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A fascinating system that maps and treats human organs through pressure points on the feet, face, ears, hand and back

What is it?

Reflexology is system of touch therapy developed by Eunice Ingham from the zone therapy of William Fitzgerald.

Organs of the body are mapped over the sole of the foot, face, ear, hands and back and are massaged, using precise pressure points. These points are thought to reflect back to the organs they represent, possibly via neural pathways, although contemporary theories focus on the meridian approach similar to Oriental medicine.

The therapy is thought to be used by the Chinese as long ago as 4000BC and has also been recorded in Assyria, India and Egypt. It has evolved over the centuries into a number of forms:

  • Traditional reflexology;

  • Reflex zone therapy;

  • Reflexotherapy;

  • Vacuflexology.

Chi reflexology and Five Element reflexology focus more specifically on the meridians of Chinese medicine.


Some reflexologists claim to be able to diagnose imbalances in the body by feeling for ‘gritty’ areas on the sole of the foot corresponding to the specific organ which is out of balance. However, there is no evidence base to support this method as a diagnostic tool for any specific conditions.


Reflexology treatment follows an assessment of the patient using finger or thumb palpation to determine areas of sensitivity or pain. These areas are then worked or gripped and held until the pain subsides.

Treatment for a specific condition will involve the palpation of the respective organs systems as reflected on the foot or hand with each treatment session following a re-assessment of the patient.

Treatment may be spread over a number of sessions and at some stage the patient may undergo a healing crisis, in which the presenting condition gets worse before resolving. Reactions to treatment may include, thirst, diuresis energy busts or feelings of extreme fatigue.

Evidence base

A number of clinical trials have indicated the value of reflexology in treating:

  • Headache (Launso et al, 1999);

  • Anxiety (McVicar et al, 2007);

  • Premenstrual syndrome (Oleson and Flocco, 1993);

  • Lower back pain (Quinn, 2008);

  • Constipation (Bishop et al, 2003).


Contraindications to treatment include:

  • Generalised or local infection;

  • deep vein thrombosis;

  • local or generalised inflammation of the lymphatic system;

  • cellulitis;

  • malignant melanoma;

  • depressed immune system;

  • epilepsy;

  • during the first trimester of pregnancy and with placenta praevia.

It should be used with caution in people with diabetes with peripheral neuropathy, in unstable type 1 diabetes, hypotension, poorly controlled hypertension, post deep vein thrombosis, pyrexia,

Reflexology may induce mild transient hypoglycaemia, people with diabetes should check their blood glucose levels four-hourly for 12 hours following treatment.


Reflexology is an unregulated therapy and training schools may be privately run, situated in colleges of further education or in university departments. It follows that the level of training will vary between these institutions, some being introductory and non-vocational to those offering practitioner status. Techniques taught and underlying philosophy may also differ (Mackereth and Tiran, 2002).


Bishop, E. et al (2003) Reflexology in the management of encopresis and chronic constipation. Paediatric Nursing; 15: 3, 20-21.

Launso, L. et al (1999) An exploratory study of reflexology treatment for headache. Alternative Therapies; 5: 3, 57-65.

Mackereth, P., Tiran, D. (2002) Clinical Reflexology: A Guide for Health Professionals. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.

McVicar, A. et al (2007) Evaluation of anxiety, salivary cortisol and melatonin secretion following reflexology treatment: a pilot study in healthy individuals. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice; 13: 3, 137-145.

Oleson, T., Flocco, W. (1993) Randomised controlled study of pre-menstrual symptoms treated with ear, hand and foot reflexology. Obstetrics and Gynaecology; 82: 6, 906-911.

Quinn, F. et al (2008) Reflexology in the management of low back pain: A pilot randomised controlled trial. Complementary Therapies in Medicine; 16: 1, 3-8.

Further reading

Lett, A. (2000) Reflex Zone Therapy for health professionals. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.

Mackereth, P., Tiran, D. (2002) Clinical Reflexology: A Guide for Health Professionals. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • I teach introductory courses in Chi-Reflexology and wish to add that it is a gentle, yet powerful therapy. It is based on the Chinese Philosophy and Medicine. I am delighted that it is mentioned here.

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