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Reflexology has been used as an effective form of therapy for over five thousand years. The earliest evidence of some form of foot and hand therapy was discovered in Egypt in the tomb of the Egyptian physician Ankmahor around 2500BCE, who was considered one of the most influential people at that time. In his tomb were found many medically related paintings and one of which what was believe to be the earliest example of reflexology.

The re-discovery of some form of foot treatment is accredited to Dr William Fitzgerald (1872-1942), American surgeon considered the true pioneer of reflexology who drew reflexology to the attention of the medical world between 1915 and 1917. He founded the zone therapy as we know it today after discovering that certain areas (called “zones”) of the skin reflected internal organs and that illness in an organ could create a sensitivity or pain on the related zone of the skin as well as the pressure of a specific area of the skin could help the internal organ corresponding. His work was extended by Eunice Ingham (1889 – 1974) in the early 1930 who, by following the Fitzgerald’s theory of zone therapy, created the first “footmaps” of the body that form the basis of modern reflexology.

How Does Reflexology Work?

Although there is no scientific proof, many documented case studies demonstrated the effectiveness of reflexology and several theories have been elaborated in order to explain how reflexology might work.

The Energy Theory and Therapeutic Relationship

All our body processes are electro-chemical processes (as Dr Fitzgerald claimed: ‘The human body is an electro-mechanism’) and therefore we are fundamentally energy. This energy flows through the body in specific channels and pathways and when there is any blockage or congestion in this flow of energy, the body can lead itself towards a state of disease. This concept of energy is the fundamental concept for Chinese medicine (where energy is called Qi in acupuncture and Ki in Shiatzu) and it is the most popular theory used to explain reflexology: by applying pressure to reflex points on the feet and hands, will be released the congestion and the energy can flow again.

The concept of energy forms the basis for the “The Therapeutic Relationship” theory which claims that healing in reflexology is based on an energetic interaction between three energies – the energies of the client, the therapist and the universal life-force. When the client’s energy is not balanced, that one of the therapist becomes like a catalyst for change it. But that is possible when the reflexologist is self-aware, balanced and centred and uses reflexology as a tool for their health encouraging the clients to be aware of their body and take responsibility for their health. The therapeutic relationship encourages in that way the third energy which is the universal life-force, present throughout the universe.

The Crystal Deposits Theory

The crystal deposits are made up of uric acid and calcium crystals and may be felt as small grains of sand when working on the reflexes on the hands and feet. This congestion occurs as consequence of acidity in the blood stream and indicate congestion. Eunice Ingham first discovered these crystal deposits and described in her book Stories the Feet Can Tell Through Reflexology, the importance of working them out in order to restore the normal circulation to the affected part of the body and restoring health.

The Pain Gate Control Theory

In 1965, the Canadian psychologist Ronald Melzack and the British doctor Patrick Wall, outlined a scientific theory about psychological influence on pain perception: ‘The gate control theory’. This theory has paved the away for various pain management strategies such as the transcutaneous nerve stimulation (TENS) used in medical environment for pain relief.

The skin contains thousands of nerve endings made up of different sensory fibres specialized to respond to different stimuli (touch, temperature, pressure and pain). By rubbing an area of the skin, we are stimulating large diameter sensory fibres while if we hurt ourselves, small diameter sensory fibres are stimulated. Both of these fibres enter together the spinal cord where encounter the gate before reaching the brain. When the pain signals carried by the small fibres are less intense compared to the other non-pain sensory signals like touch, pressure and temperature the gate will close and the pain signals transmission will be inhibit.

This theory might explain why someone finds relief by rubbing or massaging a painful area and also how reflexology can give an analgesic effect.

The theory also proposed that the pain signal transmission can be influenced by emotions and thoughts and it is not just a biological phenomenon. That explains why people have different tolerability to the pain and they react and cope with it differently. Thoughts and feeling of a person are able to send signals through descending fibres towards the gate which will amplify o reduce the pain signals by affecting therefore the perception of pain in the brain.

Placebo Effect Theory

Placebo effect (also called the placebo response) is a phenomenon in which a placebo (a substance like a sugar pill, or any inactive substance) improves a patient’s condition simply because the person believes that it will be helpful. Especially sceptics claim that reflexology only works through the placebo effect and this is debatable. However, several research showed up that placebo effect causes effective changes on the client’s brains.

The Endorphin Release Theory

Reflexology is thought to increase the release of endorphins.

Endorphins (called “natural painkillers”) are neurotransmitters essential for transmission of nerve impulse. They are found in the thalamus, hypothalamus and pituitary gland and through interaction with opiate receptors in the brain, they reduce our perception of pain. With high endorphin levels, we feel less pain and fewer negative effects of stress. Furthermore the secretion of endorphins leads to modulation of appetite, release of sex hormones, control of body temperature.

The Nerve Impulse Theory

It is estimated that our feet contain about 7,000 nerve endings which are all stimulated during a reflexology treatment. By stimulating reflex point on hands and feet, reflexology may help clear the nerve pathways so that nerve impulses can be transported efficiently.