Reflexology: Keeping You on Your Feet

By: Karen Barrow
Are you tired of taking an aspirin with every headache? Is your tennis elbow still hurting after years of physical therapy, or are you simply looking for something that may help manage your diabetes? Could it be time to look to your feet for some relief?
Reflexology, an ancient practice used in Egypt and many other cultures throughout history, is based on the idea that applying pressure to certain regions of the feet and hands can relieve ailments throughout the body. In the 1930's, Eunice Ingham, an American physical therapist, redeveloped this ancient technique based on modern knowledge of the human body. And while the practice is still widely questioned by the medical community, there is little to lose by trying it in conjunction with more traditional treatments.

Ingham's nephew, Dwight Byer, president of the Institute of Reflexology, carries on her work and answers some common questions about this technique.

Reflexology seems like a fancy name for a foot massage. How is it different?
Reflexology is a science that deals with the reflex areas in our feet and hands that correspond to every organ, gland and other part of our body. It's absolutely different altogether from a foot massage.

A foot massage is just massaging the feet, while reflexology focuses on pressure points. You can't just massage these points to get the benefits, because some of them are very deep. Sometimes the angles at which you hit them are very important. And while a massage can always relax no matter where you rub, we're doing more than that; we're trying to hit the reflexes in exact precise angles with more pressure than just a deep massage.

Why is reflexology beneficial?
It helps in three ways. First, reflexology sessions can help to relieve stress and tension. Secondly, stress acts like a tourniquet around the body systems, so by releasing this stress, you can also improve the nerve and blood supply to every organ and gland in the body. Thirdly, we feel it helps the body to maintain homeostasis, or to regulate itself. So, for example, if the thyroid is overactive, we help to bring it down; if it's under active, we help to bring it up, and, if it's normal already, it's going to stay there.

What makes reflexology very unique is that it really it can't hurt you in any way. There is no evidence that it's bad for anybody. (Naturally, if you have a broken foot or something, you can't work on that.)

Do some conditions benefit more than others from reflexology?
In my experience, reflexology works tremendously well for diabetes and carpal tunnel syndrome. Almost every health problem has been helped, but there are some conditions that are a bit more complicated. For example, there are a hundred different kinds of arthritis. Some arthritis I've helped tremendously with reflexology and others I could not, because the cause of each case is different. Likewise, we can't always help high blood pressure because there are a lot of things that may cause it, yet there are people with high blood pressure who seek out reflexology treatments.
Why are the feet focused on over the hands?
Eunice Ingham, my aunt and the mother of modern reflexology, found that the feet were more sensitive, more responsive to health. We use the hands every day, the reflexes in them are deeper, and they're a little harder to find. But, if you do hands, it's not the same as doing the feet.

A good practitioner will add in the hands every once in a while; it's very relaxing to have the hands done. And when people are very sensitive to having the feet done, you do the hands first and then you can do more with the feet.

How do you determine what areas of the foot to work on?
We teach anatomy and physiology to reflexologists to understand the cause of disease and to work those points. When we're doing reflexology, we work to stimulate the parts of the body that lie at the source of the problem. For example, in diabetes, we have to work the pituitary because that sends the necessary hormone to the adrenal glands that then send the message to the pancreas to produce insulin. A good reflexologist should not just look at a chart and poke the area that corresponds to the pancreas for diabetes; you'll never help somebody that way.

Can reflexology be used to diagnose illnesses?
Reflexologists aren't licensed to diagnose. Eunice Ingham, for example worked with medical doctors, so she could help them diagnose an illness, but today you can't do that.

People that come to reflexology generally don't come to be diagnosed with their problem. They are looking for help with some problem they already know about. We can ask questions and, if you're a good reflexologist and have been doing it for a while, you're a detective. By the time I work your feet, I may know more about you than you do. But most reflexologists should not start to think that they're going to diagnose your problem.

Can reflexology be used in children?
Yes, it's fantastic in children. I recommend that every parent should know a little reflexology. For colds, teething or indigestion, pressure to the right points could help tremendously.
What does reflexology feel like?
"It hurts, but it feels good." Those are the magic words we always hear. During a reflexology session, you can feel the feet being worked. And, actually, it can feel fantastic; when you work with the hands in a certain rhythm, it's altogether different than a massage, especially when you have a certified reflexologist versus just a massage therapist working on your feet.
How long is a typical reflexology session?
There's no standard, but the average session runs probably fifty minutes. We have at our office the option of thirty-minute-long or hour-long treatments.

Is there anything special you should do before or after a reflexology session?
No, just have your feet clean and accessible to get to. You shouldn't wear pantyhose or something like that to a session. And people should always drink water afterward. Whether you work out or get a massage or have reflexology, water's always good to drink, because you are helping to eliminate toxins and waste from the body. [Many reflexologists will insist that you drink water as part of the session.]

How long does it take to feel the improvement?
Some improvement is felt immediately, but you don't usually feel instantly better. If I target an area on your foot to work on to help your shoulder, you don't always just walk away from a session and feel like, "Oh, wow, it's healed." But headaches sometimes will go away immediately. And sometimes if you have sinus problems, they'll start to drain right away. [I've had] people who retain fluids or have edema get up and go to the bathroom in the middle of a session. So, in that respect some conditions begin to improve immediately, but not always.

The main idea is that since the body doesn't break down overnight, it doesn't repair overnight. So, some people come to us after being sick a long time and there is no "instant cure." Additionally, reflexology isn't a panacea, and it doesn't work for everybody, like no one thing does.

How frequent should a session be to get the most benefit?
If you're looking for reflexology to be therapeutic?to help some condition?a couple times a week would be appropriate. People do come less often for maintenance sessions once they get over most of the crucial areas of their health. Then, they come every other week or once a month, depending on their condition.

What should someone look for in a reflexologist?
Unfortunately, today, there are a lot of people that are claiming to do reflexology and they're not qualified. Be sure to ask if your reflexologist is certified by the American Reflexology Certification Board or the International Institute of Reflexology.