Some massage schools include basic reflexology information or instruction in their core curriculum. However, to specialize in reflexology—the practice of manipulating zones on the feet or, sometimes, the hands or ears, that correspond to other areas of the body—requires specialized training.
What is reflexology?
The history of modern reflexology, according to the International Institute of Reflexology’s website, dates back to the early 20th century and William H. Fitzgerald, M.D., a New England ear, nose and throat specialist who published his findings about what he called Zone Analgesia—using pressure points to relieve pain and other symptoms. Other practitioners, including physical therapist Eunice D. Ingham, worked with Fitzgerald to develop and apply his system.
In foot reflexology, practitioners apply methodical, sustained pressure to certain areas of the feet with the intention of rebalancing and restoring the flow of energy, thus effecting positive change, elsewhere. A reflexologist can systematically work all areas of the feet to promote overall wellness, as well as target any issues the client presents with. For example, a specific area of the heel is said to correspond to the sciatic nerve; for a client suffering from pain in the sciatic area, the practitioner would apply pressure to the corresponding zone of the foot, rather than manipulate the problem area directly.
Claire Marie Miller, founder of Claire Marie Miller Seminars, has been a professional massage therapist for 36 years, and offers continuing education in many areas, including reflexology. She considers herself an “outlier” in the field of reflexology because she developed her own reflexology technique.
“There is not one method,” Miller said, but there is one goal of reflexology, she said: to help relieve clients’ pain and other issues.
Why is reflexology effective?
During a typical reflexology session, the therapist asks the client if he has any areas of pain, tightness or injury, and for new clients the therapist completes an intake form. The client remains clothed, except for shoes and socks, and either sits or lies down. The therapist then applies pressure to various spots on the feet, hands or ears, depending on the client’s needs, although foot reflexology is the modality employed most often.
The feet contain more than 7,000 nerve endings, according to many sources, including the Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine’s overview of reflexology. “It is a rich area for accessing the body,” said Miller.
Proponents of reflexology say it is helpful for a range of conditions, including digestive issues, infertility, tension headaches, spinal problems and many others. Research studies indicate reflexology reduces anxiety in chemotherapy patients; improves sleep for postpartum women; and reduces symptoms of low-back pain, among many other benefits. (These studies and more on reflexology and other modalities can be accessed at massagemag.com/research-studies.)
Reflexology and PTSD
Perhaps one of the most promising uses of reflexology being explored is in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Miller described an encounter with a wounded military veteran she was seated next to on an airplane. In the course of normal conversation, she mentioned being a massage therapist; the man told her he had PTSD, and would never consider getting a massage.
“He said, ‘There’s no way I would take off all of my clothes and lay facedown with a stranger in the room,’” Miller said. She then explained to him how he could receive the relaxation benefit of reflexology while remaining face-up and fully clothed.
“Many people say that it is more relaxing than a full-body massage,” said Miller.
There is a growing body of research that supports the use of reflexology for people who have PTSD, including an Institute of Human Ecology study involving Israeli soldiers. This study, among others, is summarized on the Reflexology Research Project website, which is maintained by reflexology educators and authors Kevin and Barbara Kunz.
According to Miller, reflexology is a highly sought-after alternative therapy at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Maryland. Demand for the treatment is so high that Cause USA, a group that, according to its website, “organizes programs that promote recreation, relaxation and resiliency for members of the U.S. Armed Services recuperating from injuries received in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan,” has a specific program to raise money for service members to get reflexology treatments, as well as massage and reiki sessions.
If you are interested in specializing in reflexology, several resources exist. The American Reflexology Certification Board, which offers board certification in the modality, is a good place to start. As with any specialized technique, specialized training must be completed in order to practice it. The International Institute of Reflexology, for example, offers an eight-day training that results in certification.