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4th March, 20214 min read

What is reflexology and does it really work?

Medical reviewer:Dr Ann Nainan
Author:Libby Williams
Last reviewed: 02/03/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

We all love a good foot rub from time to time. But reflexology takes touch therapy to the next level with claims that it may help relieve pain, boost overall wellbeing and more.

Read on to find out what reflexology is, how it works and if there’s any science behind the reported benefits.

What is reflexology?

Reflexology is a type of touch therapy that involves applying pressure to the feet, hands, face, ears or lower legs – trigger points in these areas are believed to relate to certain organs or systems in the body that need healing. Research suggests that reflexology can help reduce stress and promote relaxation.

What’s the thinking behind how reflexology works?

None of the theories around how reflexology works have been proven, but they include the following:

Energy flow

According to Chinese medicine, energy (or qi) flows through the body, but can become blocked as a result of stress or illness. By targeting specific pressure points in the feet, hands or ears, reflexology may be able to break down these blockages and restore the flow of energy in the body.

Zone therapy

The zone therapy theory divides areas on the hands and feet into sections, or zones, each of which are thought to match up with a zone in the body. This theory suggests that placing pressure on one zone of the foot or hand will have an effect on the related zone in the body.

Touch and the nervous system

Another theory suggests that reflexology works by stimulating the nervous system. It’s believed that pressing on the feet stimulates the nerves and sends messages to the central nervous system that help the body relax.

The benefits of reflexology

There is some evidence to suggest that reflexology may help:

  • reduce levels of stress and anxiety
  • relieve pain
  • lift mood and improve general wellbeing

Some people also report that reflexology has helped:

  • boost the immune system
  • fight colds and infections
  • reduce sinus issues
  • alleviate back problems
  • correct hormonal imbalances
  • overcome infertility
  • improve digestive problems
  • ease arthritic pain
  • reduce nerve tingling and numbness from cancer drugs

How to find a reflexologist and what to expect at an appointment

If you’re looking to book an appointment with a reflexologist, it’s important to check that they’ve undertaken all the necessary training to understand the theory and practice of reflexology. You can find qualified, registered reflexologists via:

  • the Association of Reflexologists in the UK
  • the Reflexology Association of America in the US
  • the All India Association of Acupressure Reflexology in India

At your first visit, your reflexologist will take a general medical history. If you’re taking any medications, they may ask to speak to your GP before proceeding with any treatment.

Treatments are usually performed lying down or in a comfortable seated position and last between 45 and 60 minutes.

You may feel some tenderness in the areas that the reflexologist is working on, but overall, reflexology should be a relaxing and comfortable experience. When finished, your therapist may suggest a course of treatment.

Is reflexology for you?

If you’re looking for an alternative treatment for pain, stress or anxiety, reflexology might be worth a try.

Generally, reflexology seems to be safe and hasn’t been found to cause many negative side effects.

Always check with your doctor before having reflexology if you have any of the following conditions:

  • circulatory problems of the feet
  • inflammation or blood clots in the leg veins
  • gout
  • foot ulcers
  • fungal conditions of the feet
  • thyroid problems
  • epilepsy
  • a low platelet count

If you’re pregnant or have a pacemaker, you need to tell your reflexologist before the session as they’ll need to take this into account when treating you.

If you have cancer, speak to your doctor before having reflexology treatment. If your doctor tells you it’s fine to go ahead, be sure to find a reflexologist who has training or experience in treating people with cancer.

Key points

  • reflexology is a touch therapy that involves applying pressure to trigger points in the feet, hands, ears, face or lower legs
  • trigger points are believed to relate to areas of the body that need healing
  • evidence suggests reflexology can help reduce pain, stress and anxiety
  • some people report reflexology has helped them with immunity, back problems, digestion, arthritis and a number of other conditions
  • it’s important to choose a reflexologist who is properly trained and registered
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