More Than Just Foot Massage

By Body Sense Staff

Nonthreatening. Gentle, yet robust. Relaxing and therapeutic. These are the words clients use to describe reflexology, a therapy deep in tradition, but “new” in the realm of Western medicine.
Reflexology is a therapy that uses gentle pressure on a client’s feet to stimulate the body’s own healing process. While most commonly associated with the feet, reflexology is also effective when performed on the hands and ears.
In foot reflexology, the therapist uses body maps that correspond to various points on the feet (see page 8) and applies pressure to those points with the goal of improving function in the body’s corresponding systems and organs, and providing balance to the body overall. According to the Reflexology Association of America, “These techniques stimulate the complex neural pathways linking body systems, supporting the body’s efforts to function optimally.”1
Using “micromovement techniques,” like thumb or finger walking, reflexology is different than massage, reports the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing (CSH). “Where massage therapists work from the outside in, reflexology practitioners see themselves as working from the inside out.”2

From Pain Relief to Stress Relief

Used in hospitals throughout Europe, and considered a form of health care in China, reflexology continues to find advancement here in the West with each new research inquiry.
According to Diana Thompson, a leader in the field of massage and bodywork, reflexology is more than just an alternative approach to relieving symptoms. “With an expanding research base, reflexology meets the integrative demands of combining complementary therapy and conventional medicine and is a viable component of integrative health care.”3
Thompson says research shows reflexology positively affects:
• Anxiety and depression
• Circulation
• Dementia
• Edema
• Fatigue and sleep
• Nausea
• Pain
• Stress
Other conditions reflexology has reported success with include migraine headaches, hypertension, and fibromyalgia.

Another Option

Because of the gentle, noninvasive nature of reflexology, this therapy can safely be used on clients when other therapies might not be appropriate. According to Paula Stone, author of Therapeutic Reflexology: A Step-by-Step Guide to Professional Competence, reflexology can be used immediately following an accident, injury, or stroke. “The reflexive action of reflexology offers a means to ease discomfort and support the healing process to the injured area without touching it.”4
For cancer patients, for example, reflexology offers an alternative way to find pain relief. Stone offers this anecdote from her own reflexology practice: “One client, a nurse practitioner in her 40s, underwent chemotherapy and radiation for cancer. She requested reflexology to reflexively work the upper chest to relieve pain from a recently inserted stent. Within a few minutes of working the shoulder and upper chest reflexes, all her discomfort subsided and she slept peacefully. Her medical doctor and oncologist fully supported her use of reflexology. The client advocated to her medical team and colleagues how reflexology—more than any other form of bodywork and comfort care—relieved her symptoms of pain, anxiety, and fear.”5

What Reflexology Looks Like

Reflexology can come in 30-minute increments (usually a good time frame for children, the elderly, and those in a fragile state of health), but can be combined with other forms of massage and bodywork in longer sessions. Aside from differences in training, techniques, and scope of practice, one of the primary differences between massage and reflexology is that clients can remain clothed during a session, since the work focuses specifically on the feet, hands, or ears. Once the client’s shoes and socks are removed, some therapists offer a foot bath while the client sits comfortably.
What will clients feel or experience during a reflexology session? Experts say it will vary from “a general feeling of relaxation, to a sense of ‘lightness’ or tingling in the body, as well as feelings of warmth, a sense of ‘opening,’ or ‘energy moving’ from the practitioner’s pressure to the specific body area or organ. There is often a physical perception of energy flowing through every organ, valve, gland, or muscle, as well as a sense of communication between each body system.”6
While the majority of reflexology work you might receive should feel relaxing and nurturing, some points addressed during a session could prove painful or uncomfortable; be sure to let your therapist know when this occurs. As these points are addressed with pressure, the discomfort should decrease. Ticklish feet? No problem, experts say, as the pressure of the reflexology work should counter any discomfort with ticklishness.
After a reflexology session, clients often come away feeling relaxed and renewed. As with any treatment, the body might take some time to process the work that was just done, and feelings of nausea or sleepiness could occur.
While reflexology and massage share some of the same benefits, they differ on multiple levels. Interested in giving it a try? See if your therapist is certified in reflexology or if they can refer you to someone who is. You can also visit to find a reflexologist near you.

Reflexology Cautions

While certain conditions require extra caution with foot reflexology, there are some conditions in which it should not be administered. The University of Minnesota offers these guidelines for when reflexology is contraindicated:
• Blood-clotting issues
• Foot fractures, unhealed wounds, active gout
• High-risk pregnancies

Consult with your health-care provider before receiving foot reflexology if you have:
• Vascular disease


1. Reflexology Association of America, “RAA’s Definition of Reflexology,” accessed March 2019,
2. University of Minnesota, “How Does Reflexology Work?” accessed March 2019,
3. D. Thompson, “Reflexology Research,” Massage & Bodywork 26, no. 4 (July/August 2011): 46.
4. P. Stone, “Reflexology & Headaches,” Massage & Bodywork 26, no 4 (July/August 2011): 37.
5. P. Stone, “Reflexology & Headaches,” 38.
6. University of Minnesota, “What Can I Expect in a First Reflexology Visit?” accessed March 2019,