Reflexology, or zone therapy, is an alternative medicine involving the physical act of applying pressure to the feet, hands, or ears with specific thumb, finger, and hand techniques without the use of oil or lotion. It is based on what reflexologists claim to be a system of zones and reflex areas that they say reflect an image of the body on the feet and hands, with the premise that such work effects a physical change to the body.
There is no consensus among reflexologists on how reflexology is supposed to work; a unifying theme is the idea that areas on the foot correspond to areas of the body, and that by manipulating these one can improve health through one’s qi. Reflexologists divide the body into ten equal vertical zones, five on the right and five on the left.
The Reflexology Association of Canada defines reflexology as:
“A natural healing art based on the principle that there are reflexes in the feet, hands and ears and their referral areas within zone related areas, which correspond to every part, gland and organ of the body. Through application of pressure on these reflexes without the use of tools, crèmes or lotions, the feet being the primary area of application, reflexology relieves tension, improves circulation and helps promote the natural function of the related areas of the body.”
Reflexologists posit that the blockage of an energy field, invisible life force, or Qi, can prevent healing. Another tenet of reflexology is the belief that practitioners can relieve stress and pain in other parts of the body through the manipulation of the feet. One claimed explanation is that the pressure received in the feet may send signals that ‘balance’ the nervous system or release chemicals such as endorphins that reduce stress and pain. These hypotheses are rejected by the general medical community, who cite a lack of scientific evidence and the well-tested germ theory of disease.
Common criticisms of reflexology are the lack of evidence for its claimed effects, or of a scientific or demonstrated basis for its theories, of central regulation, accreditation and licensing, or of medical training provided to reflexologists, and the short duration of training programmes. As with other pseudosciences without any proven effect beyond placebo, if patients rely on them and delay or even reject effective medical treatment there can be significant health risks.
Use by population
Reflexology is one of the most used alternative therapies in Denmark. A national survey from 2005 showed that 21.4% of the Danish population had used reflexology at some point in life and 6.1% had used reflexology within the previous year.
A study from Norway showed that 5.6% of the Norwegian population in 2007 had used reflexology within the last 12 months.
In the United Kingdom, reflexology is coordinated on a voluntary basis by the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). Registrants are required to meet Standards of Proficiency outlined by Profession Specific Boards, as CNHC is voluntary anyone practising can describe themselves as reflexologists.
Practices resembling reflexology may have existed in previous historical periods. Although its origins are not well documented, there are reliefs on the walls of a Sixth Dynasty Egyptian tomb (c. 2450 B.C.) that depict two seated men receiving massage on their hands and feet.
In the book Medicina Libri octo, Aulus Cornelius Celsus, influenced by Hippocrates writes, “Much more often, however, some other part is to be rubbed than that which is the seat of the pain; and especially when we want to withdraw material from the head or trunk, and therefore rub the arms and legs.” This reference leads to the conclusion that reflexology is Greek in origin.
Reflexology was introduced to the United States in 1913 by William H. Fitzgerald, M.D. (1872–1942), an ear, nose, and throat specialist, and Dr. Edwin Bowers. Fitzgerald claimed that applying pressure had an anesthetic effect on other areas of the body.
Reflexology was modified in the 1930s and 1940s by Eunice D. Ingham (1889–1974), a nurse and physiotherapist. Ingham claimed that the feet and hands were especially sensitive, and mapped the entire body into “reflexes” on the feet renaming “zone therapy” to reflexology. Ingham’s theories are prominent in the United States and United Kingdom, although modern methods also exist.