The principal idea behind foot reflexology is to apply pressure to the reflex zones (points) on the feet that correspond to different organs in the body. Once practitioners apply pressure to these specific reflex points, it is theorized that they stimulate certain organs to produce positive physiological responses that assist our overall health and well-being. In addition, it is theorized that applying pressure to the foot reflexology points will release blocked energy to promote relaxation and help the body's natural healing process.
The principal of foot reflexology is applying pressure to certain reflex zones on the soles of the feet to produce effects on organ systems.
The theory of foot reflexology is based on traditional Chinese medicine, where the lifeforce, chi, is blocked but then released by pressure stimulation of reflex zones (points).
One scientific study found a direct correlation between foot reflexology and decreased depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbances.
Foot reflexology can be done with the fingers or hands, but also done by devices, including wands, sticks, foot rollers, foot massage balls, reflexology mats, acupressure slippers, electric devices, and gua sha (smooth-edged) tools.
Foot reflexology has numerous benefits but there are also associated risks.
What are the foot reflexology zones?
A foot reflexology chart is shown in the figure below.
You will note the reflexology chart divides the foot reflexology into different zones for different organ systems. For example, the toes cover the head and neck, the upper feet relate to the chest area, and the middle-lower feet relate to the abdominal and kidney areas. Pressure can be applied to these reflex zones using hands, thumbs, fingers, or specialized tools (discussed below).
Some practitioners use foot reflexology as additional therapy to more conservative medical treatments, like medications.
The origin behind the theories of foot reflexology
The theories behind foot reflexology come from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) theories. In TCM, the life force of our bodies is called chi and flows in meridians (pathways throughout the body). This lifeforce, chi, can be stuck in place in a specific organ; however, it theoretically moves freely after the stimulation of the appropriate foot reflexology point.
Another theory of reflexology related to chi is the rebalancing of our organ systems that may have been switched off and need to be restored.
Is there evidence to back up the use of foot reflexology?
In one study, scientists performed a systematic review of published articles on foot reflexology, and they published their results in the Journal of Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. They found that foot reflexology decreased depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbances. Nothing had yet to be proven in the other body's organ systems.
However, many people report the improved functioning of different systems.
How does reflexology work?
Theories suggest foot reflexology provides relaxation through several mechanisms, including:
- Massage touching leads to overall relaxation
- Modulation of the autonomic nervous system
- Reducing muscle tension leads to reduced anxiety
- Mood calming
- Improving sleep
Specialized tools used for foot reflexology
Even though professional foot reflexologists frequently use their thumbs, hands, or fingers, some specialized tools can help with the effectiveness of these reflexology treatments.
Reflexology wands and sticks
These wands and sticks can be made of various materials, including wood, metal, and plastic. They can have pointed or rounded ends for targeting specific reflexology points on the feet. The practitioner can avoid straining their hands or fingers using these wands or sticks.
Foot rollers are devices that can have grooves and bumps to mimic the pressure from a finger or hand. The foot is rolled back and forth across the device to apply pressure to the reflexology points. In addition, some of these foot rollers have heat and massage included.
Foot massage balls
The massage ball is similar to a foot roller; it can be rolled under the feet to target specific reflex points. These massage balls are usually made of hard rubber or silicone; they come in various sizes and textures to provide different pressure levels.
Foot reflexology mats
These mats have a surface covered in raised bumps or nodules designed to stimulate the reflexology points on the feet. Users can stand on the mat or roll their feet on top of the mat to achieve a massaging effect.
These are specifically designed footwear with built-in acupressure nodes that target specific reflex points on the soles of the feet while you walk. They combine the benefits of reflexology with the convenience of everyday footwear.
Electric foot massagers
Some electric massagers are designed specifically for foot reflexology. They can have air compression, rotating massaging nodes, or heat features to provide a customizable reflexology experience.
Gua sha tools
Gua sha tools are often made from jade or other materials, such as rose quartz, stainless steel, or Bian stone; they can be used on the feet to apply pressure and stimulate circulation. These tools are usually associated with other traditional Chinese medicine practices.
An important note when using any of these tools is to apply pressure gently and in a controlled manner. Every person has a different sensitivity to the reflexology pressure and should be adjusted accordingly. Before using any of the mentioned reflex devices, advice from a trained professional is always a good idea.
This is not a specific tool, but if using foot reflexology on yourself or another person, it's recommended you use a foot reflexology chart since it visually displays the foot's reflex points. They will guide you on where to apply targeted pressure.
What are the benefits of foot reflexology?
These are some of the potential benefits of foot reflexology. They should not replace conservative medical treatment.
- Organ system function. Improvement in functioning of the organ systems relating to the foot reflexology zone.
- Relaxation and stress reduction. Foot reflexology is believed to balance energy (chi) and help overall well-being.
- Improved circulation. The applied pressure helps blood flow through the body and drain through the lymphatic system.
- Pain management. It is believed that reflexology causes the release of endorphins; these hormones block the perception of pain and improve overall well-being.
- Improved sleep. Quality of sleep can be improved by the relaxing effects of reflexology.
What are the risks of reflexology?
Even though foot reflexology is relatively safe, there are some risks:
- Soreness or pain. The specific pressure points can be sore or painful after a reflexology session, especially if the applied pressure is too intense.
- Aggravation of existing conditions. If you have an open sore or foot injury, foot reflexology can make it worse. Other times, skin conditions can be aggravated by foot reflexology.
- Pregnancy issues. Sometimes, foot reflexology can lead to uterine contractions in pregnant women, possibly inducing labor.
- Allergic reactions. Certain oils and lotions used in reflexology can cause allergic skin reactions.
Massage vs. reflexology
Even though both massage and reflexology promote relaxation and help overall well-being, they are very different:
- Massage. Involves manipulating the components of the musculoskeletal system, including muscles, tendons, and ligaments, to relieve tightness and spasms.
- Reflexology. Involves pressure at specific points to affect organs that are mostly distant from the foot.
Massage usually involves the entire body, while reflexology involves just the foot.
How long does it take to see the results of reflexology?
The effects of reflexology vary by individual, and there is no set timeframe for results. While some people experience immediate relaxation and a sense of well-being, others require multiple sessions over months to feel the effects.
Foot reflexology can be very helpful in numerous conditions and be an adjunct to traditional treatments like medications. There are many ways to apply the needed pressure, so we suggest you find what works best for you.
- Journal of Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Effect of Foot Reflexology Intervention on Depression, Anxiety, and Sleep Quality in Adults: A Meta-Analysis and Meta-regression of Randomized Controlled Trials.
- Science Direct. Reflexology: Exploring the mechanism of action.