Related Terms

  • Auricular reflexology, body reflexology, charka energy reflexology, foot acupressure, Laura Norman method, macroreflexology (acupressure and acupuncture), metamorphic technique, microrelfexology (ear, foot and hand reflexology), Original Ingham Method®, reflexology workout, reflextherapy, reflex zone therapy, Vita Flex, zone therapy.
  • Note: The term “reflexotherapy” has been used to describe acupuncture in some countries.

Background

  • Reflexology involves the application of manual pressure to specific points or areas of the feet called “reflex points” that are believed to correspond to other parts of the body. Reflexology is often used with the intention to relieve stress or prevent/treat physical disorders. Pressure may also be applied to the hands or ears.
  • Techniques similar to reflexology have existed for thousands of years, and were used by ancient Egyptians and early Chinese. In the early 20th Century, an American ear, nose, and throat physician, William Fitzgerald, MD, suggested that the foot could be “mapped” to other areas of the body in order to diagnose and treat medical conditions. He divided the body into 10 zones and labeled sections of the foot he believed to control each zone. Dr. Fitzgerald suggested that gentle pressure on a particular area of the foot could generate relief in the targeted zone. This process was originally named zone therapy.
  • In the 1930s, Eunice Ingham, a nurse and physiotherapist, further developed these maps to include specific reflex points. At this time, the name zone therapy was changed to reflexology. Modern reflexologists in the United States often learn Ingham’s method or a similar technique developed by the reflexologist Laura Norman.
  • Reflexology charts consist of pictures of the soles of the feet on which diagrams of corresponding internal organs or parts of the body are drawn. For example, charts may display that the toes correspond to the head and neck, the ball of the foot to the chest and lungs, the arch of the foot to the internal organs, the heel to the sciatic nerve and pelvic area, and the bone along the arch of the foot to the spine. The right side of the body is believed to be reflected in the right foot, and the left side in the left foot.
  • Although most reflexologists formally claim that these relationships are not used to diagnose disease, practicing reflexologists sometimes assert that tenderness or a gritty feeling of the feet represents current or past disease in the corresponding area of the body.
  • Reflexology is sometimes combined with other techniques, and may be used by healthcare practitioners of various disciplines (such as massage therapists, chiropractors, podiatrists, physical therapists, or nurses).
  • Reflexology is primarily based on Western physiological concepts of reflexes and the nervous system, rather than Oriental concepts of energy meridians or acupuncture points. Thus reflexology was not introduced as a form of energy medicine per se, but rather as a form of massage therapy and bodywork based on Western anatomical principles.
  • Reflexology is sometimes confused with acupressure (shiatsu), which is based solely on Oriental energetic principles. While the two modalities are based on different theories of mechanisms of action, some modern reflexologists now incorporate some Oriental energetic principles in their understanding of the possible mechanisms of reflexology.
  • Practitioners range from those who taught themselves from books to individuals who attended training courses and belong to professional associations. Techniques can be learned and self-administered. No widely accepted regulatory systems exist for reflexology, and there is currently no state licensure or training requirement in the United States.

Evidence Table

    Disclaimer

    These uses have been tested in humans or animals. Safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider.

    Bedwetting (in children)

    Some studies have suggested that reflexology may help prevent fecal soiling and bedwetting in children. However, the research thus far is inconclusive.

    Chemotherapy side effects

    Reflexology may help relieve nausea, vomiting and fatigue in breast cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. However, further research is needed to confirm this.

    Chronic lower back pain

    A large trial comparing reflexology to relaxation or no therapy reports that reflexology is not effective for managing chronic lower back pain.

    Colic

    Research has suggested that reflexology may be useful for treating colic in infants. However, further research is needed before reflexology can be recommended as an effective treatment for colic.

    Constipation

    Early study of reflexology in humans with constipation has not yielded definitive results.

    Depression

    Reflexology may provide some benefits to those suffering from depression. However, results from numerous studies have been inconsistent. Further research is needed.

    Diabetes

    Reflexology may help manage type II diabetes in some patients. More clinical trials are necessary to determine whether reflexology is an effective treatment for diabetes.

    Enhanced immune function

    Some research suggests that self-administered reflexology may help to boost the immune system.

    Fatigue

    Reflexology may help relieve fatigue and stress in coal miners with lung diseases.

    Fetal development (fetal activity)

    A small study reported that foot massage increased fetal activity in midgestation. Hand massage did not increase fetal activity.

    Headache

    Early research suggests that reflexology may relieve pain from migraine or tension headaches, and that pain medication requirements may be reduced.

    Irritable bowel syndrome

    Early study of reflexology in humans with irritable bowel syndrome has not yielded definitive results. Better research is needed in this area before a strong recommendation can be made.

    Labor

    Early research suggests that reflexology may reduce the need for pain relief during labor. Further research is necessary to explore the safety of using reflexology during childbirth.

    Lung disease

    It is unclear whether reflexology can benefit patients with lung diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

    Menopause

    So far, there is not enough evidence to support the use of reflexology for treating hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms.

    Menstrual problems

    There is some research to suggest that reflexology may relieve menstrual symptoms. Further research is necessary to reach a firm conclusion.

    Multiple sclerosis

    Reflexology treatment may be beneficial in the management of some motor or sensory symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

    Post-operative recovery

    Early research suggests that reflexology may speed recover after surgery in some patients. However, patients who received reflexology also tended to have poorer quality sleep. Further research is needed to determine whether or not reflexology is helpful in post-operative recovery.

    Pregnancy problems

    Early studies suggest that reflexology may help with overall well being in pregnant women. However, reflexology does not appear to relieve symptoms such as bloating.

    Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)

    According to early studies, weekly reflexology sessions may help reduce the severity of premenstrual symptoms in the short term. Further research is necessary to reach a firm conclusion.

    Relaxation/stress/anxiety

    Early evidence suggests that reflexology may be useful for relaxation, reducing stress, or relieving anxiety concerning other medical problems or surgeries. However, it is not clear if reflexology is better than (or equal to) massage or other types of physical manipulation.

    Sinusitis

    Results from early studies are not conclusive regarding the use of reflexology for sinus infections or sinus inflammation.

    Swelling (leg, ankle, or foot edema)

    Early research reports that reflexology is a preferred therapy in women with ankle and foot edema in late pregnancy. Further research is needed before a firm conclusion about effectiveness can be made.

    Symptom relief/quality of life in cancer and palliative care patients

    Foot reflexology may help manage some pain and fatigue in cancer patients. Reflexology may also reduce anxiety and improve general quality of life in cancer patients. However, reflexology may be no better than foot massage in palliative cancer care.

    Urinary incontinence

    Research suggests that reflexology may have beneficial effects in women with urinary incontinence. More studies are necessary to confirm the benefits of reflexology.

    Asthma

    So far, studies have shown that reflexology is no better than placebo at treating asthma.

    Disease diagnosis

    Early research examining the accuracy of diagnoses made by reflexologists reports a lack of agreement between practitioners, and diagnostic inaccuracies when compared to well-accepted techniques.

    Ear infections

    Limited study suggests that treatment given by a reflexologist is less effective (in terms of number of ear disorders, number of antibiotic treatments, number of sickness days, and duration of ear disorders) than treatment given by a general practitioner.

*Key to grades:

Tradition

    Disclaimer

    The below uses are based on tradition, scientific theories, or limited research. They often have not been thoroughly tested in humans, and safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider. There may be other proposed uses that are not listed below.

Safety

    Disclaimer

    Many complementary techniques are practiced by healthcare professionals with formal training, in accordance with the standards of national organizations. However, this is not universally the case, and adverse effects are possible. Due to limited research, in some cases only limited safety information is available.

Attribution

  • This information is based on a systematic review of scientific literature edited and peer-reviewed by contributors to the Natural Standard Research Collaboration ().

Bibliography

    Disclaimer

    Natural Standard developed the above evidence-based information based on a thorough systematic review of the available scientific articles. For comprehensive information about alternative and complementary therapies on the professional level, go to . Selected references are listed below.

  • Bamigboye AA, Smyth R. Interventions for varicose veins and leg oedema in pregnancy. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2007 Jan 24;(1):CD001066.
    View Abstract
  • Bennedbaek O, Viktor J, Carlsen KS, et al. [Infants with colic. A heterogeneous group possible to cure? Treatment by pediatric consultation followed by a study of the effect of zone therapy on incurable colic]. Ugeskr Laeger 2001;163(27):3773-3778.
  • Bosiger C. Vacuflex reflexology study shows the system is successful in clearing back pain. J Altern Comp Med 1989;7(8):25-26.
  • Botting D. Review of the literature on the effectiveness of reflexology. Complement Ther Nurs Midwifery 1997;3(5):123-130.
  • Brygge T, Heinig JH, Collins P, et al. Reflexology and bronchial asthma. Respir Med 2001;95(3):173-179.
  • Carpenter JS, Neal JG. Other complementary and alternative medicine modalities: acupuncture, magnets, reflexology, and homeopathy. Am J Med 2005 Dec 19;118 Suppl 12B:109-17.
    View Abstract
  • Ernst E, Koder K. An overview of reflexology. Eur J Gen Practice 1997; 3:52-57.
  • Gunnarsdottir TJ, Jonsdottir H. Does the experimental design capture the effects of complementary therapy? A study using reflexology for patients undergoing coronary artery bypass graft surgery. J Clin Nurs 2007 Apr;16(4):777-85.
    View Abstract
  • Hayes J, Cox C. Immediate effects of a five-minute foot massage on patients in critical care. Intensive Crit Care Nurs 1999;15(2):77-82.
  • Hodgson H. Does reflexology impact on cancer patients’ quality of life? Nurs Stand 2000;14(31):33-38.
  • Kohara H, Miyauchi T, Suehiro Y, et al. Combined modality treatment of aromatherapy, footsoak, and reflexology relieves fatigue in patients with cancer. J Palliat Med 2004 Dec;7(6):791-6.
    View Abstract
  • Launso L, Brendstrup E, Arnberg S. An exploratory study of reflexological treatment for headache. Altern Ther Health Med 1999;5(3):57-65.
  • Oleson T, Flocco W. Randomized controlled study of premenstrual symptoms treated with ear, hand, and foot reflexology. Obstet Gynecol 1993;82(6):906-911.
  • Siev-Ner I, Gamus D, Lerner-Geva L, et al. Reflexology treatment relieves symptoms of multiple sclerosis: a randomised controlled study (abstract). 4th Annual Symposium on Complementary Healthcare, Exeter England, December 10-12, 1997 (reprinted in: Focus Altern Complement Ther 1997;2:196).
  • Stephenson NL, Weinrich SP, Tavakoli AS. The effects of foot reflexology on anxiety and pain in patients with breast and lung cancer. Oncol Nurs Forum 2000;27(1):67-72.