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The massaging of feet to diagnose and cure disease. In the 1930s, Eunice Ingham (1889-1974) applied Occam’s razor to Dr. William Fitzgerald’s teachings in Zone Therapy (1917) and dubbed the result reflexology. She eliminated all of Fitzgerald’s energy zones--he said there are ten such zones in the body--except for the feet. Reflexology is based on the unsubstantiated belief that each part of each foot is a mirror site for a part of the body. The big toe, for example, is considered a reflex area for the head. As iridology maps the body with irises, reflexology maps the body with the feet, the right foot corresponding to the right side of the body and the left foot corresponding to the left side of the body. Because the whole body is represented in the feet, reflexologists consider themselves to be holistic health practitioners, not foot doctors. Allegedly, the ancient Chinese and Egyptians practiced reflexology, and it is still very popular in Europe.

Practitioners of reflexology claim that they can cure a variety of aches and pains by massaging the correct reflex points on the foot. It is said by those who practice it that reflexology can cure migraine headaches and relieve sinus problems. It can restore harmony to hormonal imbalances and cure breathing disorders and digestive problems. If you have a back problem, a massage on the right spot on the right foot (which might be the left foot in some cases) can alleviate your suffering. If you suffer from circulatory problems or have a lot of tension and stress, reflexology promises relief.

There are many variations of reflexology and many names for these variations, including Zone Therapy, Vacuflex, and Vita Flex. Some chiropodists are also reflexologists, although there is no necessary connection between the two. Some reflexologists deny that they diagnose or treat diseases, but claim they can restore “balance” to one’s "energy."

Reflexology is often combined with other therapies and practices, such as acupressure, shiatsu, yoga, and tai chi,. and it often involves the hands and other body parts or zones, not just the feet. Reflexology seems to be a variation of acupressure, with its notion that there are correspondences between special pressure points and the flow of chi to bodily organs. Polarity therapy, a variant of reflexology, replaces the yin and yang opposition with the positive/negative energy charges of the sides of the body (the right side is positively charged);  massage allegedly restores the proper balance of energy. In polarity therapy, the foot is the site of just one of many key massage points.

One reason foot massage may be so pleasurable and is associated with significant improvement in mood is that the area of the brain that connects to the foot is adjacent to the area that connects to the genitals. There may be some neuronal overlapping. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran writes of a person whose leg was amputated and who experienced orgasms in his phantom foot (1998: 36-37). “The genitals are right next to the foot in the body’s brain maps,” he notes, and speculates that this fact may account for foot fetishes.

See also alternative health practice, hidden persuaders, massage therapy, and placebo effect.

reader comments

further reading

websites and blogs

Quack Watch - Dr. Stephen Barrett

Reflexology William T. Jarvis, Ph.D.

The "Reflexology Steering Wheel Cover" by Stephen Barrett, M.D.

  Reflexology. Insert Nancy Sinatra Reference Here by Mark Crislip of Science-Based Medicine "...ignoring the fact there is no reason to test the efficacy of reflexology, what has reflexology been found to be effective in treating? Almost nothing of note."

books and articles

Barrett, Stephen and William T. Jarvis. eds. The Health Robbers: A Close Look at Quackery in America, (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1993),

Bausell, R. Barker. (2007). Snake Oil Science: The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine Oxford.

Ernst, Edzard. 2009. Is reflexology an effective intervention? A systematic review of randomised controlled trials.  Medical Journal of Australia 7;191:263-266. The review of 18 studies concluded: The best evidence available to date does not demonstrate convincingly that reflexology is an effective treatment for any medical condition.

Ramachandran, V.S. and Sandra Blakeslee. Phantoms in the Brain (Quill William Morrow, 1998).

Last updated 21-Nov-2015

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