What is Reflexology and How Can It Help Me?
Reflexology is a technique in which specific points containing nerve endings are stimulated that correspond to and directly affect other areas of the body. By pressing these points, it is possible to relax tense muscles, improve digestion and elimination, relieve headaches, and improve overall body function. Reflexology is generally done on the feet where the most points are found, but it can also be done on the hands, ear (auriculotherapy), and face. In longer reflexology sessions, the hands, ear, and face may be worked in addition to the feet. These alternate reflex areas are often used when it is not possible to work on the feet due to injury/infection, etc.
Reflexology can be used to assist with emotional problems, and it provides the recipient with feedback about how negative emotions are being stored in the body so that they can be released. Emotional Reflexology sessions may include abdominal work if the client is interested in this unique and effective variety of reflexology.
Why Reflexology Works
Reflexology is an effective method for improving health that stimulates nerves throughout the body and brings it into a state of balance. As a modality that is practiced worldwide, reflexology has been shown to benefit all systems of the body such as the digestive system (by encouraging proper elimination), the endocrine system, the musculoskeletal system, and so on.
Physical and emotional conditions commonly show up on the feet physically. For example, someone who has had a hysterectomy may have a deep indentation at the reflex point for the uterus or someone with an active bladder infection may have a red and puffy area of the foot at the bladder reflex point. Likewise, people with thyroid conditions often have hard knot-like structures in the foot at the thyroid reflex point.
Is Reflexology a Foot Massage?
Although reflexology involves techniques that may feel much like massage to the recipient, it is not a form of traditional massage. Reflexology is a very directed approach to stimulating reflex points on the feet, hands, ears, and face with the intent of restoring balance to the body. By contrast, massage focuses on easing tension in muscles and fascia as well as improving range of motion in joints that have lost mobility. Both reflexology and massage do wonders to assist the body in healing and well-being, but they are two very distinctly different disciplines.
Pressure and Technique in Reflexology?
Reflexology is generally a calming technique that puts people into a state of deep relaxation. That being said, reflexologists almost always find areas of sensitivity in the foot and will work intentionally on these areas in order to alleviate the soreness. Working sensitive areas may be a bit uncomfortable, but the pressure is always kept within the tolerance of the client.
While it seems a bit counterintuitive to press more on something that is already sensitive, it is important to work these areas because they correspond to the parts of the body that are not working optimally. By working through the soreness, signals are relayed through the body to the brain to bring attention to that area and restore balance. Most people report that they feel much better following a reflexology session even if they have experienced a bit of minor discomfort during the session.
When and Where Was Reflexology Developed?
Western Reflexology has its origins in a number of ancient civilizations including Ancient Egypt as far back as 2330 BCE. Paintings found in the Physician’s Tomb in Saqqara depict the practice of reflexology. There is evidence that reflexology was used throughout the Roman Empire and was practiced by the Incas of South America and the Cherokee of North America. In China, reflexology was practiced alongside acupuncture as far back as at least the 4th century.
Western Reflexology that we know today stemmed from research and documentation by three individuals in the early 20th century: Dr. William H. Fitzgerald, Dr. Shelby Riley, and Eunice D. Ingham. Although Drs. Fitzgerald and Riley started the movement known as “Zone Therapy,” it was Eunice Ingham whose tireless research mapping the reflexes for the organs, functions, and structures of the body and subsequent documentation of those findings that led to the development of Western Reflexology.
Today, reflexology is practiced worldwide and can frequently be found as adjunct therapies to standard Western medicine. Reflexologists work in hospitals, chiropractic offices, alongside naturopaths, and in private practice. Regional and national organizations such as the Reflexology Association of America have come into existence to help standardize training for reflexologists and educate the public about the benefits of reflexology. To that end, they have also created a formal definition of the practice:
“Reflexology is a protocol of manual techniques, such as thumb and finger-walking, hook and backup and rotating-on-a-point, applied to specific reflex areas predominantly on the feet and hands. These techniques stimulate the complex neural pathways linking body systems, supporting the body’s efforts to function optimally.
The effectiveness of reflexology is recognized worldwide by various national health institutions and the public at large as a distinct complementary practice within the holistic health field. (Reflexology Association of America 2016)”
I’m Not Sure about Reflexology. Where can I find research about it?
Most people who are just learning about reflexology have a number of questions about its legitimacy. How can the whole body possibly be affected by working the feet, after all? It does sound a bit far-fetched to folks who have never experienced it.
Fortunately, there is a great deal of research on the effects of reflexology and it is available online. One of the best resources for reflexology research is The Reflexology Research Project.
Although the concept of reflexology may sound a bit unusual, it is frequently used as an effective adjunct therapy in hospitals for patients with everything from cancer to post-operative pain.
What Reflexologists Can and Cannot Do
While it is often possible to see physical or emotional conditions represented in the feet, reflexologists are not doctors and cannot diagnose a condition. For example, if someone has reflex points in the colon that indicate that something is going on there, it could be anything from diverticulosis to diarrhea to constipation to a food intolerance to any other number of things.
The job of the reflexologist is to identify points on the foot that appear to need work and to work those areas. The reflexologist may mention to the client that an area seems to be in need of attention and ask if there are any known problems, but this is in no way a form of diagnosis. It is merely providing the client with feedback about what is showing up in their feet. Oftentimes clients are aware of the condition and can elaborate which helps the reflexologist know what other areas of the feet may need work.
For example, if the reflexologist finds tightness in the area of the foot related to the cervical spine (in the neck), the reflexologist may ask the client if he or she has had any neck problems. The client, in turn, may respond that they had a car accident a year prior in which they got whiplash. Armed with this knowledge, the reflexologist can then address not only the cervical spine, but the musculature of the neck, shoulders, back, and chest that may contribute to on-going discomfort associated with the condition.
Another reason why reflexologists cannot diagnose a condition is that oftentimes the issue that is showing up in the foot isn’t physical – it’s emotional. One example of this might be that a client is experiencing tenderness throughout the urinary system. There may be nothing physically wrong with the urinary system, rather, it may indicate that the client is holding onto toxic emotions. According to observations of many reflexologists, clients who show such symptoms in the urinary tract but do not let go of those emotions may be prone to eventual bladder infections. Emotional reflexology work can help to release these toxic emotions and help return the client’s body to a more relaxed and healthy state.
What Conditions Can Be Treated by a Reflexologist? Who Should Get a Reflexology Session?
Reflexology is a wonderful way to maintain health and wellness. You do not need to be suffering from a condition to get reflexology done. It can be part of a normal routine of taking care of your body.
If you are experiencing a health condition, reflexology can be beneficial for most physical and emotional issues, including:
- Arterial Disease
- Back Pain
- Blood Pressure
- Bowel Disorders
- Cancer Pain
- Cancer Treatment Side Effects
- Frozen Shoulder
- Gynecological Disorders
- Hay Fever
- Hormonal Imbalances
- Knee Problems
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Muscle Tension
- Neck Pain
- Peri-Menopausal / Menopausal Imbalances
- Phantom Limb Syndrome
- Post-Operative Pain
- Pre-Operative Relaxation
- Premenstrual Issues
- PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)
- Respiratory Issues
- Stress Disorders
- Thyroid Imbalances
Who Should Not Get a Reflexology Session?
While reflexology is an extremely safe and effective practice, there are a few conditions in which reflexology should not be performed.
Persons who have injuries to the foot such as a fracture or sprain/strain should not have reflexology done until the injury has healed. Work may be done on the hands, ears, or face in these cases. Likewise, persons with an active flare of gout, open wounds, infections of the foot or body (such as the common cold), thrombosis or embolism, or pregnant women in the first trimester should not receive reflexology treatment.
What is the Difference between Physical and Emotional Reflexology?
Reflexology seeks to bring the body to a state of balance, known as “homeostasis.” When a reflexologist stimulates reflex points, the body relaxes, circulation improves, and begins to heal itself. This is the physical aspect of reflexology, and for some people that is the only goal of their session.
There is a saying amongst all types of bodywork practitioners: “Issues are stored in tissues.” This means that when we experience strong emotions (especially negative ones), our bodies often tense up and hold that pattern for very long periods of time. During massages and reflexology sessions, when those areas of tension are released, emotions can surface. This process is not only normal, but expected. It does not happen every time or for every person, but it is common.
Emotional Reflexology is geared towards helping the recipient access and process those emotions. The reflexologist provides feedback about what areas of tension are found in the feet and then relates that information with questions related to typical emotional issues related to those areas in the feet. Although Emotional Reflexology is not a therapy session and reflexologists are not therapists, the sessions are meant to help clients recognize the emotions that their bodies are holding onto so that they can work through those issues with a trusted friend or professional counselor. Emotional reflexology serves as an excellent adjunct to standard professional counseling.
How a Reflexologist Performs a Session
Reflexology may be done with a client seated in a chair where the practitioner sits on the floor at their feet, or on a massage table, depending on what is available. Either scenario is acceptable so long as the client is comfortable.
A session usually begins with the reflexologist examining and cleaning the feet of the client to remove dirt and sanitize the feet. The client is asked if they have any transmissible conditions such as athletes feet or plantar warts. If so, the reflexologist will put on gloves to protect herself from picking up the condition and passing it on to other clients. These conditions are very common and are not cause for embarrassment. Usually, people cannot tell that their reflexologist is even wearing gloves, so there is nothing lost in terms of quality of the session if a practitioner needs to wear gloves.
The next step is to do a warm-up of the feet and ankles in which the reflexologist will often move the foot to take it through its normal range of motion, flexing and extending the joints and rotating the ankle. Once the warmup is complete, the practitioner will begin thumb walking the zones of the feet. Thumb walking is a technique in which the thumb is scooted across the foot in small increments in an “inching along” fashion. Once the zones have been thumb walked, the reflexologist will work different areas of the foot using various pressing and rotating methods.
As the reflexologist works the various areas of the foot, he or she may ask for feedback about certain points were they feel irregularities. Letting the practitioner know what you are experiencing helps him or her to determine which areas to focus on during the treatment.
A typical session with a reflexologist lasts for an hour but can be extended to 1.5 to 2 hours if the person is in good health. If the reflexologist is also a licensed massage therapist, he or she can add reflexology to a standard massage.
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