Reflexology: Providing Stress and Pain Relief

Mackenzine Hayes

Editor’s note: [The intention of this article is to introduce the reader to reflexology and is in no way a replacement to medical advice. If you would like more information about reflexology contact a reflexologist in your area. If you have medical questions, please contact your health care professional.]

Some people might be skeptical of reflexology, thinking it’s no different than a foot massage. But research shows that this form of physical therapy—which affects the entire body from pressure points located in the feet, hands and ears—can indeed be effective.

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Donna Morris, a reflexologist and Reiki Master, practices at Light Mountain Healthworks in Bemidji, Minn. A Reiki Master is someone who has mastered Reiki, which is “a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing,” according to Reiki.org.

Her accomplishments include working as a registered nurse for 40 years, teaching nursing students, and earning a doctorate in public health degree.

“I became interested in reflexology because it is a form of body work as well as energy work that I can do without becoming a massage therapist,” Morris said. “I studied with a teacher [and] program endorsed by the American Holistic Nurses Association.”

Liz Pyle is the administrative secretary and legislative chairperson of the Washington Reflexology Association, or WRA. Pyle works at her reflexology practice, Urban Reflexology, located in Seattle, Wash. She also volunteers her time and knowledge of reflexology to Evergreen Hospice’s Compassionate Touch program.

Pyle became interested in reflexology after experiencing it firsthand. “I experienced reflexology many years ago and sought out reflexology and reflexologists since then,” she said. “I found it to be a unique experience and enjoy sharing it.”

The Origins of Reflexology

The origins of reflexology are unclear, but there are some theories.

“Recorded history doesn’t really confirm where or how reflexology originated,” Morris said. “Ancient Egyptian pictographs from 2,500 B.C. suggest that the Egyptians used some type of foot work in their medical care system. Foot work was established in most cultures of the world, including India, Japan, China, and throughout Europe.”

Reflexology, as we know it, didn’t appear until the early 20th century. At that time, it was known as zone therapy.

“The documented history of American or Western Reflexology starts with Dr. William Fitzgerald, an ENT physician who originated ‘zone therapy’ in the early 1900s,” Pyle said. “He found that by applying pressure to points on the hands and feet he could reduce pain in another area of the body.”

When Fitzgerald attempted to share his discovery with other medical professionals, he was met with opposition.

“He attempted to teach zone therapy to other physicians, with limited success and was forced to share his expertise with other, more accepting professions—chiropractors, osteopaths, naturopaths, and dentists,” Morris said.

According to Morris, Eunice Ingham is responsible for bringing reflexology to the public’s attention.

“She worked as a therapist with one of Fitzgerald’s protégée’s, Joe Shelby Riley, a chiropractor,” she said. “Ingham is best known for taking her work to the public and to the non-medical community. She is the first person who began using the term reflexology as it is currently used today.”

“[Ingham] treated hundreds of folks, taught them and their relatives how to care for themselves, and wrote several books. Her first and best known book, ‘Stories the Feet Can Tell,’ was published in 1938,” Morris continued. “Her nephew, Dwight Byers, has taken up her work, and continues to run her school in St. Petersburg, Fla., the International Institute of Reflexology.”

Reflexology Maps: Determining Nerve Stimulus Responses

Reflexologists use maps to locate the areas of the feet, hands, and ears that affect different areas of the body.

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“Maps for the feet, hands and ears have been developed over many years, and by many contributors,” Morris said. “Various scientists in Europe and Russia, primarily neurologists, conducted experiments testing nerve stimulus responses to different parts of the body during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Practitioners also added to the mapping as they developed their own practical experience.”

All reflexology maps are not the same. Reflexologists have a selection of maps from which to work.

“Because of the array of scientists, researchers and practitioners involved in developing maps for reflexology, you will be able to locate multiple maps from which to work,” Morris continued. “The practitioner must simply settle upon a map that coincides with their teachings, philosophy, and practice.”

A Typical Session

Each practitioner conducts their reflexology sessions differently. Pyle and Morris described what a typical session looks like at their practices.

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“In my practice the client removes only their shoes and socks. I start with a quick foot soak and we discuss why they are seeking reflexology. Next the client moves to a comfortable massage table—most clients go into a state of relaxation and many even sleep while I work on their reflex points,” Pyle said.

Morris highlighted the importance of defining reflexology for patients and helping them set goals before the session.

Relaxation is not essential for reflexology to work, but it’s an important part of any session. During her sessions, Morris tries to make her patients as comfortable as possible. “I invite them to lie on the table face up, and offer to assist them in relaxing using a brief guided imagery. I also play soft music in the background to facilitate relaxation,” she said.

Who Can Practice Reflexology?

Not just anyone can practice reflexology. There are several qualifications that must be met before someone can call themselves a reflexologist.

According to Morris, a reflexologist can obtain national certification from the American Reflexology Certification Board for foot and hand practice. “In order to sit for the foot exam, the practitioner must have completed a course of at least 110 hours and must document 90 post-graduate sessions,” she explained. “The applicant then completes a written and practical exam. One must successfully complete the foot certification before sitting for the hand certification. The applicant must complete 50 hours of instruction, 20 documentations, and sit for a written and practical exam.”

The Benefits: Stress Reduction and Pain Relief

The benefits of reflexology are not limited to pain relief. Over time, reflexology recipients see changes in their overall health.

“It’s believed that reflexology has an effect on the central nervous system and that it reduces stress. Stress has been proven to be the root cause in many health concerns and the reduction provides a positive outcome,” Pyle said. “The benefits of reflexology for issues of foot pain—or in some cases hand pain—are much more definitive. Working together to help get the foot into more of its original function can restore overall health as well as foot health and function.”

Other benefits of reflexology include sleep enhancement, a strengthened immune system, and increased circulation. According to Morris, the effects are cumulative, and it may take six to eight sessions for the full effects to become evident.

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