Foot massage
Foot massage

What is Reflexology?

By Massage Today, Editorial Staff
January 11, 2024

What is Reflexology?

By Massage Today, Editorial Staff
January 11, 2024

Reflexology, or zone therapy, is a form of alternative medicine used to relieve tension and treat illnesses. It differs from regular massage therapy due to its basis on the theory that all areas of the body can be stimulated via corresponding areas on the feet, hands, and head.

“It is believed that body systems are connected to certain areas of the hands, feet, and ears; working specific areas of the feet, for example, may influence how certain body systems function,” says Valerie Hanson, owner, Body & Sole Massage & reflexology. “Working those areas of the feet may encourage that body system toward homeostasis.”

The tips of the toes and the fingers are said to correspond to the head and brain. The area between the middle and forefinger corresponds to the eye, while the area between the pinky finger and ring finger corresponds to the ear.

“The left side of the neck is reflected in the proximal phalanges of the left great toe. If the left side of your neck is still, work the proximal left great toe,” says Hanson.

See Also: What is Palliative Massage?

“Essentially, reflexology is the stimulation of specific points on the feet, hands, or head that correspond to different parts of the body,” says Gloria Haag, certified massage therapist and owner of Gloria Grace: Massage & Reflexology. “The goal is to initiate a natural internal response that aims to correct any kind of dysfunction resulting in optimal balance and performance of all systems as a whole.”

The underlying principle of reflexology is that it works directly with the nervous system. “If you look at a diagram of the nervous system you can see that it is essentially a widespread branching system that all starts at the brain and then branches out from the spine to spread throughout the entire body,” Haag says. “So by applying pressure and stimulating the very tips of these ‘branches,’ we can send signals along the entire pathway to communicate with the brain (the nervous system HQ).”


Because reflexology works directly with the nervous system, individuals with nerve issues may experience the most noticeable improvement from the treatment. “I personally have had some pretty incredible results reported from clients with widespread nerve pain due to fibromyalgia,” Haag says. “I’ve also seen positive results in individuals with neuropathy and restless leg syndrome.

Those who experience physical reactions to stress have also reported noticeable improvement in the way they feel overall.” Additionally, people who are hypersensitive to touch and cannot tolerate a traditional massage may benefit from reflexology.

However, just about anyone can benefit from reflexology, not just those with underlying nerve issues. “Almost everyone can benefit from reflexology, but I have clients who have neuropathy, fertility issues, incontinence issues, headaches/migraines, and people who just want to relax,” says Hanson.

Possible overall benefits of reflexology include:

  • deep relaxation
  • stress relief
  • pain management
  • digestive relief
  • improved sleep
  • reduced anxiety/depression

Often, it will only take one session for clients to feel a noticeable difference, but results are unique to each individual.


Reflexology sessions should be a relaxing experience for the client. There is no disrobing required for reflexology, beyond removal of the shoes and (preferably) the socks if it is the foot that is being worked on. Clients are also encouraged to wear comfortable clothing that they can easily lay down and relax in.

“Many clients fall asleep during treatment,” Haag says. “Some individuals may experience faint sensations throughout the body as the nerve pathways are stimulated. Some have mentioned tingling or warming sensations in different areas, as well as twitches or even uncontrollable muscle spasms of body parts during treatment, but none of these sensations should be painful.”

“I use a thumb walking technique to apply alternating pressure across the entire foot, repeating passes across areas of tension or when the client indicates discomfort,” Hanson says. “I do an hour session to cover the entire foot bilaterally and take time to repeat on areas that need more work.”

In addition to massage tables, many who practice reflexology will have a recliner or zero-gravity chair for clients to sit in during their session.


Reflexology is generally considered safe and comes with few contraindications.

General contraindications include:

  • Contagious skin diseases
  • Severe psoriasis or eczema
  • Severe varicose veins
  • Any form of infection
  • Bruising on feet
  • Any acute injury on the area being worked on

Additionally, some physicians may advise pregnant clients from receiving foot reflexology as there is a small chance of inducing early labor.

“I personally have had experiences where individuals with chronic digestive issues have reported flareups of their condition for two to three days after receiving treatment,” Haag says. “I always inform clients with these types of conditions that these flare-ups are possible. In cases where correction of the digestive issue is not the primary purpose of the treatment I offer to skip or do light work over the digestive system reflexes to avoid these uncomfortable reactions.”

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The overall benefits of reflexology outweigh any possible risks for most people. “I encourage people to try reflexology to see how it works for them since it is less invasive than deep massage, may address more internal issues, and is a modality they can learn and use at home,” Hanson says.