Stress Less: Reflexology

Health Tips / Stress Less: Reflexology

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I personally postponed trying reflexology because of extreme ticklishness. Just the thought of something other than a floor or a pair of socks touching the soles of my feet sent shivers up my spine. It never dawned on me that connecting the soles of the feet to the meridians of Chinese medicine is the entire basis of reflexology.

I bit the bullet and located a certified reflexologist, clambered into his chair, and was chatting as he worked on my feet. Soon I felt that every muscle in my body was becoming more and more relaxed. Unlike my acupuncture experience, where I actually fell deeply asleep, with reflexology I simply felt all physical stress vanish from my body.

Finally I understood: it feels good when someone’s rubbing your feet. Within a block of my office five nail salons opened in one year, but it’s the pedicure stations that always seem full. Come Friday afternoon after a busy work week, there must be a hundred zoned-out women leaning back into those comfortable chairs, feet soaking in warm soapy water before rinsing, drying, and a gentle massage. The nail polish seems almost an afterthought.

A short history of reflexology You can trace therapeutic foot massage back to ancient Egypt and China. Despite many conventional physicians’ scorn of reflexology as a therapy for anything, I’m pleased to tell you it was an American ear-nose-throat specialist, William Fitzgerald, MD, who discovered that if you applied pressure to the fingers and toes, you could relieve pain in areas like the neck, face, and mouth. Fitzgerald divided the body into ten zones–five on each side of the body–each zone terminating in a single finger and toe. He named what he had discovered “Zone Therapy.”

You can probably guess that Fitzgerald was little-appreciated by his conventional colleagues, who for his efforts tried to take away his medical license. Later, a massage therapist, Eunice Ingham, mapped areas of the hands and feet that she felt “connected” with internal organs. She then developed techniques of foot and hand massage that could selectively treat affected areas. Ingham termed the various points on the hands and feet “reflexes.” Massaging these points sent energy flow up through Fitzgerald’s zones. She renamed zone therapy “reflexology.”

The concept makes a lot of sense in traditional Chinese medicine, where the zones correspond to meridians. In fact, the idea that the body can be mapped out on the hands and feet has its roots in Chinese medicine. Again, we’re back to energy flow rather than actual anatomy. Reflexologists believe that stimulating certain points (reflexes) allow the body’s natural energies (qi–pronounced “chee”) to flow freely and trigger natural healing processes. These practitioners don’t diagnose or treat any specific illness. Rather, when they perform an initial evaluation of your hands and feet, they are literally feeling for blockages to the natural energy flow, which they describe as “lumpy” or “gritty” sensations to their own fingertips.

Seeing a picture of the hand and foot with its reflexes mapped out helps show all this a little better than my description. You can view a reflexology map online by just Googling “reflexology map.”

There are several schools for reflexology and quite a few people have become certified reflexologists. Many are massage therapists who wanted to expand their area of expertise. A typical introductory session with a reflexologist includes a discussion about your health issues and concerns, and then a slow and careful examination called a “thumb walk,” which you can actually learn to do yourself.

With a thumb walk, you use the outside edge of your thumb to take little steps, or bites, up and down the sole and sides of the feet, repeating the process on the palms of your hands. This allows you to place pressure on individual points. According to practitioners, when you get good at it, you’ll actually feel areas of blockage and dysfunction during the thumb walk. The reflex areas are small, so the bites must be small as well.

A reflexology treatment session focuses on those newly revealed blocked zones, using a variety of techniques, including rubbing the zone with a hard object, like a golf ball. The key is to apply sufficient pressure, and that means you might actually feel a little (but not a lot of) pain. It’s a “good” hurt, though, as it releases blockages. Remember, there’s a difference between firm and painful.

Reflexology lends itself well to self-treatment and there are many instruction manuals on how to do it. Reflexologists encourage preventive maintenance, and a treatment session may end with instructions on how to do a little work on your feet every day. If you go to a health club or day spa, you might ask if the massage therapist is trained in reflexology– many of them are. Self-care reflexology is worth exploring. A few minutes every day can really make a difference in your life.

Next time: a quick and easy reflexology self treatment

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD