Reflexology—you see it on almost every spa menu, from the refreshingly affordable, no-frills massage joints to the decadent day spas you might hit up on vacation. From the outside it looks like your run-of-the-mill foot massage. (Not a bad thing when you work on your feet all day!) But one look at that mesmerizing foot chart every reflexologist has hanging in their office and you begin to understand that the objective of this therapy is to do a whole lot more than just open up your arches.
“With a traditional massage, the intention is to work from the musculoskeletal system inward for pain relief and relaxation. With reflexology, we’re working from the internal organs and glands and going outward,” says Amy Kreydin, a board-certified reflexologist in Austin, Texas.
In other words, practitioners believe that putting pressure on specific areas of the body (not just the feet!) can actually trigger a positive health response in target organs. Sounds cool, but does it actually work?
The jury’s out on whether reflexology lives up to all its many health claims. But there are some compelling facts that make this alternative healing practice worth a try. Here’s why.
Reflexology: a Relaxing Foot Rub or Something More?
If you happen to catch a glimpse of someone getting reflexology, it looks like they’re just indulging in a foot massage. But it’s actually much deeper than that. It’s a systematic practice that involves applying reflexology massage techniques to sensors on the feet, hands, and ears to provide benefits to other parts of the body.
It relates back to those fancy diagrams reflexologists have hanging on their walls. These always bewildered me when I looked at them, but after speaking with Kreydin, I discovered that a reflexology foot chart isn’t all that difficult to understand.
“The reflex maps are thought to be a mirror image of the body,” she explains. “If you look at the hands and feet, the fingers and toes represent the head, neck, and top of the body. The ball of the hands and feet represent the chest cavity, including the pectoral muscles, mammary glands, lungs, and heart. The middle of the hand and arch of the foot point to the diaphragm and pelvic line and includes your digestive organs and kidneys. And when you get to the heels of the feet and hands, you’re talking about the reproductive organs, tailbone, and glute muscles.”
So do reflexologists press harder on say, the top of the middle finger, if someone comes in with a headache?
“It’s actually not the amount of pressure, but the size of the nerve endings you’re working on that makes a difference,” says Kreydin.
Reflexologists use specific massage techniques, like kneading, pressing, holding, and rubbing, to stimulate the nerves that connect through energetic pathways to organs and glands throughout the body—kind of like acupuncture and acupressure.
“They’re kind of the cousin to reflexology. The main difference though is that we’re using very specific finger and thumb pressure techniques on the reflex maps of the feet, hands, and ears in reflexology,” says Kreydin. Acupressure and acupuncture, on the other hand, focus on reflex points lining the entire body.
Can reflexology do more than relieve aches and pains?
Reflexology is, in and of itself, a relaxing experience. You sit back while an expert gets to work, giving your hands, ears, and feet some pleasant pressure. But practitioners believe that the therapy can actually offer major health benefits that extend beyond self-care.
“You might see a reflexologist for infertility or irritable bowel syndrome. I specialize in women’s health, so I use it for all kinds of issues related to that,” says Kreydin.
However, evidence for reflexology’s effectiveness in helping to manage or treat severe health issues is anecdotal at best. One small study found that reflexology had no positive effect on symptoms related to irritable bowel syndrome. In another report, reflexology was not found to have an effect on ovulation. It seems that reflexology is not the magic cure-all some believers proclaim it to be.
That being said, reflexology won’t hurt you, and it’s been connected to some legitimate health benefits that elevate it from a pseudoscience to a bona fide treatment. The most legitimate benefit of reflexology is stress relief.
“I’ve tried a couple dozen styles of bodywork—reflexology is by far the most relaxing modality,” says Kreydin. “Since most of the brain maps to the feet, you just go into shutdown mode when you’re getting reflexology. My clients will be in the middle of telling me a sentence when I’m working on them, and then they can’t quite find the words anymore. It gets you to total relaxation a lot quicker than anything else.”
And since stress can be a contributor to a number of diseases and health conditions, finding some relief (whether that’s through reflexology or another method) could promote positive health benefits that go deeper than you might expect.
One study supports the use of reflexology as a potential way to reduce the severity of colic in infants. Other research indicates that reflexology can be used by nurses to help reduce anxiety, blood pressure, and heart rate after patients undergo heart surgery. Reflexology, which is considered safe for pregnant women, has also been shown to reduce anxiety and other problems during labor.
Meeting with a reflexology practitioner can also bring to light conditions you may not even know you have.
“A lot of people are surprised that the feet, hands, and ears give us clues as reflexologists. We’ll look at textural changes, like a callus over the foot, which could indicate stress or a gait change, so we’ll do some detective work to find out why the callus is there and how it’s affecting you,” says Kreydin.
Reflexology might not cure cancer, but if you’re looking to soothe physical and mental stress, it could be just the solution you’ve been waiting for.
Finding a Quality Reflexologist
Reflexology is offered pretty much everywhere you can get a massage—even in airports. But if you really want to reap the benefits of this treatment, it’s important to work with someone who thoroughly understands the technique and has experience administering it. How are reflexologists trained, anyway?
“We study anatomy and physiology, and we go in-depth into what the liver does. So we’ll learn the hundred standard activities the liver participates in on a daily basis. We also look at internal anatomy and how organs interact with each other,” explains Kreydin. “But we also look at things you don’t usually study in anatomy, like traditional Chinese medicine and energetic combinations.”
Between taking the in-depth training on how the body works and learning reflexology massage techniques, it can take anywhere from 6 to 18 months to become a reflexologist. But not everyone who claims to be a reflexologist has completed the necessary training. Only a few states license reflexologists, which makes it easy for illegitimate practitioners to set up shop in other locales. Talk about a confusing situation.
So how do you know if the reflexologist you’re seeing is legit?
“You can see if they’re listed with the Reflexology Association of America,” says Kreydin. “There’s also a voluntary board certification exam that reflexologists can take, which has an online directory. The exam tests both your knowledge of anatomy and physiology and requires you to do a practicum exam to show that you know how to practice the techniques.”
What the practitioner charges for the service could be a clue as to whether they are qualified.
An hour-long reflexology session should run you between $50 to $80 in a rural area and slightly higher in a city where rent costs more, says Kreydin.
“An overcharge might just be a spa charging for a glorified foot massage, not true reflexology. High prices don’t necessarily mean a better practitioner, but with a lower price, you’ll get what you pay for. Try to pay what’s average in your area,” says Kreydin.
What to Expect From Your First Reflexology Session
It’s natural to be a little apprehensive before trying any new treatment. But getting familiar with the experience ahead of time can help put you at ease for your first reflexology session. What’s it going to be like?
Many reflexologists, include Kreydin, ask clients to fill out a health history form that asks about recent surgeries, any pain or other issues, and medications.
“It paints a pretty big picture of what’s going on with their health. My client’s an expert in her body, so I’ll ask about how she’s feeling, what’s been going on, and whether there are specific wellness goals for this session,” she says.
If you’ve had a massage, that’s a good baseline for a reflexology experience. (The main difference is that you leave your clothes on, so wear something comfy!) Reflexology is typically practiced on a massage table or chair. The appointment will take 45 to 90 minutes in total. Generally you’ll start to relax after about 20 minutes. The reflexologist will work her way around the target areas throughout the session.
“It should feel really good and comfortable, especially on the feet and hands. These are workhorses, we use them all the time, so it will feel really relaxing. Occasionally we do come across a speed bump where there’s an increase in sensation in a nerve ending. It won’t hurt, but it can feel a little zippy,” Kreydin says.
During reflexology, or any physical treatment, feel free to ask the practitioner to adjust the pressure (lighter, firmer, whatever you need!). A good practitioner wants you to feel absolutely amazing, and they won’t be offended if you ask for adjustments as needed.
After your first session, you should feel a deep sense of peace and relaxation. Regular reflexology sessions can help bring on longer-lasting health benefits as well. Kreydin recommends starting off with weekly appointments then dropping down to once a month or so as you begin to hit wellness goals.
“Generally, the improvements we’re looking for include better sleep and less of an acute response to stress. For example, if you’re out driving and someone cuts you off, we want to you feel like, ‘That’s cool, he probably had to pee,’ to reduce that fight or flight mechanism,” she says. “We also want an overall balance in the body systems. Digestion should improve—a lot of us don’t realize we don’t have good digestion until it gets really fantastic. Finally, we also want your body to maintain a comfortable homeostasis during extreme weather.”
Should you try reflexology?
You’ve read up on reflexology and you think it might help you, either through relaxation or a deeper health benefit. How do you know if it’s right for you?
Almost anyone, including pregnant women, can try reflexology safely, says Kreydin. “The only people we turn away are those with a blood clot or deep vein thrombosis. I would want clearance from a doctor before working on those clients.”
When asked about potential downsides to reflexology, Kreydin could only come up with one.
“I’ve found reflexology to be rather addictive. I tease my clients that it’s kind of like a taco—once you try it, you’ll need it for the rest of your life,” she says. “We’re not penetrating the skin; it’s not invasive and doesn’t work against traditional medicine. We’re a complement to medicine, and reflexology can come out a clear winner for people who want an alternative to prescription pain pills.”
Kreydin admits that while some people experience immediate benefits from reflexology, others need to try it a few times before noticing results. Search until you find a practitioner who meshes with your personality and fits your budget. Then schedule a couple of sessions.
If it doesn’t work, the worst thing that happens is that you relaxed for a few hours. But there’s also the chance that reflexology becomes one of the best ways to care for your body—and if it makes you feel amazing, it’s worth it.