Stress-Busting: Does Hand and Foot Reflexology Work?

Reflexology is a complementary therapy that many believe to be beneficial in relieving stress and managing pain. Due to limited scientific studies, it is not completely understood how reflexology works. Yet, as it is generally a safe and accessible treatment, it has stood the test of time and remains a popular technique to support well-being. To receive the most benefits, it is advised to consult a qualified reflexologist; however, there are also some simple techniques you can learn to use at home.

What is reflexology?

A reflexology practice involves massage techniques, which focus on applying pressure to specific areas of the feet and hands.

The techniques used in reflexology are thought to date back to ancient medical practices in Eastern Asia. Today, reflexology is most widely used as a complementary therapy to potentially relieve stress and pain.

How does reflexology work?

While it is not backed by science, the theory behind reflexology is that specific points on the feet and the hands reflect the health of specific organs and areas of the body. These areas may be affected by the stimulation of hand and foot reflexology techniques.

The term 'reflex' means an instinctive or involuntary movement responding to a stimulus. It is also related to the word 'reflection,' meaning 'to mirror.' During a reflexology practice, the feet and hands are essentially thought of as a micro-system of the body.

Reflexology shares similar theories to acupuncture and acupressure, including the concept of energy channels in the body. However, there is no scientific evidence of energy channels in the body or understanding of how they work.

The benefits of reflexology

Due to limited scientific studies, many of the benefits of reflexology are anecdotal. However, there is some research to suggest foot reflexology may improve fatigue and depression in patients who have no other health conditions. Additionally, a significant decrease in anxiety was recorded in pregnant women receiving foot reflexology.

Other benefits of foot and hand reflexology may include:

  • Stress and anxiety reduction. Reflexology may have a relaxing effect on the nervous system.
  • Improved circulation. Through gentle massage and applied pressure to specific areas, reflexology may enhance blood flow.
  • Pain relief. Reflexology may boost the release of endorphins, which can block the nerve cells from receiving pain signals.
  • Enhanced energy. Reflexology is believed to balance the body's energy levels, known as 'chi.'

With its minimal risks, reflexology may be helpful as a complementary therapy alongside medical treatment, if any.

Hand reflexology chart

Hand reflexology chart

This chart represents the areas of the body associated with the specific points of the hands based on traditional Chinese medicine theory.

Foot reflexology chart

Foot reflexology chart

Similarly to the hand chart above, this chart represents the areas of the body associated with the specific points of the feet based on traditional Chinese medicine theory.

Is hand and foot reflexology science-backed?

The scientific research on reflexology is limited. For this reason, it is important to note that reflexology is not advised as a substitute for medical treatment.

There is some evidence to suggest that reflexology can act as a beneficial complementary treatment for reducing symptoms such as pain and nausea for patients undergoing medical cancer treatments.

The relaxing effects of reflexology have also been shown to support anxiety and distress for patients receiving chemotherapy.

Overall, there is some promising evidence that reflexology may provide some support for patients under stress and the side effects of medical treatments, but more research is needed to provide further understanding.

Is reflexology safe?

Overall, reflexology is safe and suitable for most people. However, there are a few exceptions where reflexology would not be an appropriate therapy, such as if you have a foot fracture, are suffering from gout, or currently have any unhealed wounds on your feet or hands.

It is also advisable to be cautious of reflexology if you have osteoarthritis affecting your feet, ankles, or wrists. In this instance, you should consult your primary healthcare provider.

How to perform reflexology?

There are some simple reflexology techniques you can apply yourself, even if you have no previous experience. Reflexology is a gentle practice, which means it can be performed at any time of the day and is safe to practice daily.

Basic reflexology techniques suitable for beginners

Below, you will find some simple step-by-step instructions for a hand reflexology practice and a foot reflexology practice.

Hand reflexology

  1. Using the reflexology hand map above, take a moment to identify some of the key hand reflexology points.
  2. In a comfortable position, you may want to begin by gently pinching the tips of each finger and thumb and then carefully moving down each finger.
  3. Hold around your hand with your fingers on the top and your thumb on the side of your palm.
  4. Gently apply pressure, noticing the sensations and any areas of discomfort.
  5. You may like to work your way methodically around the hand or refer to the hand reflexology map to pinpoint specific areas.
  6. Remember to breathe and relax as you gently use small circular movements on the reflex points.

Spend up to 10 minutes on each hand.

Foot reflexology

  1. Before you begin, make sure that you are warm and comfortable, seated on the floor or a bed with your shoes and socks removed. You may want to sit cross-legged, with one foot on top of the opposite thigh so that the sole of your foot is accessible.
  2. With both hands, hold around the sides of your foot and begin gently pressing your thumbs into the sole of your foot.
  3. Begin at the top of your foot and work your way down.
  4. Be mindful and aware of the sensations. If you notice any tender areas, go gently and apply small circular movements to these points.
  5. You may want to reference the foot reflexology chart to notice where the tender areas of your foot correlate to the other areas of your body.

Spend about 10–15 minutes on each foot.

Specific tools for performing hand and foot reflexology

Although tools are not necessary for reflexology, they may be a helpful addition when performing reflexology on yourself. Below are a few examples of reflexology tools you may like to try out.

Foot roller

If you’re sitting at a desk for a long period of time, a foot roller can be a great addition to massage your feet.

There are a few different types of foot rollers, but the typical one is a small cylindrical device slightly wider than your foot, usually made out of wood or plastic.

How to use:

  1. Seated on a chair — this can be while working at a desk — place one foot at a time on top of the foot roller.
  2. Roll the foot roller back and forth with enough pressure to gently massage the arch of your foot.
  3. Repeat with the other foot.

Reflexology pen

Also known as an acupressure pen or trigger point pen, these are usually made out of stainless steel and are pen-shaped. They sometimes have one more pointed end and a flat or larger end on the other side.

This device is especially useful for hand reflexology.

How to use:

  1. Referring to the reflexology hand map, choose a specific point on the hand that you would like to focus on.
  2. In a comfortable seated position, holding the pen in one hand, apply gentle pressure with the pen onto the chosen area of the hand.
  3. You may choose to hold this pressure for a few seconds while focusing on your breath, or you may want to make very small circles with the pen on this spot.
  4. Repeat on the other hand.

Tennis ball

A cheap and easily accessible tool you can use to massage your feet is a simple tennis ball.

How to use:

  1. Begin sitting comfortably on a chair with the tennis ball by your feet.
  2. Keep one foot on the ground and press the sole of the other foot on top of the tennis ball.
  3. Roll the tennis ball around on the floor, allowing it to gently massage your foot.
  4. You may want to make small circles or perhaps explore by gently focusing on the areas of your feet that feel more tender.
  5. Repeat with the other foot.

Finding a reflexologist

While massaging your feet and hands at home and performing some simple reflexology techniques may feel good, it’s likely that you’ll experience further benefits from a treatment with a qualified reflexologist.

To find a reflexologist in your area, you can contact local well-being clinics and spas or simply google for independent practitioners.

If you have any specific health complaints, it is recommended to discuss this with the reflexologist by email or phone before booking your session to ensure that they have the necessary knowledge and experience for your health condition.

What to expect from a reflexology session

  • If you haven’t already received a consultation by phone or email, you should expect to spend some time at the beginning of the session to discuss your health history and any specific concerns. This is important so the reflexologist can tailor the session to your needs.
  • You will stay fully clothed during the session, apart from removing your shoes and socks. However, it is advisable to wear comfortable clothing.
  • The therapy room should be clean and calm, providing a serene environment for the treatment.
  • The reflexologist will use their hands to perform the reflexology treatment, using massage techniques and applying gentle pressure to specific points on your hands and/or feet. Typically, a session will last 30–60 minutes.
  • After the session, the reflexologist may offer some guidance, such as drinking extra water for hydration, recommending additional relaxation techniques, and discussing ways to incorporate reflexology into your lifestyle.

Some people may experience immediate benefits from reflexology, while others may require multiple treatments. It is important to note that reflexology is considered a complementary therapy, meaning that it is not recommended as a substitute for medical treatment. The effects of reflexology may vary from person to person.

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