Reflexology has been a contentious subject among health professionals since its first mainstream appearance in American culture in the 1900s.
On one hand, some people hail it as a natural wonder treatment capable of treating anything from skin rashes to cancer. On the other hand, it has found limited support in the medical community, a large segment of which refuses to even engage in research into it.
What exactly is reflexology? Does it actually do anything beneficial?
Reflexology is a type of therapy that deals with the hands, feet, and ears. According to principles of reflexology, these areas of the body are divided into “reflex zones,” which can stimulate specific organs when pressure is applied to them.
The idea is that the nervous system interconnects different parts of the body, and thus, stimulating one part can result in changes in another part.
There is debate as to how effective reflexology is as a form of medicine in and of itself. This is especially because there is currently no consensus among reflexologists themselves on how the practice works.
The core principle most reflexologists support – that applying pressure to the proper areas manipulates a person’s Qi or life energy – is also often criticized. This is, of course, because there is currently no scientific study into Qi or its existence as a form of energy.
However, research does show some benefits to reflexology as a complementary therapy. Reflexology has been shown to have positive effects on pain relief in a variety of scenarios, including postpartum pain and cancer treatment pain.
The mechanism behind the observable benefits of reflexology isn’t yet well understood, though that is likely to change as the practice continues to gain popularity. That said, the prevailing thought is that reflexology works by stimulating the release of endorphins in the brain.
The hands, feet, and ears are highly innervated parts of the body. As such, they are much more sensitive to stimuli than most other parts, and, therefore, they send more information for the brain to interpret and respond to with the appropriate neurotransmitters.
This is why touching another person’s hands feels good or why a foot massage after a tiring day feels relaxing. More importantly, for the context of this discussion, this mechanism may explain several positive effects of foot reflexology.
As mentioned earlier, reflexology has been observed to reduce the experience of pain in individuals. This is because of the painkilling effects of beta-endorphins.
Beta-endorphins are responsible for the feeling of a “runner’s high,” which is the positive feeling after muscles experience prolonged physical activity. As such, massaging specific areas of the feet can encourage the brain to release beta-endorphins into the bloodstream.
In addition to pain management, the release of beta-endorphins stimulated by reflexology can help control addiction to certain drugs. This is because beta-endorphins are what are known as opioid agonists.
What this means is that beta-endorphins bind to the same receptors in your nervous system as opium and morphine, reducing the itch for these substances. Doctors put this effect to use all the time in anti-addiction programs by incorporating exercise routines to trigger runners’ highs.
Again, this does not mean a foot massage can cure addiction on its own, though depending on the person, the possibility exists. Rather, it means that a reflexology foot massage can be included as part of a comprehensive treatment plan to address opioid addictions.
Foot reflexology has also been shown to lower stress levels and improve the mood of patients. This is because one of the chemicals released by physical contact with the hands and/or feet includes oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone.”
This chemical is responsible for feelings of relaxation in the presence of friends and family and is associated with closeness with other people. It is often accompanied by vasopressin, which regulates blood pressure in the body as well as improves social feelings.
Two more hormones – dopamine and serotonin – the body’s “feel good” drugs are also released during a reflexology foot massage. Together, these hormones help regulate sleep, appetite, and even sex drive.
Because of these effects, reflexology can present a good supplement to therapy and mental well-being programs. It, of course, does not address mental disorders as a cure but can be an effective way to help patients regulate their moods while pursuing their treatment plans.
A reflexology chart serves as a guide to practitioners, helping them identify which parts of the hand, ears, or – in the case of this discussion – feet correspond to which parts of the body.
One thing to keep in mind: Reflexology charts can sometimes vary depending on the practitioner. This means it’s best for beginners to massage the entire foot rather than look at one zone and then focus on that – at least until a consensus is reached regarding what does what.
Salt Lake City requires practitioners to have a license to practice reflexology as a profession. However, that does necessarily mean you need one to give yourself or a friend a foot massage.
While mastering the specific and targeted effects of reflexology takes a lot of training and practice, a little bit of study can go a long way.
The general idea to keep in mind is that applying pressure to nerves in the right zones stimulates associated parts of the body. So, by following the chart, massaging the tips of your toes can improve focus and calm your brain, for instance.
Familiarize yourself with the zones on the chart and experiment. Unlike other forms of alternative medicine or supplementary therapy, reflexology has little to no negative effects when practiced by beginners.
If you are practicing with a partner, have them sit in a comfortable pose. If you are practicing on yourself, sit cross-legged on a firm (but not hard) surface, such as a yoga mat.
A person does not need to enter any special headspace to prepare for reflexology. However, they do need to be relaxed, so setting the mood may also be important.
To this end, try lighting scented candles in the room or giving the feet a warm soak in water for 15 to 20 minutes. The latter suggestion is especially beneficial because it helps relax the muscles and improve circulation in the feet.
Finally, applying lotion or oil to the feet before massaging is a final warmup you can do before applying any real pressure.
Targeting specific body parts with specific effects takes a lot of practice, so as a beginner, you want to try a general massage while you get the feel for reflexology. Start by grasping the feet firmly but ensuring not to apply too much pressure that it is painful.
You want your thumbs positioned so their pads are pressed against the soles of the feet, with the fingers wrapped around the sides. Alternatively, if you have long fingernails, cup the foot in one hand and press against the sole with your knuckle instead.
If you’re interested in getting a comprehensive foot care plan, contact Salt Lake City Podiatrist Dr. Elizabeth E. Auger, DPM. We offer same-day appointments, so you’ll know right away if reflexology has a fit in your health plan.
Our personalized treatment plans and holistic healing methods are ready to bring your feet and the rest of you to health. Services are available across three locations, all of which you can reach online or by calling 801-619-2170.