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Reflexology – An Ancient Approach to Wellness, Starting With the Feet!

Ila Bonczek
Ila lives in the Garden State with her family and four chickens. She has been growing produce and perennials for 20 years, and recommends gardening for food and fun, but not for fortune.
Published: September 16, 2022
Reflexology is an age-old art of tinkering with the toes to affect holistic healing. (Image: garden art)

Do you sometimes find yourself rubbing your sore feet? Hey, guess what — you’re onto something! Reflexology is an ancient massage practice based on the understanding that the whole body is connected, be it by energy channels, nerve endings, or what have you…and your extremities know exactly what’s going on with your interior.

Reflexology through the ages

Reflexology has been around for thousands of years, evidenced by a pictograph from 2330 BC found in the tomb of Egyptian physician Ankhamor, which shows treatments performed on the hands and feet. Some Greek historians believe that reflexology was in use at the ancient spa “Delphi,” whose records were lost in a great fire.

Ancient statues of Buddhas in India exhibit special markings on the feet, thought to be related to reflexology; but China has the earliest written documentation of the therapy. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, a classic medical text from 1000 BC, discusses the connection of life force with specific areas of the feet. Ancient China is said to have enjoyed a semi-divine culture, and perhaps this therapy was an early gift from the gods. 

The practice was introduced to Europe by Venetian merchant Marco Polo (1254-1324), who translated a Chinese massage book into Italian. Under western influence, reflexology evolved, and/or devolved as doctors attempted to fit the mold into a scientific framework.

In 1582, it was recognized as zone therapy in a book published by Doctors Adamus and A’tatis, and underwent further metamorphosis in Europe before being introduced to the United States in the 1800s by Dr. William Fitzgerald.

A pictorial diagram of the internal organs mapped out on the feet for reflexology therapy. (Image: Forgemind ArchiMedia via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Widely considered the “father of reflexology,” Fitzgerald theorized that the body was made up of ten vertical zones linked with corresponding zones on the feet and hands. Fitzgerald applied his science mainly as anesthesia, as he found that applying pressure to fingers in the correct zone could reduce pain during minor surgery and dental procedures.

The theory was further developed by Dr. Shelby Riley, who added horizontal zones, and offered a detailed map of reflex points for both the hands and feet. Eunice Ingham, who worked with Riley, found the practice to be most effective through the feet, mapped out the entire body on the outline of a left and right foot, and introduced the practice to the public in the 1930s. Known as the “mother of reflexology,” Ingham spread the practice across America, teaching the medical and non-medical community for 30 years. Her reflexology charts are still in use today.

What can reflexology do for you?

While there is little scientific evidence regarding the effectiveness of reflexology, countless people have reported health benefits from their experience with this therapy. While the therapy itself may be painful, it could make you feel great in the long run.

Medical studies have shown a significant improvement in patients using reflexology compared with control groups; with reduced fatigue for those with breast cancer, decreased anxiety for those having surgery, and mitigated side effects for those undergoing chemotherapy. 

Since the method is said to reach all parts of the body, a wide range of issues can potentially be addressed with reflexology; including arthritis, back pain, bacterial infections, colds, digestive disorders, fractures, immune response, infertility, sinusitis and many more. 

With the power to heal in your own hands (and feet) you may find that the sky’s the limit to your well-being. (Image: Angelique Vugts via pexels)

How does reflexology work?

There are several theories regarding the science behind reflexology. It is difficult to prove that any one of them is more correct than another, but they mostly depend on an interconnection within the body. 

1-Traditional Chinese Medicine – vital energy

According to TCM, reflexology stimulates acupressure points, improving the flow of qi, or vital energy. When qi is flowing properly, there is balance in the body and health is naturally restored. 

2-Nervous system linked to feet

Research done by English neurologists Britain’s Sir Henry Head and Sir Charles Sherrington, German Doctor Alfons Cornelius, and Russian Doctors Ivan Sechenov and Ivan Paulov supported the theory that the nerves of the internal organs react to a stimulus in areas of the feet, where corresponding nerve endings are accessible. 

Basically, by pressing the correct area of the foot, the target receives a calming signal and the resulting relaxation of any bodily organ or system is said to enhance its performance, allowing healing to take place. 

3-It’s all in your mind

Another theory is based on the idea that pain is subjective, and emotional or cognitive factors largely determine our sensory response. As with any other form of massage, the human touch is inherently soothing. By calming the mind and alleviating stress, pain is reduced throughout the body.

4-The zone theory

This theory puts each organ, muscle, valve, etc. into one of ten zones which includes an area on the feet where access is obtained. Similar to TMC, specific pressure points are connected with internal functions of the body. As in theory number two, the connection is made through the nervous system. 

5-Blood and bones

Some reflexologists explain the pain in the feet as resulting from calcium buildup due to poor circulation. If an area of the body is not getting enough blood, calcium deposits accumulate in the area of the foot connected (via the nervous system) to that area. Repetitive firm massage of a sensitive point on the foot dissolves the buildup and seems to reverse the degeneration in the connected area.

You don’t need a fancy doctor’s office to get a foot massage; in fact, why not make it a social event! (Image: jeremydeades via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

How is reflexology applied?

Before you invest in a trip to your local reflexologist, you can easily try the method out on yourself — or partner with a friend for a joint session. Find a tender area on the foot and use your thumb or a strong finger to press firmly on that point. It should hurt, but not so much that you’re actually damaging the foot. Make a small circular motion as you press, without actually moving from the spot. 

Refer to the charts to see what function of the body might be affected, and make a daily practice of the treatment. After a few sessions, you may notice some changes in the body. Increased pain is possible as healing is initiated. As you continue, the pain should gradually decrease and eventually disappear. If you are uncomfortable with self-diagnosis, by all means see a trained reflexologist. 

This pebble walking surface in a Taiwanese park, offers a not-so-gentle massage for those who traverse barefoot. (Image: Karl Baron via Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)

Passive reflexology

Perhaps you’re not comfortable with people touching your feet, or maybe you love foot massage so much that you want it all the time. Either way, you have some interesting options. 

Going back to the roots of reflexology, Chinese gardens often offer the beautiful experience of a walking massage. Pebble paths — made with small, rounded stones — provide a free reflexology session for anyone daring to go barefoot. Walking on a pebble beach, or even a gravel driveway can give you the same beneficial discomfort; or you can get creative in your own garden and make a therapeutic pathway.

Inspired by this concept, pebble sandals can keep the massage going all day long! Also known as acupressure sandals, or massage sandals, this unusual footwear has become fairly popular and is now widely available. They come in a variety of materials, with some featuring rotating knobs to mimic a twisting thumb.

Based on the traditional pebble walks in China, these fanciful sandals in Dalian stimulate the pressure points in both feet while you walk! (Image: Cory Doctorow via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

Averaging around $20 per pair, these sandals might make a fun gift or a small indulgence. Not a sandal-wearer? You’re in luck — bumpy inserts can be had for half the price, and you can keep your therapy hidden within your most sensible shoes. 


While one can study and memorize what specific part of the body is connected with which area of the feet, this is not really necessary. If you experience pain when pressing on a certain area, you could be stimulating the body to heal an organ that you may not even know is under stress. Who knows? By enduring a little pain each day with this harmless practice, you might unwittingly ward off serious illness down the line.