About reflexology


History and development

Modern reflexology is based on an ancient form of therapy. There is evidence of some form of foot and hand therapy being practised in China as long ago as 4,000 B.C. and also at the same time in Egypt, as depicted in the tomb of Ankmahor. The North American tribes of Indians are known to have practised a form of foot therapy for hundreds of years.
There is some confusion about the true origin of this powerful therapy, sufficient to say that it has stood the test of time and has helped thousands of people to better health.
The first use of the word ‘reflex’ with reference to motor reactions was used by the German physiologist Johann August Unzer in 1771. The dictionary definition of a “reflex” is “an involuntary or instinctive movement in response to a stimulus” or in the sense of reflection or mirror image. The reflexes on our feet and hands act as mirror images of the body. In 1883 Marshall Hall, an English physiologist introduced the concept and term ‘reflex action’.
In the late 1880s neurology as a branch of science became a field of its own. Often articles regarding the most up-to-date research on reflex action were published in England in Brain, A Journal of Neurology. One article “Reflex Action as a Cause of Disease and Means of Cure” by Dr. T. Lauter Brunton discussed the beneficial use of inducing a blister on the skin for the healing of internal problems.

Sir Henry Head (English physiologist) was able to chart areas according to the spinal segment to which they belonged. After years of research he established Head zones which are labeled in anatomy books today as dermatomes. Head’s work conclusively proved the neurological relationship that exists between the skin and the internal organs.
The Russians pursued the study of reflexology both from the psychological and physiological point of view. Russian work with reflexes began with Ivan Pavlov’s (1849-1936) theory of conditioned reflex response which earned him the Nobel Prize in 1904. His famous theory was a reflex action was a simple and direct relationship between a stimulus and a response (the ringing of a bell and a dog salivating).

A fellow countryman and contemporary, Dr. Vladimir Bekhtrev’s study of the reflexes originated from a psychological perspective and he actually originated the term ‘reflexology’. His 1907 work, Objective Psychology was translated into English in 1932 under the title of General Principles of Human Reflexology. Bekhterev’s opening statement defined reflexology far different than modern reflexologist would. He wrote, “Reflexology, which is a new doctrine, is the science of human personality studied from the strictly objective, bio-social standpoint.”

In the late 1890s and early 1900s massage techniques were developed in Germany that became known as ‘reflex massage’. This was the first time that the benefits of massage techniques were credited with reflex actions. Dr. Alfons Cornelius published a manuscript in Vienna in 1902 titled Pressure points, Their Origin and Significance. In this work he notes that the application of pressure incited changes in the body. He observed pressure to certain spots triggered muscle contraction, changes in blood pressure, variation in warmth and moisture in the body as well as directly affecting the ‘psychic processes’ or mental state of the patients. Cornelius puts forth his theory of how the application of pressure works: “(It is) a purely mechanical hindering of the sensitive neurons, the neurons of the sympathetic nerve system.” He also stated that conditions show themselves as sensitive pressure points and “introduce the picture of illness long before it is to be recognized as an expression of a neurological problem.”

Sir Charles Sherrington (1861-1952) disagreed with Pavlov and his work proved that reflex responses are more complicated in that the whole nervous system adjusts to a stimulus. This he termed proprioceptive action. Sherrington’s work earned him the Nobel Prize in 1932. This award he shared with Dr. Edgar Adrian. Adrian made the discovery that the electrical intensity of the nerve impulse (or response) depended on the size of the nerve rather than upon the strength of the stimulus. To reflexologists this means that applying light pressure can be just as effective as heavy pressure.
In 1911, another German physician named Dr. Barczewski introduced the term ‘reflex massage’. This term was then used by different systems which applied pressure as a method of healing.

Zone Therapy

Dr. William FitzGerald (1872-1942) is credited with being the father of ‘zone therapy’. FitzGerald never published where he became acquainted with the theory of zone therapy nor does he give any credit to original sources preceding his. FitzGerald does not refer to any Oriental influence either. It is known he worked in Vienna beginning around 1899. It is here he may have learned of the use of pressure in medical practice.
It was in 1915 that an article entitled “To stop that toothache, squeeze your toe” was published in “Everybody’s Magazine”, written by Edwin Bowers, which first brought Dr Fitzgerald’s work on Zone Therapy before the public.
In 1917, Dr Fitzgerald wrote “Zone Therapy or Relieving Pain in the Home”. Two years later, they enlarged this book and published it under a second title “Zone Therapy or Curing Pain and Disease”.
He wrote – “Six years ago I accidentally discovered that pressure with a cotton tipped probe on the muco-cutinous margin (where the skin joins the mucous membrane) of the nose gave an anaesthetic result as though a cocaine solution had been applied. I further found that there were many spots in the nose, mouth, throat and on both surfaces of the tongue, which, when pressed firmly, deadened definite areas of sensation. Also, that pressure exerted over any bony eminence of the hands, feet or over the joints, produces the same characteristic results in pain relief. I found also that when pain was relieved, the condition that produced the pain was most generally relieved. This led to my ‘mapping out’ these various areas and their associated connections and also to noting the conditions influenced through them. This science I have named “Zone Therapy”.
Zone therapy divides the body into ten zones—five on each side of the sagittal plane. The hands/arms and feet/legs were also divided into five zones each.
It is worth noting that the Chinese had, in acupuncture, divided the body into longitudinal meridians by approximately 2,500 B.C.

Reflex Work

Dr. Joe Shelby Riley (1856 -1947), trained by Dr. FitzGerald, further developed zone therapy by adding eight horizontal divisions to the zones of the feet and hands. His work is accurately the beginning of reflexology as it is known today—that is, reflexes found on the feet and hands that follow the anatomy of the body. Riley’s work with reflexes and zones also included the hands and ears. Fitzgerald’s work had produced non-electrical applicators to aid in applying pressure. Riley added both electrical tools and developed a manual hooking technique with which to apply pressure.


During the 1930s Eunice D. Ingham (1889-1972) who met Riley as early as 1919 worked for Dr. Riley in St. Petersburg, Florida and continued to refine and improve his work. From her first book, Stories the Feet Can Tell (1938) she was encouraged by Riley and others to take her work to the public and non-medical community. Eunice’s major contribution to working with reflexes was that alternating pressure, rather than having a numbing effect, stimulated healing. She extended the work of Dr Fitzgerald and painstakingly mapped the feet with all the corresponding organs and glands of the body. She was a real pioneer who was determined to help people to help themselves, if their doctor was not using reflexology. In the early years, she worked with doctors to prove her findings and to demonstrate to them that reflexology was a useful diagnostic tool.
For forty years she lectured and travelled back and forth across the United States. She wrote three books in the process, often using the term ‘compression reflex massage’ though she never envisioned reflexology as part of massage. She saw reflexology as a separate discipline but felt if she used the medical term ‘reflexology’ she could get in trouble with the medical community.. In the 1970s Eunice retired and the lecturing was taken over by her nephew, Dwight Byers.

Reflexology as an International Movement
In the 1950s French medical doctor, Paul Nogier developed charts based on reflex points on the outer ears. This is sometimes referred to as auriculotherapy. In 1955 a German, W. Kohlrausch wrote in his book Reflex Zone Massage that disturbances of the organs follow vascular channels which are associated with the reflexes of the arteries instead of the nervous system.
In 1958, Hanne Marquardt was working in a German sanatorium when she first came in contact with Eunice Ingham’s book, Stories the Feet Can Tell. The book had become well-known in Switzerland in the 1950s and from there, it entered into the German-speaking countries. In the 1970s Hanne, who had personally studied with Ingham in America, took Eunice’s work to Germany where it was termed Reflex Zone Therapy. Marquardt would go on to instruct many of the future teachers of reflexology throughout countries in Europe in her over 50 year career with reflexology.
Another one of Eunice’s students who became an author was Doreen Bayly from England. Doreen was trained in America in the late 50s and was the first teacher in Europe for Eunice introducing the work there. She authored Reflexology Today in 1984.
In 1969, Mildred Carter who had studied with Ingham wrote Helping Yourself with Reflexology. It was the first book published by a major publisher in the United States with sales of over 500,000 copies. This not only created greater public awareness of reflexology but also opened the door for all the self-help books available today. In the 1970s and 80s many books on reflexology were written. Today there are several hundred books on the subject around the world.

How does it work?

Theory 1: Reflexology works with the central nervous system.
This theory builds on research done in the 1890s by Sir Henry Head and Sir Charles Sherrington, who began to show through their research that a neurological relationship exists between the skin and the internal organs, and that the whole nervous system adjusts to a stimulus.
According to the theory, the reflexologist’s application of pressure to feet, hands, or ears sends a calming message from the peripheral nerves in these extremities to the central nervous system, which in turn signals the body to adjust the tension level. This enhances overall relaxation, brings internal organs and their systems into a state of optimum functioning, and increases blood supply (which brings additional oxygen and nutrients to cells and enhances waste removal). It positively affects the circulatory, respiratory, endocrine, immune, and neuropeptide systems in the body.

Theory 2: Reflexology reduces pain by reducing stress and improving mood.
Another theory that may also explain how reflexology can produce pain relief is the gate control theory, or, more recently, the neuromatrix theory of pain. This theory suggests that pain is a subjective experience created by your brain. The brain does this in response to the sensory experience of pain, but it can also work independently of sensory input and create pain in response to emotional or cognitive factors. Thus things that influence the brain, such as your mood or external factors like stress can also affect your experience of pain. According to this theory, reflexology may reduce pain by reducing stress and improving mood.

Theory 3: Reflexology keeps the body’s “vital energy” flowing.
Yet another theory holds that there is a “vital energy” (qi/ ki) in the human body. If stress is not addressed, it leads to congestion of energy, which in turn causes bodily inefficiencies, which can lead to illness. According to this theory, reflexology helps keep the energy flowing.

Theory 4: Zone theory
As outlined in the history and development section above, an important part of the recognition of reflexology as a specific type of treatment was Zone Theory, in which the body is divided into 10 vertical zones. Each zone corresponds to fingers and toes all the way up to the top of the head. For example, if you are standing up with your hands on your thighs (palms facing down) the thumbs and great toe would be zone 1. On either side of the body, the index finger and second toe would be zone 2, etc.
In reflexology theory, every organ, valve, muscle, etc. that lies within a zone can be accessed via a point or area on the feet or hands. For example, working between toes 2 and 3, or fingers 2 and 3, the eye point is found. These pathways between pressure points and other parts of the body are thought to be connected via the nervous system, as described above.

What the treatment involves

Reflexology can benefit people of all ages and, depending on the length of time a condition has been present, may improve or eliminate many ailments during a course of weekly treatments.
Reflexology therapy sessions are fairly straightforward and uncomplicated. A typical treatment lasts around 45 minutes to an hour and begins with a consultation about the client’s health and lifestyle. The reflexologist will discuss the client’s medical history to establish any underlying health problems. They will also ask what he/she wishes to gain from reflexology therapy.
The client will then be asked to remove their shoes and socks before being seated comfortably in a reclining chair or on a massage table. The reflexologist will carry out an initial examination of the feet before commencing treatment. They will begin by warming up the feet by applying pressure from the toes to the heel. Firm thumb and hand movements will then be used to identify areas of tenderness or tension.
Reflexology is not painful, however certain areas of the feet may feel more tender than others. This will depend on what area of the body they correspond with. Sensitivity will vary from person to person, and a reflexologist will adjust the amount of pressure applied accordingly. After a session your feet will feel warm and you should experience a general feeling of calm and relaxation. You may even feel sleepy.
The number of reflexology sessions you’ll need will depend on the condition being treated. Your reflexologist will be able to discuss this with you and devise a treatment plan.
You may experience the relaxing effects of reflexology after just one session. It may take longer to notice benefits in other parts of the body. Many people find their sleeping and moods improve over the course of a few sessions. This will, however, differ between individuals.