Everybody loves a good foot rub. But did you know foot massage dates back to ancient Egypt and China? That’s right, over 5,000 years ago our ancestors were rubbing each other’s feet. In the late 1800s, Europeans invented reflexology: applying pressure to a person’s feet (or hands) in order to affect a physical change to the body. Placement of pressure is based on a system of zones and reflex areas that correspond to other parts of the body.
Also called “zone therapy,” this mixture of healing art and science is based on the premise that an energy channel encompassing 12 vital organs exists from our feet to the tops of our heads. Applying pressure with his/her hands, a reflexologist unblocks that channel to restore proper health and organ function.
Because the principles of foot massage are not in alignment with Western science, reflexology did not come to the United States until the 20th century. Since then, it has become an increasingly popular alternative therapy – due in part to the current holistic medicine trend. Today, over 20 countries across the globe support reflexology associations. Reflexology is particularly popular in Denmark and the UK.
Popular Types of Massage
The goal of Chinese massage is to balance one’s qi (energy), allowing the organs and immune system to function properly. Blocked energy pathways cause pain and disease. Practiced for centuries, traditional Chinese foot massages start off with a footbath and proceed to an intense massage of the feet, ankles, and legs.
The two main types of Chinese massage are both related to acupressure. Tui na is a technique that stretches, kneads, and pushes the muscles, while Zhi Ya focuses on acupressure points, pressing and pinching them to relieve stress and pain. Using sensitive fingertips, a Chinese masseuse identifies blocked pathways and applies pressure in just the right place in to restore proper energy flow and increase the patient’s general health.
During a Shiatsu (“finger pressure” in Japanese) massage, the masseuse applies pressure to areas in accordance with the Meridian system to release blocked energy and restore proper energy flow. An imbalanced body causes sickness, disease, and energy loss. A successful massage will restore energy flow and boost your immune system. Therapists use their hands to rub, tap, and squeeze. This form of massage is particularly helpful for those suffering aches due to repetitive movements such as typing. A Shiatsu massage promotes flexibility, circulation, muscle relaxation, and the release of toxins. It can also prevent disease, reduce blood pressure, and reduce stress.
Swedish physiologist Per Henrik Ling (1776-1839) was a pioneer in the field of physical therapy and massage. From his heritage, we get the term “Swedish massage,” which is by far the most popular form of massage today. Based on the Western concepts of anatomy, this type of massage is tailored to the patient. The most popular types of Swedish massage are:
- Deep tissue massage: slow movements and deep pressure are used to realign muscles and tissues, release toxins, and improve circulation. Although painful at times, you will feel rejuvenated afterwards. This type of massage is recommended for extremely tense muscles.
- Hot stone therapy: in addition to Swedish techniques, smooth, heated stones are placed on the patient’s body in order to sooth muscles, improve circulation, release toxins, and calm the nervous system.
Foot Reflexology Benefits
Think about how much stress your feet go through each day. No body part is more abused than your feet. Standing, running, jumping – our feet do it all! Reflexologists believe that overall health begins in your feet and travels up. The benefits of foot massage are endless – not to mention it feels downright great! Although there are no “hard facts” to prove what a foot massage can really do, practitioners and patients alike claim that reflexology can:
- Cure colds/minor ailments
- Prevent/cure diseases
- Increase energy
- Relieve stress, pain, and anxiety
- Improve blood and lymph circulation
- Prevent injury
- Relieve pain from MS and chemotherapy
- Stimulate activity of internal organs
- Successfully treat liver dysfunction, constipation, IBS, chronic headaches, and skin allergies
- Relieve pressure on legs and feet in pregnant women
The benefits aren’t purely physical. A good foot massage can also improve your mental and emotional state. Most of those who seek out a reflexologist are looking for relaxation and stress relief. With less stress in your life, your chance of heart disease drops considerably.
As you can see from the chart at left, nearly all areas of the body have a corresponding reflexology point on the foot. For example, the dark blue spot on the inner sole of each foot corresponds to the bladder. Applying pressure to this area can affect bladder functioning.
The right foot corresponds to the organs on the right side of the body, and vice versa.
Not all practitioners agree on the exact location of reflex points, but there is a general agreement when it comes to the major points.
Like many holistic practices, foot reflexology is not based in scientific fact. More research is required to discover the hard facts, but scientific documentation does point to linkages between the internal organs and certain locations on the skin.
For example, a 2008 study (Kunz and Kunz) found that reflexology led to an increase in blood flow to the intestines and kidneys. The practice has also been associated with positive changes in kidney functioning (dialysis patients).
A 2015 study (Song) suggests that reflexology may have a positive effect on diabetics (Type II) and associates the practice with lowering blood pressure. Many reviews note that the overall quality of research on reflexology tends to be low.
There are four basic reflexology areas on the soles of each foot. The “head and neck” area encompasses all five toes. In this area you will find points corresponding to the sinuses, eyes, ears, etc.
The “spine,” which runs up the inside of each foot, is located where your toes connect to the rest of your foot. This is the most important reflexology zone – you can think of it as a highway for the communications between your brain and your nerves, bones, and muscles.
The “chest area” is located around the ball of the foot. This area is generally a darker color than the middle of the foot. It is associated with the lungs, shoulders, etc.
The “waist line” is located wherever your foot is widest. This section correlates with the stomach, liver, intestines, etc. and is generally a lighter color.
The “pelvic area” is located at the heel. It is typically a darker color, like the chest area of the foot. This area of the foot corresponds to the legs and buttocks.
Using reflexology to fix a problem: blocked sinuses
Using the chart above, you would first locate the area that corresponds to the sinuses. In this case, that would be the tips of the toes.
Repeatedly squeeze and release this area on each toe for 20 seconds, beginning on the right foot. Gently rotate each toe joint, again starting on the right foot.
Using reflexology to fix a problem: shoulder ache
Locate the area of the “spine” that is level with your shoulders. This will be from the base of your big toe to the area where the ball of the foot ends. Using your thumbs, “walk” on this part of the spine, moving up and down for several minutes.
Walk over the entire area that corresponds with the shoulder (if you are suffering pain in your right shoulder, you should be working on your right foot and vice versa).
Drink a large glass of water after procedure, and focus on breathing deeply through the stomach.
What to Expect
The goal of reflexology is to release stress/congestion in the nervous system and to balance a person’s energy. A reflexology session may be general or it may focus on specific problem areas.
Reflexology is not a cure or a medical treatment. It does not treat specific illnesses. Everyone’s body responds differently to reflexology, and you might notice no response after your first attempt.
When you visit a reflexologist, he or she may work on the hands, feet, ears, or a combination. Most sessions last between 30 and 60 minutes.
Even if you are looking to treat a specific condition, let’s say kidney functioning, the reflexologist will work on all areas of the foot. According to reflexology theory, working the entire foot opens nerve pathways and blockages and promotes relaxation throughout the body.
Foot Reflexology & Diabetes
Diabetes restricts blood flow to the feet, which can cause problems including numbness, tingling, calluses, and foot ulcers. Many diabetics are unable to find relief from these symptoms. Reflexology can help by improving circulation and reducing the risk of neuropathy. Some patients are so relaxed during a session that that their blood sugar drops. In addition, a proper foot massage will help keep your vital organs in good condition. Make sure to drink plenty of water after each session!
Unfortunately, not everyone is a candidate for foot massage. If you suffer from conditions like athlete’s foot, plantar warts, or osteoporosis you should stay away from foot reflexology.
Finding a Therapist
Just like finding any other type of professional, you’ll want to search around before you decide on a reflexologist. The goal is to find an individual with proper training and experience, a person who can really benefit your overall health. It’s a good idea to ask your friends and family. If nobody you know sees a reflexologist, try asking another professional, such as your dentist or chiropractor.
The web is always a great place to search for professionals. There are many reflexology associations out there that will help you search for professionals in your area. Try the following websites:
- American Reflexology Certification Board
- Reflexology Association of America
- Professional Reflexology Associations
When you find someone who seems like a good fit, don’t be afraid to set up an in-person meeting to discuss his/her style and your goals. Don’t forget to explore your payment options before you schedule your first session.
Reflexology at Home
Unfortunately not everyone has the time or money to regularly visit the spa. Lucky for us, several companies have developed machines we can buy to experience a foot massage in the comfort of our own homes. Although a machine probably won’t be quite as good as “the real thing,” they are a great investment for you if you have chronic foot problems (such as diabetes symptoms), plan on using the machine daily, or have a busy schedule.
Just like any electronic device, there are loads of foot massagers out there that vary wildly on price. Purchasing a machine for less than $60 is unadvisable unless you go for a manual model. There are two basic types of foot massagers: electric and spa. Electric massagers use rollers or balls to massage the feet, while spa versions use heat and water to relax the feet. The type of massager you purchase should depend on what you are trying to accomplish. Consider the following before you start looking:
- Why do you want a massage at home (chronic pain, relaxation, etc.)?
- How much money are you willing to spend?
- Who will be using the device?
- How much does the device weigh?
- Where will the machine be stores?
- What control options/features are you looking for?
If possible, you should try the product in-store and read reviews before you buy it. In addition, consider purchasing an insurance package. Overall, foot massagers are a great investment if you plan on using them often. If you only desire a foot massage every once in awhile, just stick with the spa.