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What Is Reflexology?

May 3, 2015 Massage Therapy, General 0 Comments

Reflexology is one discipline in the much larger field of holistic medicine, and a growing body of evidence reveals its effectiveness when using natural treatments to mend many common and not-so-common illnesses. But what is reflexology in the context of modern medicine?

What Is Reflexology?When It Began

Reflexology actually dates back to ancient China, whose people employed healing foot practices as early as 4000 B.C. At that time, according to the International Institute of Reflexology, elements of reflexology were also found in Egypt, in what is known as the Tomb of Ankhmahor.

Modern reflexology, however, started in Russia over a century ago. Led by Nobel Laureate Ivan Pavlov (best known for having researched conditioned reactions among hungry dogs), Russian and German physicians explored the health benefits of the reflex response. In 1917, it was another Russian physician — Vladimir Bekterev — who coined the term "reflexology." He believed an organ became ill because the information it receives from the brain is misdirected. Reflexologists used a series of reflex responses to "interrupt" these messages and correct them.

Ingham and Carter

Reflexology's practice was relegated to the fringe of medicine by the actions of a single individual, Eunice Ingham. An American physiotherapist who focused on foot reflexology, she faced ever-growing scrutiny as her method (and its practitioners) became better known. As a result, explains Reflexology Research, she discredited herself and the profession by replacing her initial explanation of reflexology — a function of the nervous system — with one that "took on metaphorical terms that were to color the practice for decades to come."

Dismissed by traditional practitioners, reflexologists faced charges of practicing medicine without a license. In 1970, Mildred Carter published her seminal work, "Helping Yourself with Foot Reflexology," which went a long way toward normalizing the practice once it sold over a million copies. By the beginning of the 21st century, reflexology grew into a widely recognized modality of holistic medicine.

Using Pressure to Relax

So what is reflexology at the clinical level? The answer begins with energy, but not the kind derived from fossil fuels or solar power. Holistic practitioners believe a life force flows in all living things. When this energy — called chi — flows unimpeded, the body, mind, emotions and spirit are all in balance. When these pathways become blocked or misdirected, illness in some form invariably follows.

Generally harmless, reflexology involves the use of pressure on areas of the feet, ears and hands. Because specific locations on the feet are known to be conduits to specific organs, practitioners rely on a "foot chart" and use simple objects such as rubber bands, balls and wooden sticks as tools with which to apply this pressure. These techniques are not limited to reflexologists, either: Like other holistic modalities, they are especially effective as complementary tools. Massage therapists, physical therapists and chiropractors often employ reflexology in their practices.

Research supports some interesting therapeutic value to reflexology. For example, it has been found to induce relaxation that helps with pain, anxiety and depression. It is also used as an effective palliative care technique for cancer patients, who are realizing benefits doctors are only now beginning to understand. Reflexologists claim further benefits, but they are not yet confirmed by research — for example, helping to control diabetes and asthma.

What is reflexology? Beyond a holistic treatment medical modality, it is also a growing occupation. Many schools offer reflexology programs, and professional organizations like the Association of Reflexologists seek to reinforce the science and advantages of the field. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, massage therapists (a category that includes reflexologists) will see a 23 percent growth in number of jobs between 2012 and 2022.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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