Reflexology is more than just a foot massage. It is based on the theory that the soles of the feet are each divided into 5 zones within which lie numerous reflex points that directly correspond with systems, organs and glands of the whole body (figure 1). By working on these reflex points with pressure and strokes, a reflexologist aims to clear or unblock any areas of energy congestion within the body bringing it back into balance naturally and holistically.
Figure 1: Example reflexology foot chart with reflex points
Many clients who book reflexology hope that the treatment will help them relax and indeed, the majority of clients at Every Body Massage Therapy who have an hour-long reflexology session either fall asleep around the half-way point or their breathing slows significantly as they drift into a deep state of relaxation.
The theory behind the relaxation effects of reflexology is that is the pressure and strokes on the feet have a direct effect on the parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system. Unlike the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system which controls our ‘flight or fight’ stress response by increasing heart rate and releasing adrenaline, the parasympathetic division does the opposite. It slows the heart rate down and inhibits the release of adrenaline making the body feel at rest and free of stress (figure 2).
Figure 2: Autonomic nervous system with the effects of sympathetic division shown in green and parasympathetic division shown in purple
Limited studies have been carried out to prove the theory of the parasympathetic nervous system response to reflexology however there was a feasibility study for further analysis undertaken by Hughes et al in 2011. Using 26 healthy volunteers split into two groups, both groups were subject to mental stress intervention before and after treatments and the results of their blood pressure and heart rates recorded. The reflexology group received 20 minutes reflexology and the control group 20 minutes of the therapist holding their feet.
There were significant reductions in systolic blood pressure (22%) and in diastolic blood pressure (26%) during mental stress following reflexology compared to the stress period prior to intervention. In contrast, there was a 10% reduction in systolic blood pressure but a 5% increase in diastolic blood pressure during the period of mental stress in the control group.
Another study in 2011 by Lu et al demonstrated that systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, mean arterial and pulse pressures were significantly decreased in patients with coronary artery disease after receiving foot reflexology treatments. Furthermore, in 2014 Korhan et al carried out a clinical trial on patients aged between 18 and 70 hospitalised in an intensive care unit and receiving mechanically ventilated support. Participants were randomised to a control group or an intervention group, the latter receiving 30 minutes of reflexology therapy on their feet, hands, and ears for 5 days. Subjects had vital signs taken immediately before the intervention and at the 10th, 20th, and 30th minutes of the intervention. Results showed that the reflexology therapy group had a significantly lower heart rate, systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, and respiratory rate than the control group.
While the studies conducted are limited, the results are none-the-less very interesting and certainly indicate reflexology decreases activity of the sympathetic ‘stress’ division of the autonomic nervous system and increases the activity of the parasympathetic division. This would explain why most clients fall asleep during their treatment - a response to their heart rates decreasing, breathing becoming slower and deeper, and stress hormones, such as adrenaline, decreasing.
Reflexology for all
As a very gentle therapy, reflexology is suitable for most people, including babies and children, the elderly and people in poorer health. If it is preferable not to touch the feet, reflexology can be carried out on the hands or face and as only shoes and socks are removed, it is also suitable for clients who would prefer not to undress in order to receive a relaxing holistic treatment.
Reflexologists with the appropriate level of training are able to gain membership to the voluntary government regulator for complementary healthcare in the UK, the Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council. This is accredited by the Professional Standards Authority and set up by the government to improve standards and safety for the benefit of the public. With a searchable database, the CNHC provides clients the means to search for a reflexologist near them giving confidence that the therapist has had the highest level of training, undertakes additional professional development and abides by strict codes of ethical conduct.
Vicky Barbour July 2021
Healthline.com, parasympathetic nervous system, available at https://www.healthline.com/health/parasympathetic-nervous-system#picture
Hughes CM, et al, 2011, The effect of reflexology on the autonomic nervous system in healthy adults: a feasibility study, School of Health Sciences, University of Ulster, May-Jun 2011;17(3):32-7, PMID: 22164810
Korhan, et al, 2014, Reflexology: its effects on physiological anxiety signs and sedation needs, İzmir Katip Çelebi University, Jan-Feb 2014;28(1):6-23, PMID: 24304626, DOI: 10.1097/HNP.0000000000000007
Lu, et al, 2011, Foot reflexology can increase vagal modulation, decrease sympathetic modulation, and lower blood pressure in healthy subjects and patients with coronary artery disease, Institute of Cultural Asset and Reinvention, Fo-Guang University, Ilan, Taiwan, Jul-Aug 2011;17(4):8-14, PMID: 22314629
Reflexology-map.com, foot reflexology chart, available at https://reflexology-map.com/foot-reflexology-chart/