Relaxation for Body and Mind
One of the fastest growing offshoots in the complementary health field, reflexology uses nothing more than strategically placed finger pressure, usually on the hands or feet, to reduce stress and stress-related health problems.
Under stress, humans instinctively practice reflexology, says Bill Flocco, reflexologist and director of the American Academy of Reflexology in Burbank, California. Mothers wring their hands the first time their teenagers drive the family car. And many of us find ourselves rubbing our feet at the end of a long, hard day at work or pulling on our ears as we ponder a sticky problem.
The technique, reflexologists say, relieves tension, improves circulation and enhances nerve function. While some practitioners work solely with the feet and hands, others include the ears as well.
Reflexologists see the feet and hands as a mirror of the body. Certain areas on each foot and hand, they say, are linked to all body parts. The right foot corresponds to the right side of the body and the left foot corresponds to the left side of the body. Theoretically, the big toe relates to the head, including the brain; the sole of the foot relates to all parts of the body, including organs and glands; and the heel area relates to the pelvic area, including the bladder, reproductive organs and sciatic nerve. By working the appropriate areas of the feet or hands, practitioners say that you stimulate a reflex response that affects the corresponding areas of the body.
And that, Flocco says, is why Academy Award winners so often pull their earlobes before accepting their Oscars and launching into their acceptance speeches. The earlobe corresponds to the head and brain, he says. Pulling it helps clear the mind. Similarly, during court trials, defendants wring their hands on the stand because the palm supposedly represents the diaphragm, spine and internal organs and stimulating that area can relieve abdominal tension. Ditto for the sole of each foot, which allegedly explains why we instinctively rub our feet after grueling days at the grindstone.
Reflexologists believe that your body is divided into energy zones and that every tendon, ligament, organ, muscle, bone and brain cell falls within these zones. Each area on the soles of your feet corresponds with parts of your body, so gentle pressure applied to these spots, shown here, can relieve pain and stress. Because of individual differences, some practitioners suggest that you work the broader areas as well. (Some practitioners use different versions of this diagram.)
Reflexology as we know it today was developed in the mid-1930s by Eunice Ingham, a physical therapist in Rochester, New York.
The Office of Alternative Medicine for the National Institutes of Health hasn't researched reflexology. However, research that has been conducted has found reflexology to be effective against premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Researchers at the American Academy of Reflexology and the California Graduate Institute in Los Angeles randomly assigned 35 women with PMS to two groups. One group had 30 minutes of ear, foot and hand reflexology once a week for eight weeks. The other group had sham reflexology sessions--too little or too much pressure on inappropriate spots on the feet, hands and ears. While women in the first group had 46 percent fewer symptoms, women in the control group reported 19 percent fewer symptoms. Beyond that, little has been done in the way of scientific research.
Nonetheless, reflexology is thriving. "Experience tells us that it works," says Flocco, co-author of the PMS study.
The International Institute of Reflexology, a training organization for reflexology in St. Petersburg, Florida, estimates that it has trained more than 70,000 practitioners worldwide. Massage therapists, physical therapists, medical doctors, chiropractors, allopathic physicians, naturopaths, podiatrists and nurses now use or recommend reflexology for stress-related health problems such as back, shoulder and neck pain, headaches, chronic indigestion, headaches, overeating and anxiety as well as many other health problems.
"Reflexology is a very effective treatment to reduce stress," says Ray C. Wunderlich, Jr., M.D., a St. Petersburg physician who refers stressed-out men and women to reflexologists.
And Marian Small, R.N., naturopathic physician and clinical instructor of acupuncture at Bastyr University in Seattle, uses ear reflexology on women suffering pain of all sorts.
Practitioners and clients like the fact that reflexology is noninvasive--it doesn't require taking drugs or invading the body with foreign matter or materials, thus causing no side effects--and may lend itself to self-treatment. You can learn basic reflexology routines at a weekend workshop at a school of reflexology or from a book, notes Dwight Byers, president of the International Institute of Reflexology and author of Better Health with Foot Reflexology.
A TYPICAL SESSION
Reflexologists don't claim to treat specific illnesses. In a given session, they'll work the entire length and width of each foot or hand. But they will give extra attention to whatever part of each foot or hand corresponds to the body part that's causing you trouble.
A typical reflexology session lasts 30 to 60 minutes and clients remain clothed, though barefoot, throughout. Long-term problems may require several sessions, says Laura Norman, reflexologist in New York City and author of Feet First: A Guide to Foot Reflexology. And clients whose lifestyles are habitually stressful usually do best with weekly sessions, she adds.
If you're curious about how reflexology is applied, consider the following scenario: Teaching a weekend reflexology class in midtown Manhattan, Flocco demonstrates proper technique on Amelia, a student with a not-so-leisurely job for New York City's subway system.
He starts by asking her a few questions. Does she have any health problems? She says that she thinks she's pulled something and has some pain near her stomach. Does she see a doctor regularly? Eat properly? Exercise? She says that lately she hasn't been eating well. So Flocco suggests a few dietary changes, then asks her to take off her shoes and socks and hop up on a padded reflexology table that is similar to a massage table.
Flocco checks her ears, feet and hands for tender spots and discolorations. According to theory, such irregularities can be warning signs that corresponding body parts aren't working right. Flocco notes a discolored area in the upper groove of Amelia's ear and tender spots on her palm and the sole of her foot--all areas that correspond to the stomach.
After gently rubbing Amelia's ear for awhile, he starts pressing firmly with his thumbs and fingers. He covers the entire ear but gives the discolored spot extra attention. Then it's on to the other ear, the hands and, finally, the feet. When Flocco has finished, Amelia says that the pain near her stomach has faded. Extremely relaxed, she dozes off on the table.
No wonder she fell asleep: First and foremost, practitioners attribute reflexology's successes to its stress-reducing effect.
"The primary benefit of reflexology is relieving stress and tension, which is the cause of over 75 percent of our health ills," says Byers, who is also the nephew of Eunice Ingham, founder of modern reflexology. Doctors implicate stress as a culprit in a multitude of health problems--from migraines and muscle spasms to back, shoulder and neck aches, to compulsive eating, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety and sluggish immunity.
According to Flocco, stress also interferes with the function of the nervous system, leading to a buildup of substances that irritate the nerve endings.
Reflexology may work in the same way that acupuncture and acupressure do, prompting the body to produce the neurochemicals responsible for producing feelings of well-being, relieving pain and reducing inflammation throughout the body, says Bruce Pomeranz, M.D., Ph.D., neurophysiologist and professor at the University of Toronto School of Medicine and one of the world's foremost acupuncture researchers.
Instead of inserting needles into strategic points on the body, reflexologists apply pressure to points on the feet, ears and hands. So pressing a reflexology point on the ear could well relieve pain by stimulating nerves which then trigger the release of painkilling neurochemicals in the brain, just as acupuncture does, says Dr. Pomeranz.
Reflexology, practitioners say, is not a substitute for medical treatment but a supplement to medical care. "We don't diagnose," says Norman. "So it's always a good idea to get a diagnosis from your doctor before consulting a reflexologist." Norman believes that most illnesses are brought on or aggravated by stress. So if your doctor diagnoses a stress-related problem, she advises heading for a qualified reflexologist.
Dr. Wunderlich says that he often refers patients to reflexologists for relief from neck and muscle pain, poor digestion, tension headaches, fibromyalgia and PMS.
And Dr. Small recommends it for aches, pains and PMS as well.
Reflexologists study the science and art of relieving common areas of pain and stress that can accumulate over time. Practitioners believe that working on certain spots can help your body return to its natural balance and give it a chance to heal.
Number of practitioners in the United States: Approximately 10,000.
Qualifications to look for: Experts suggest that you look for certification from the American Reflexology Certification Board, an independent testing service, but there is no one standard training program for reflexology. Practitioners learn reflexology at reflexology institutes, community colleges, adult education programs and other schools--so the quality and extent of training varies widely.
Professional associations: American Reflexology Certification Board, P.O. Box 620607, Littleton, CO 80162; International Institute of Reflexology, P.O. Box 12642, St. Petersburg, FL 33733.
To find a practitioner: Contact one of the associations listed above.
Approximate cost: $35 to $100 per session, depending on where you live.
If you're interested, you can learn the basics of reflexology in a special weekend workshop, through an adult education program, or a community college. For a short-hand version, try the standard techniques that follow. These techniques won't qualify you as a full-fledged reflexologist. But you'll get the basic idea.
Using the edge of your index finger, take small "bites" of your foot. This is done by bending your finger joint closest to the nail and imagining that your finger is taking tiny bites of your foot. Place your thumb on the other side of your foot for leverage. Each area should be worked four or five times before moving on to work the adjoining area.
Using the outside edge or tip of your thumb, slowly and gently "walk" it along the area that you want to work. This is done by bending the thumb joint closest to your thumbnail. Each time that you bend and unbend this joint to move it forward, imagine that the thumb is taking tiny bites of your foot. Placing your fingers around your foot so that they are directly underneath your thumb will help you apply more even pressure to the areas. The pressure should be gentle but steady. Work each area at least four or five times before moving on to the next area.