Reflexology uses the foot as a map of the entire human body. Pressing specific parts of the foot is believed to heal problems in unrelated and distant areas. Reflexology is not unique in adopting this concept, that sections of a single body part reflect each area of the entire body. Throughout the history of medicine numerous attempts have been made to use a singular body part as a diagnostic or treatment surrogates for the body as a whole. For example, reflexology involves the use of feet as a diagnostic center, whereas another system utilizes the iris of the eye. That system of iridology diagnoses disease by relating each pie-shaped segment of the colored iris to a specific organ or part of the body. Although this technique remains somewhat popular today, iridology has been studied scientifically and proven useless.
Foot reflexology in the United States began with the work of William Fitzgerald, MD, who practiced in Connecticut during the early 20th century. Fitzgerald’s technique was based on an ancient practice that applied pressure to the ears, feet or hands to revive energy flow and bring about homeostasis, or balance. Despite his area of expertise as an otolaryngologist, or eye, ear, nose and throat specialist, his system uses none of these body parts, but rather the foot. Thus, the foot became a map of the whole body, each part relating to a specific body area.
Reflexology differs from earlier attempts to use body parts as a map for the whole because it involves a treatment plan as well as a diagnosis. Fitzgerald theorized that the body is divided into ten equal zones that run from head to toe. With his system, which initially was referred to as zone therapy, gentle pressure to certain points on the feet seemed to relieve pain in a particular area of the body.
In the 1930’s American nurse and physiotherapist Eunice Ingham developed detailed maps of the feet that included what she termed reflex points linking spots on each foot to specific body parts. Through trial and error Ingham determined that by pressing the arch of the foot, for example, affected inner organs. She also renamed the practice from zone therapy to reflexology.
Reflexology spread rapidly throughout the U.S. and Europe. Most reflexologists working in the US today have been trained in Ingham’s methods or that of another prominent reflexologist, Laura Norman. Ingham’s nephew, Dwight Byers, currently president of the Florida based International Institute of Reflexology, is considered the world’s leading authority.
Essentially, reflexology is a system of applying pressure to the foot, but it’s not a massage. Instead, the practitioner’s thumbs, fingers and palms apply pressure to specific reflex points on the foot, believing that each part of the foot relates to its own part of the body. By applying pressure to a reflex point, the corresponding organ or area of the body is affected. Reflex points are on the soles, tops and sides of the feet. The points on the right foot correspond to the right half of the body and those on the left foot correspond to the left half of the body.
Treatment is systematically delivered by applying pressure to reflex points on the foot and lasts 30 to 60 minutes. Patients are said to experience tingling sensations in areas of the body that correspond to reflex points as those points on the foot are pressed. Reflexology advocates believe this approach increases energy flow to the organs that correspond to the reflex points; thus, increasing the vitality of those organs. By increasing the vitality of the internal organs practitioners believe they can improve the health of their patients. A reduction in stress and tension, improved circulation, detoxification and balancing the body into a state conducive to good health are all benefits of this perceived therapy. Reflexologists echo the vital-force concept that dominated the early ideas about health, illness and physiological function. Further, proponents of the therapy believe that it will alleviate symptoms of certain chronic ailments; however, they don’t claim that reflexology will cure illness.
There are multiple beliefs on which reflexology is based. The first is that reflex points exist on the foot and that these reflex points influence health in distant organ systems and parts of the body to which they are linked. The second is that the body contains an invisible life force, or subtle energy, similar to the concept of Qi in Chinese medicine and acupuncture or Prana in Indian medicine. Reflexologists believe that, by stimulating reflex points on the foot, they can unblock and increase the flow of this energy throughout the body. Some reflexologists believe that energy travels from nerve endings in the foot to the spinal cord, from there it’s disbursed to all parts of the body. Advocates also claim that reflexology releases endorphins, which are natural pain-blocking chemicals released by the brain. And still others claim that reflexology detoxifies the body by dissolving crystals of uric acid that settle in the feet.
As is with various forms of bodywork, reflexology can promote relaxation and feelings of well-being. Although reflexology isn’t proven to treat disease its potential benefits can be accessed inexpensively and easily, and therapy can be self-administered. Reflexology is a gentle, non-invasive technique, free of side effects, but whether it can restore vitality and improve health or alleviate and control disease varies from person to person.