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What is Reflexology in Massage Therapy?

Client receiving reflexology treatment

Massage is growing in popularity as a supplemental remedy for injury, pain and stress. Drug-free, it relieves muscle soreness, improves circulation and reduces inflammation. Reflexology, an ancient practice rooted in Eastern medicine, is a type of massage that enhances traditional bodywork and can be used as a complementary treatment. What is reflexology, and how does it work? Massage therapy students learn about reflexology during a massage therapy program, preparing them for an entry-level position as a massage therapist.

What is Reflexology?

Reflexology is a type of hand, foot and ear massage used to heal connected parts of the body. Since all body parts are connected, reflexology uses pressure points to manage pain throughout the body. Reflexologists believe the application of pressure to points on feet, hands and ears can produce physiological changes in the body. The palms, soles and the outer part of the ear are divided into zones corresponding to nerves that lead to muscles and organs throughout the body.

Early practitioners believed blockage in chi, or qi, the energy or life force that flows through all living beings, was responsible for illness and disease and that releasing obstruction would restore balance to the nervous system. Today, science suggests it stimulates the release of endorphins by the brain, feel-good chemicals that are known to mediate stress and physical discomfort.

While reflexology is not recognized as a medical treatment, it’s gaining support in the medical community for its beneficial effects. Research is limited but demonstrates it’s helpful for alleviating:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Migraine and tension headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Sinusitis
  • Diabetes
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Premenstrual Syndrome
  • Digestive complaints
  • Sports injuries
  • Chronic pain

Techniques are similar to conventional massage, but since the work areas are smaller, they utilize the fingers and hands more than the shoulders and upper body. The most frequently used include:

Thumb Walks

Thumb walks are like a crawl. Fingers or thumbs apply pressure followed by release as they move forward over reflex points in millimeter increments.

Circle Technique

The reflexologist uses their thumb or finger to apply pressure to the client’s soft tissue in a circular motion over the reflex point.


Reflexologists push a flexed thumb against a reflex point while using the other hand to rotate the foot beneath it. By moving the foot instead of the thumb, pressure stays firm and consistent.

How Does Reflexology Work?

Reflexology is about connections and how parts of the body connect to the feet, hands, and ears. The application of pressure to the feet, hands and ears sends signals to different parts of the body to adjust the tension levels. This is what offers the benefits of reflexology to the rest of the body.

Reflexology in the Feet

The feet are the gateway to the brain, eyes, sinuses, ears, shoulders, heart and other internal organs. By putting pressure on the big toe, the nerves connected to the brain produce endorphins to improve relaxation, reduce stress and lower blood pressure. Near the base of the second and third toes is a zone that reduces pressure in the eyes. Most internal organs can be improved by massage of the middle portion of the foot, literally the sole of the body.

Reflexology in the Hands

Both the tips of the fingers and tips of the toes correspond with the sinuses. The thumb, like the big toe focus on the brain and the chemical release of endorphins to produce relaxation and stress reduction. Most of the palm is connected to the internal organs, heart, kidney, colon, and liver.

Reflexology in the Ears

The ears are also connected to many parts of the body and internal organs. The area near the top of the ear and outside near the lobe connects the different parts of the body, from the chest, elbows and upper arms to the hip, fingers, legs and feet. The inner canal of the ear is connected to the body’s internal organs, including the liver, heart, and lungs.

Using Reflexology to Supplement Traditional Massage

Massage therapists use their hands to push, pull and knead muscles to achieve a range of benefits from improving circulation to relieving sore muscles. Reflexology is more targeted, using the fingers and thumbs to apply pressure to reflex zones, yet the techniques are similar and complement each other perfectly.

According to the American Massage Therapy Association, 67 percent of people surveyed who received massages requested them to relieve stress or a medical disorder, that reflexology can help to relieve. Since foot massage, including basic reflexology, is already a part of a massage therapist’s training, incorporating it into their practice or offering it as an alternative therapy will allow them to better meet their clients’ needs.

What are the Benefits of Reflexology?

Reflexology has many of the same benefits as massage, including stress reduction, pain relief, lower blood pressure, improved mood, improved circulation, better sleep, and faster healing. All of these benefits are complements of massage and reflexology.

Benefit #1: Stress Reduction

There’s a neurological relationship between muscles, organs and skin. When nerves are stimulated anywhere, the entire nervous system responds, it’s why we feel pain. When stimulated, reflex points in the ears, hands, and feet appear to send messages to the brain to release calming chemicals. The result is a deep feeling of relaxation with benefits extending deep into the body. When used in conjunction with regular massage, the benefits are exponential.

Benefit #2: Pain Relief

Gate control, the theory that pain originates in and can be modified by the brain, plays an important role in reflexology and helps explain why it works. It assumes that discomfort is subjective, processed by the body but interpreted in our minds in the context of other cognitive and emotional factors, like stress.

In gate control theory, according to the Center for Integrated Healthcare, nerves can be closed like a door, blocking painful sensations, while open “gates” permit nerve signal transmission and increase the perception of discomfort. Reflexologists liken the nervous system to the chi and believe that too many open gates reflect an imbalance in the body that leads to chronic pain.

How applying pressure to reflex points improves symptoms isn’t clear, but gate theory supposes that because it stimulates the production of two neurotransmitters, endorphins and Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), it can induce relaxation and mediate nerve signals.

Benefit #3: Lowered Blood Pressure

Reflexology has been found to reduce high blood pressure and triglycerides, common risk factors for heart disease. Many individuals that suffer from high blood pressure also suffer from stress. The reduction in stress with the help of massage and reflexology in turn can help lower high blood pressure. More research is required to determine if the effect is lasting, but early results suggest reflexology is a promising therapy.

Benefit #4: A Brighter Mood

Depression and anxiety are common mental health disorders. A 2019 study of 90 post-menopausal women published in the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics found that those receiving a foot massage and reflexology twice weekly versus a conventional foot massage alone had 50-percent fewer symptoms of depression. Why it worked isn’t clear, but additional research suggests it’s likely related to endorphin production and its effects on female hormones.

Benefit #5: Improved Circulation

Reflexology is known to affect blood circulation throughout the body. There may be a correlation between reflex pressure points in the feet and the dilation of blood vessels in the associated dermatomes, areas of the skin innervated by spinal nerves. There also may be a link between dermatomes, circulation and organ function. The potential for helping patients with circulatory disease due to heart conditions and diabetes is significant.

Benefit #6: Better Sleep

For those with occasional difficulty sleeping, it can become chronic. The use of reflexology, and acupuncture for sleep disturbances may improve sleep patterns. Why? Any therapy that promotes relaxation is likely to help, and it’s possible that stimulating reflex points can increase the hormones that help regulate sleep.

Benefit #7: Faster Healing

Massage helps athletes recover from acute injury by targeting inflammation and maintaining strength and flexibility. Reflexology can help by stimulating the adrenal glands to make more natural glucocorticoids, the body’s natural inflammation-fighting steroids. Applying pressure to a single point in the center of the sole is all it takes.

Final Thoughts

Massage is relaxing and has proven body-wide health benefits, but reflexology adds a deeper dimension to a massage therapist’s practice. The power of touch is healing, it’s a holistic approach to well-being whose time has finally come.

Did learning about reflexology interest you? Want to learn more about a massage therapy program? Broadview University developed the Massage Therapy certificate program with your future in mind. The certificate program is designed to emphasize skills and knowledge for entry-level employment as a massage therapist. The Massage Therapy program at Broadview University prepares students to take the MBLEx licensing exam offered by the Federation of State Massage Therapy Board (FSMTB). Upon completion of the program, students will be eligible for professional membership in such associations as the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) and the Association of Bodywork and Massage Professionals (ABMP).

Contact us today to learn more about becoming a massage therapist.