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Learn about reflexology, an alternative health technique said to improve stress, anxiety, chronic lower back pain, and other health issues.

Before engaging in any complementary medical technique, you should be aware that many of these techniques have not been evaluated in scientific studies. Often, only limited information is available about their safety and effectiveness. Each state and each discipline has its own rules about whether practitioners are required to be professionally licensed. If you plan to visit a practitioner, it is recommended that you choose one who is licensed by a recognized national organization and who abides by the organization's standards. It is always best to speak with your primary health care provider before starting any new therapeutic technique.

Background

Reflexology aims to relieve stress or treat health conditions through the application of pressure to specific points or areas of the feet. The underlying idea of reflexology is that areas of the feet correspond to (and affect) other parts of the body. In some cases, pressure may also be applied to the hands or ears.

Techniques similar to reflexology have been used for thousands of years in Egypt, China and other areas. In the early 20th century, an American physician named William Fitzgerald suggested that the foot could be "mapped" to other areas of the body to diagnose or treat medical conditions. He divided the body into 10 zones and labeled the parts of the foot that he believed controlled each zone. He proposed that gentle pressure on a particular area of the foot could generate relief in the targeted zone. This process was originally called zone therapy.


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In the 1930s, Eunice Ingham, a nurse and physiotherapist, further developed these maps to include specific reflex points. At that time, zone therapy was renamed reflexology. Modern reflexologists in the United States often learn Ingham's method or a similar technique developed by the reflexologist Laura Norman.

Reflexology charts include pictures of the feet with diagrams of corresponding internal organs or parts of the body. The right side of the body is believed to be reflected in the right foot, and the left side, in the left foot. Different health care providers, such as massage therapists, chiropractors, podiatrists, physical therapists or nurses, may use reflexology.

Theory

Several theories have been put forward to explain the mechanism behind reflexology, although none has been scientifically proven. One proposal is that the body contains an invisible life force, or energy field, that when blocked can result in illness. It has been suggested that stimulation of the foot and nerves can unblock and increase the flow of vital energy to various parts of the body, promoting healing. Other theories include the release of endorphins (natural pain killers in the body), stimulation of nerve circuits in the body ("cutaneo-organ reflexes"), promotion of lymphatic flow or the dissolving of uric acid crystals.

When a client visits a reflexologist, a full medical history will often be taken before examination of the bare feet. Clients usually remain fully clothed during examination and treatment, sitting with the legs raised or lying on a treatment table. Practitioners begin with gentle massage of the feet, followed by pressure to selected reflex points. This therapy should never be painful.

Therapists may use lotion or oils for lubrication, sometimes including aromatherapy products. Occasionally, instruments are used on the feet, such as sticks of wood, clothespins, combs, rubber balls, rubber bands, tongue depressors, wire brushes, special massagers, hand probes or clamps. Some reflexology books note that clients may feel tingling in the part of the body corresponding to the reflex point being stimulated, although this has not been studied or documented scientifically.

Sessions often last from 30 to 60 minutes and may be part of a four- to eight-week course of therapy. Techniques can be learned and self-administered. There is no widely accepted regulatory system for reflexology, and there is no state licensure or training requirement in the United States at this time.