that received foot reflexology had significantly improved sleep quality.
It is unknown whether foot reflexology is beneficial for diabetes, but this is an ongoing area of research.
Some improvement was seen in foot-ground time, which may have indications for improved mobility and preventing foot ulcers. However, this was a small study with limitations, so more research is needed to make any conclusions on reflexology for diabetes.
Reflexology may be beneficial as a treatment that occurs alongside other treatments for a condition, often referred to as a complementary treatment. However, be sure to consult your doctor before starting any new treatment.
It’s important to note that although reflexology has been practiced in many countries for thousands of years, there is little scientific evidence available to prove its effectiveness.
According to Claire Barnwell, member of The Association of Reflexologists and owner of Feetology reflexology practice, “There have been some positive research projects carried out with reflexology; however, as yet, there is not a large enough body of evidence for us to make clinical claims of effectiveness.”
Barnwell notes, however, that “there can be no doubt that what it does provide is a period of time for relaxation where the client has one-to-one attention and supportive touch in an empathetic listening environment.”
If nothing else, foot reflexology may be a soothing, relaxing way to wind down and give some massage-like attention to your feet. More research is needed to confirm whether it offers specific health benefits.
Barnwell notes that after a reflexology session, most people experience a sense of well-being and relaxation. However, side effects can occur. These include:
- crying or feeling tearful
- strong emotions
“This is usually transitory, and reflexologists believe that it is part of the healing process,” states Barnwell.
Reflexology is not for everyone, though. For people with certain health conditions, it may cause more harm than good. Contraindications for reflexology include:
- circulatory issues
- history of blood clots
- certain foot injuries such as sprains, strains, or stress fractures
- painful skin conditions such as blisters or severe eczema or psoriasis
- contagious skin conditions such as scabies, chicken pox, or athlete’s foot
- certain symptoms of diabetes, including non-healing wounds or peripheral neuropathy
Always talk with your doctor before starting a new treatment to determine whether it’s appropriate for you.
Reflexology is not recommended for those with gout, a history of blood clots, or circulatory issues.
If you’re pregnant, consult a doctor before trying reflexology. There are concerns associated with foot reflexology and stimulating labor.
While massage and foot reflexology are both known for their relaxing benefits, they have different functions.
“Foot reflexology is a therapeutic massage with sustained pressure instead of broad strokes, like a classic massage,” explains Martinez. “Fine detail and pressure are applied to specific reflex points and held until released.”
A massage might be more beneficial for overall relaxation and muscle aches, whereas reflexology may be able to target specific concerns with focused points on the feet.
According to Goodwin, some people experience immediate relief, especially when it comes to pain and anxiety. He emphasizes that each case is individual and there is no universal timeline for improvement.
Martinez notes that you can expect to be a little sore, but in a good way.
“As long as you find the right practitioner who listens to your body and can [apply] the right technique, you should be fine,” he says.
Martinez suggests you talk openly with your practitioner about what level of pressure feels appropriate and comfortable for you.
According to Martinez, the majority of patients notice benefits after their first reflexology session.
“Everybody is unique and heals in their own timing,” says Martinez. “In general, reflexology best complements natural healing already taking place.”
While you may be able to feel the effects of reflexology after just one treatment, it’s advised to continue using reflexology alongside other doctor-recommended treatments for best results.
While reflexology may not be scientifically proven as a medical treatment for health conditions, it’s been used for centuries to treat many ailments.
Foot reflexology may be beneficial as a complementary treatment, but scientific evidence is lacking.
It’s important to talk with your doctor before trying reflexology. People with circulatory issues, gout, or blood clots should avoid it.
Daley Quinn is a beauty and wellness journalist and content strategist living in Boston. She’s a former beauty editor at a national magazine, and her work has appeared on sites including Allure, Well + Good, Byrdie, Fashionista, The Cut, WWD, Women’s Health Mag, HelloGiggles, Shape, Elite Daily, and more. You can see more of her work on her website.