What is Reflexology and Where Does it Come From?

Put bluntly, relativism is lost on modern medicine. Especially in Western medicine, where a treatment or product’s credibility is forever fettered to rigorous standards of measurability and reliability; everything must be objective to meet mainstream approval. What does this mean for those disciplines, like reflexology, that opt for different standards? They become, often pejoratively, associated with "alternative medicine,” a somewhat contentious brand that means different things to different people. Before we can even take the case of reflexology before the empirical Gods, however, we need to ask the obvious: What is reflexology? So, let’s talk feet and energy transference.

Here’s How it Works

Reflexology in its truest form is the use of pressure applied with the practitioner's hand to a specific spot on the feet, hands, or ears to elicit a desirable response elsewhere in the body.The more empirical side of the alternative medicine spectrum, if such a place exists, would claim that the mechanism by which this occurs involves stimulation of terminal nerve branches and pressure sensors with pressure applied by the reflexologist.

Okay, that was a little dry.

Basically, trained acupressure of specific areas on our hands, feet, and face allows reflexology practitioners to affect changes elsewhere in the body because of the access to nerve endings.

At least that’s what one school says.

Those less concerned with echoing mainstream doctrine cite instead the facilitation of energy (or Qi) transport along one of many pathways into the body as the healing mechanism of reflexology.

Okay Really, This is How Reflexology Works

Regardless of the rationale, all reflexologists reference "maps" (see above) of the feet and hands as pictured. What is reflexology “mapping” exactly, you ask?

Well, if you are a true subscriber to the art, the answer is thousands of structures.

These maps or zone charts indicate the areas of the palm and plantar foot surface which they believe correspond to specific structures throughout the body. When it comes to applying the treatment itself, the only other element aside from said knowledge of where, is what: how much pressure to apply, how to use strokes, and which products to use.

Where does Reflexology Come From?

Like so many ancient healing arts, the origin of this one can be traced back to more than 2000 BC in China, and soon after in Japan and Egypt in preserved medical journals and pictographs. It was not until the early 19th century, when researchers were beginning to form the modern understanding of the nervous system, that Britain and the United States began to appreciate the connection between applied stimuli and organ/system function.

As Britain and the US worked diligently in the last two to three centuries to form what is now referred to as the "biomedical paradigm," the Western view and practice of medicine largely bolstered by germ theory, it can be said unequivocally that reflexology followed the forked path of many of its contemporary healing arts. This is to say that it is swept under the "holistic and alternative medicine" rug in the West, while it is lauded as a legitimate healing practice in other regions.

Regardless, thousands of reflexology patients have been freed from their chronic pain, GI dysfunction, stress, anxiety, and so on. So maybe our squabbling over which box to place reflexology in would be energy better spent in spreading and supporting the healing art.

Kunz, B., & Kunz, K. (2009). Complete reflexology for life. London: Dorling Kindersley.