Understanding reflexology

What is reflexology?

To begin with, reflexology is an alternative medicine therapy that is used to treat a wide range of conditions. In this regard, it is similar to practices like acupuncture or reiki insofar as it has very many adherents in Asia and the West, but it falls outside the scope of mainstream medicine. Another aspect of the practice that is common with other types of alternative or complementary therapy is that it is connected to a concept of inner life force. What a reflexologist is essentially doing during a treatment is manipulating this life force in the patient through a massage technique. Also known as zone therapy, the concept relies on the notion that the inner life force of people can be altered by massaging an area that corresponds to a part of the body. So, someone with a neck ache, for example, would not be massaged on their neck but elsewhere on their body – in other words, the corresponding reflex zone to the neck. Sometimes, multiple corresponding reflex zones can be massaged by a qualified reflexologist, but the practice is probably best-known for those that lie on the feet.

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 Where did reflexology start?

It is agreed by most scholars that this form of therapy – or something very much like it – was first practised in ancient China. A book dating back to 1,000 or so BCE covers the idea of treating people for ailments through their feet, and this was known to have been used at the court of the Yellow Emperor of that time. The treatment style first began to be known about in the West in the 1300s when traders, such as Marco Polo, started to bring Chinese ideas to Europe. He is said to have had one of the key texts about reflexology translated at that time. However, it was not until the twentieth century that the practice began to catch on, notably in the United States, where some physicians started to use it as a means of pain relief that did not rely on anaesthetics.

How does reflexology work?

Reflexologists often disagree about the exact way that their massage therapies work. However, there is a fundamental aspect to all treatments, which is that there are ten zones of the body, half on the left-hand side and half on the right-hand side. Reflexologists are able to treat these zones by dealing with poor energy flows or blockages of what is known as chi. Sometimes also called qi, chi is the essential life force that flows through all things. So the theory goes, when someone is suffering from a blockage of chi in their body, so they will suffer from a corresponding ailment in that area. By manipulating the right reflexology point for that part of the body, so it is possible for the ailment to be treated. More accurately, the chi flow will be improved, which, in turn, will lead to fewer symptoms of the condition, so it is claimed.

Why have reflexology?

People choose to see a reflexologist for all sorts of reasons. In some cases, it may be because they have a chronic condition for which conventional medicine only provides partial relief. Someone with chronic pain in their back, for example, may not always want to handle their pain management with drugs, especially if so doing might leave them feeling drowsy. Like other alternative therapists, reflexologists can offer a different approach that may or may not work. Once people have tried it, they tend to find that the practice can be of great benefit and lead to a new lease of freedom. However, it is not just pain management that can be treated by reflexologists but a wide range of different ailments and conditions. In some cases, the effect may be psychological rather than physiological, but if it produces a positive result, then that is more than enough for many patients.

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Where is reflexology practised?

These days, reflexologists ply their trade all over the world. Although it is probably most popular in the country of its origin, China, it is now one of the main alternative therapies in TCM traditional Chinese medicine that westerners will turn to, along with acupuncture. In the main, reflexologists will have a treatment room they use. This might be in their own home, or it could be in a studio where all sorts of complementary treatments – both alternative and mainstream – are carried out. Either way, a treatment session will typically run from half an hour to an hour. Some of the treatment may take place by reflexologising the foot, while some practitioners will focus on the hands to manipulate the various zones of chi in the body. Once you have learned the basics, it is even possible to reflexologise yourself by massaging one hand with the other to produce some remarkable results!

Is reflexology when pregnant possible?

Yes, it is. Most reflexologists would state that it is perfectly safe for both the mother-to-be and her unborn baby to undergo a treatment during pregnancy. Like many other complementary treatments, there is nothing invasive about the practice, and the area where the baby is growing would not need to be touched at all. That said, some reflexologists are cautious about treating women who are pregnant. These are sometimes down to personal reasons and sometimes down to the idea that extra care needs to be taken when treating anybody who is due to give birth. Many people would consider it perfectly normal to treat a woman during the first trimester of her pregnancy but to decline so doing after that period. Again, it all depends on personal circumstances and opinion about the situation. If you have any doubts, then discuss the matter with your reflexologist as well as a medical professional.

Can reflexology help with anxiety?

Yes, it can. Many reflexologists will have numerous case studies which they can cite that indicates they have successfully treated people with anxiety disorders and either lessened the severity of their symptoms or removed them entirely. In 2017, a study was conducted among people who were about to undergo an invasive medical procedure. The sample group involved were taught a self-reflexology technique which they could use on their own hand in the period running up to the examination. The study revealed that just a minute's worth of massage helped to reduce the feelings of anxiety and stress that people who did not learn the method reported. In other words, whether chi manipulation was helping or not, people seemed to feel less anxiety as a result of learning reflexology they could perform on themselves.

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Can reflexology help with fertility?

There are a number of opinions about the effectiveness of reflexology with fertility. Certainly, there appears to be no downside associated with this form of alternative therapy because someone who is having difficulty conceiving will not be placed in a worse position because they seek this sort of help. That said, it is something that will complement other treatments and should not be seen as something of a cure-all, which means you can do without conventional medicine. In the main, reflexologists will claim that they can help with regulating the menstrual cycle, which should make it easier to predict when the best times of the month to try for a baby should be. Equally, claims of improved ovulation due to more in balanced hormones in women are common among those who have undergone treatment. Some men also say that successful treatments have helped with their erectile dysfunction and, therefore, the chances of fathering a baby.

Why might reflexology be painful?

Sometimes, people feel pain as they undergo a reflexology session. This is not something you can always expect to occur, but it does happen. In the main, such sensations are not down to the massage therapy that is conducted on the foot or the hand. Some people with particularly sensitive feet or skin may find that there is a mild level of discomfort from the touch that is necessarily involved when reflexologising. However, it is more often because of the reflex action that occurs in the associated reflex zone. For example, the tips of the toes will often be interpreted by reflexologists as corresponding to the head. If the toe tips are manipulated, you might very well suffer from some pain in your head. Equally, you might get some sensation of pain in your liver or pancreas if the arch of the foot is manipulated. Such feelings of pain usually subside as soon as the session is over, but you should inform your practitioner if not.

How is reflexology regulated?

Reflexologists do not have to register or operate under a license in the UK. That said, by far, the majority of qualified reflexologists are members of the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). According to the CNHC, reflexologists must meet certain standards in line with other alternative therapies. In the United States, it is usual for local or city authorities to regulate reflexology. Only two states of the union have their own regulatory bodies, Tennessee and North Dakota. There is no federal organisation that provides a single regulatory framework for the country. The European Union does not provide one either, although plenty of EU member states have their own regulatory bodies setting out rules for either alternative therapists as a whole or specifically for reflexologists. In Canada, it is a similar situation where local bodies, such as the Reflexology Registration Council of Ontario, provide the necessary licensing arrangements.

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Is reflexology effective?

In 2009, academics undertook a systematic review of reflexology to compare it to other complementary therapies. It found that the practice had no observable impact in treating diseases and ailments people had already been diagnosed with. Whether or not this took into account medical conditions that might otherwise have been acquired is an open question, however. In 2015, the government in Australia decided to research alternative therapies more closely to see whether medical insurance claims for people undergoing such treatments should be paid out for or not. According to that two-year review, there was no clear evidence that said seeing a reflexologist would provide a strong medical outcome. Consequently, insurance companies are not obliged to pay out for claims made against expenses that occurred from treatments given by reflexologists. Where scientific evidence seems to support reflexology's effectiveness, it tends to be limited, although more work is ongoing in this area.

Are reflexology sandals any good?

Many reflexologists would agree that sandals that are designed to stimulate the sole of the foot as the wearer walks can be beneficial but that they have little to do with the art of reflexology. This is because they can only manipulate the feet at certain points and, more or less, always in the same way as the person wearing them walks around. Instead, most reflexologists would recommend working on very specific points of the feet or hands to connect to the reflex zone in the body where the chi needs to be released or allowed to flow more fully. That said, such sandals are not harmful if they're worn once in a while to provide stimulation rather than for a specific treatment. The bottom line is that sandals that claim to be able to do what a skilled reflexologist does are probably overselling themselves.

What are some good books on reflexology to read?

'The Reflexology Bible: The Definitive Guide to Pressure Point Healing' by Louise Keet is a good place to start. It was first published in 2008 and offers a lot of insights into the practice that complete novices, as well as seasoned practitioners, will find useful. As an alternative, 'Facial Reflexology: A Self-Care Manual' by Marie-France Muller provides a very handy guide to self-reflexology and how to perform it on your face using your hands, thereby bypassing the more common foot massage form of the practice completely. For a comprehensive review of the practice, 'The Complete Guide to Reflexology' by Ruth Hull should not be overlooked. This first came out in 2011 and is designed for intermediate level reflexologists. 'Let's Read Our Feet!: The Foot Reading Guide' by Jane Sheehan first came out in 2005 and has since gone on to be printed in its second edition.

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Reflexology in summary

Although it is tied up with the notion that massaging the feet will lead to beneficial medical outcomes in many people's imaginations, reflexology – or zone therapy – is much more interconnected than that. Instead of merely massaging the feet all over to produce a relaxing effect that leads to wellness, reflexologists will typically hone in on specific parts of the body by massaging their reflex points. For example, the heels of both the left and right feet will relate to the pelvis. Equally, the centre of the underside of the big toe will create a corresponding reflex point with the pituitary gland. However, it is not just the feet that have this capacity, according to most reflexologists. For example, the point of the hand immediately beneath the forefinger and index finger will relate to the eyes, while the corresponding part under the ring finger and little finger will connect to the ears.

Indeed, there are other such points on the face in zone therapy. You can reflexologise someone, for example, by massaging the tip of their nose, an area that corresponds with heart health. Equally, the chin is said to correspond with the pancreas and the spleen. Overall, however, part of undergoing a treatment is an investment in receiving a beneficial outcome. This is because, thus far, medical science has only very limited evidence to suggest it is a good way of treating medical conditions. Many people believe it does, however, and it certainly seems to be of benefit with all-around well-being and wellness. Most people who find it helpful go on to continue with multiple treatments, sometimes for the rest of their lives.

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