When many people think of reflexology, a soothing foot massage at a massage studio comes to mind.

But reflexology is not the same as foot massage. A reflexologist, who administers this ancient Chinese medical art, may in fact give a therapeutic foot massage, but the purpose is more than making the feet feel better. Reflexology can also be administered on the hands as well as ears, using a concept call “body mapping.”

If reflexology is similar to any other healing art, its closest healing modality kin would be acupuncture. Both rely on the concept of the monosyllabic Chinese term that refers to the theoretical life force that flows through all living things or “qi” (pronounced "chee").

Similar to an acupuncturist inserting needles in certain parts of the body to unblock stagnant qi in other parts of the body, a reflexologist will work on a certain “reflex area” of the feet, hand or ears to affect another part of the body.

In addition to their hands and modern electronic stimulation devices, a reflexologists’ main tool is a body-mapping chart. To alleviate neck pain, for example, a reflexologist may work on a specific point of the foot, in this case, under the medial arch side of the big toe.

What is reflexology used for?
Though reflexologists are not allowed to diagnose a medical condition, claim to be able to cure disease, or prescribe medication, many people elect to receive reflexology for these reasons, among others:

  • stress reduction and relaxation
  • pain relief
  • immune system strengthening
  • elimination/digestion improvement
  • circulation
Pavlovian response to reflexology

Though reflexology is an ancient modality, in western society, this healing art started gaining popularity in the early 20th century, in part due to the research of Ivan Pavlov, the same Pavlov who was awarded the 1904 Nobel Prize recipient for his pioneering work in how the digestive system works, popularized by his classical conditioning experiments on dogs.

Pavlov’s “reflex system” research concluded that organ systems respond involuntarily to external stimulation, such as stress or pain.

Other pioneering researchers who propelled reflexology’s renaissance include Dr. Henry Head, who in the late 19th century proved that a neurological relationship exists between the skin and the internal organs.

Another Nobel Prize winner, Sir Charles Sherrington, proved that the whole nervous system and body adjusts to a stimulus when the stimulus is applied to any part of the body. And in Germany, Dr. Alfons Cornelius observed that pressure to certain spots triggered muscle contractions, changes in blood pressure, variation in warmth and moisture in the body as well as directly affecting the mental state of his patients.

American physicians, Dr. William Fitzgerald and Dr. Joe Shelby Riley as well as physiotherapist Eunice Ingham in the 1920s began applying these theories to the hands and feet and are widely credited for being at the forefront of reflexology’s popularity in the West. Dr. Paul Nogier is credited for expanding reflex mapping to the ears.

Is reflexology for everybody?
Professional reflexologists should use discretion when working on a client with chronic and/or degenerative disease (like diabetes, sclerosis, osteoporosis, cancer, etc.) or when a client is taking blood thinners.

According to the American Reflexology Certification Board Study Guide, here's a list of situations where reflexology should not be used:

  • Varicose veins
  • Severe edema
  • Current fractures, recent surgeries, severe sprains, or gout, however, one can usually work safely with an extremely light feather touch around or on these problem areas.
  • Contagious or infectious diseases or anything that appears to be such on the client’s feet unless checked out by a doctor first (warts, streptococcus infections, or anything that looks like an infection, etc.)
  • Lacerations, open wounds and/or sores found on the feet that are oozing fluids.
  • After an organ transplant until a release is obtained from the physician.
  • During early stages of induced labor until a release is obtained from the physician.
And what about expectant mothers?

Pregnancy is not contraindicated as long as care is taken not to work too deeply or using too much pressure, but as always consult your physician if you’re pregnant, treating a chronic health condition, or taking prescription medications.

Do you believe reflexology works? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Health writer Judd Handler lives in Encinitas, Calif., and is author of "Living Healthy: 10 Steps to Looking Younger, Losing Weight and Feeling Great." He can be reached at CoachJudd@gmail.com.

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What is reflexology?
This may make you think of a foot massage in a day spa, but there's more to reflexology than meets the eye.