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Reflexology: Setting Foot on a Path to Healing

by Ellen Lovinger Eller

A woman spends several days every month living in misery because of severe menstrual cramping…a young man’s back pain becomes so intense that he is confined to a wheelchair…a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy endures repeated bouts of nausea.

What do these three people have in common? They all found relief from their pain and discomfort through Reflexology.

Reflexology is an ancient healing modality that uses the hands and feet (and, in some cases, the ears and head) as maps of the entire biological, nervous and physical systems—representations of the body in microcosm.

Utilizing specific finger, thumb and hand techniques to stimulate precisepoints on the client’s feet or hands, the Reflexologist transmits a calming message from the peripheral nerves in the extremities to the central nervous system, which signals the body to lower the level of tension that the client has been experiencing.

Not only does this create a state of overall relaxation, it allows the internal organs and their systems to function at optimum efficiency, maximizing blood flow through all parts of the body to increase the amount of oxygen and nutrients that reach the cells, and enhance the removal of toxins and waste products.

In the Zone

The 20th-century precursor of modern Reflexology was Zone Therapy, which began with Dr. William H. Fitzgerald’s work with what he called "zone analgesia."

Fitzgerald, an ear, nose and throat specialist affiliated with the Boston City Hospital and St. Francis Hospital in Connecticut during the early 1900s, had found that by applying pressure to "bony eminences," or zones, corresponding to the location of an injury, not only could he alleviate a patient’s pain, but also, in the majority of cases, the underlying cause as well.

Based on his observations, Fitzgerald formulated the first chart of the longitudinal zones of the body. The zones corresponded to fingers and toes all the way up to the top of the head.

The theory advanced significantly when an associate of Fitzgerald’s, Dr. Shelby Riley, added horizontal zones across the hands and feet and, integrating them with the established vertical zones, determined how individual reflexes worked.

In the 1930s, Eunice D. Ingham, a physical therapist who worked closely with Dr. Riley, became fascinated by the concept. She began developing her own theory of zone therapy involving foot reflexes.

After treating hundreds of patients, carefully checking and rechecking each pressure point, Ingham realized that the reflexes on the feet provided a precise mirror image of the organs of the body. She documented her cases, carefully mapped out the reflex points on the feet, and demonstrated that alternating pressure can have a stimulating effect on the body, rather than the numbing effect Dr. Fitzgerald sought.

Better Than a Shot in the Arm

It should be noted that where Zone Therapy relied on the zones exclusively to determine the site to be worked, Reflexology goes a step further, using both the zones and an anatomical model or map of the feet and hands to make that determination—an important distinction.

Reflexologists do not heal their clients; they help clients’ bodies to heal themselves. The practitioner’s purpose is to help each person rediscover his/her natural balance, coming into alignment with the body’s own vital energy and healing ability. That is particularly important when it comes to dealing with illness and pain.

Stress, a sorry fact of 21st-century life, is a major cause of sickness. Because when it is allowed to continue, stress builds up and blocks the body’s vital energy, resulting in physical inefficiencies that make people more vulnerable to disease. Reflexology breaks through stress-based congestion and helps keep the energy flowing.

That is also, in part, what makes it highly effective in easing pain, as many a hospital patient and staffer has discovered.

According to the neuromatrix theory (what used to be called the "gate control" theory), pain is a subjective experience produced by the brain in response to a sensory stimulus. But sometimes the brain doesn’t require an actual "bop on the head" or other physical input; it creates pain in response to strong emotions.

Many people experience a degree of physical pain when grieving for a lost loved one, or coping with a broken heart. Symptoms can range from headache and upset stomach to difficulty breathing or a heart attack. And when a person is stressed out or feeling blue, the brain will intensify any experience of pain—physical or emotional. The Reflexologist’s touch allows healing on all levels—physical, emotional, mental and spiritual—making Reflexology especially effective for improving mood, alleviating stress and reducing pain in such situations.

What Happens During Your Reflexology Session?

Set aside about an hour…then put aside your shoes and socks.

You’ll probably be asked to fill out a health history form on your first visit, and before your Reflexology session actually starts, you might have a whirlpool foot soak, paraffin dip or some other treatment, depending on the practitioner.

As you recline comfortably on a massage table or on a lounge-type chair designed for Reflexology, with your feet elevated, the practitioner will inspect your feet and, perhaps, your hands and ears, as well. He or she will take note of stress cues—indications of the body’s adaptation to stress: visual signs, such as calluses, knobby toes or bunions, or sensitivity to certain touches as techniques are applied.

Specific areas of the feet correspond to other parts of the body: the lungs, heart, glands, limbs, etc. That initial assessment allows the practitioner to target problem areas and customize the session to the individual.

The Reflexologist will begin to methodically work through one foot, then the other, using pressure, stretching and movement. Some practitioners use essential oils, lotions or creams, although dry technique is traditional.

You don’t need special preparation to experience the benefits of Reflexology. All that’s required for the energy to flow is that the Reflexologist be knowledgeable and remain centered.

Both you and the practitioner may actually feel the energy moving—or you may simply doze off. If the pressure or manipulation becomes uncomfortable at some point, don’t hesitate to say so. Reflexologists work within each client’s comfort zone.

Feeling Better?

Most people experience a general sense of well being after a Reflexology session. But more, those who suffer from various types of pain, particularly in the hands and feet, find relief.

As Reflexology restores the body’s natural balance and releases tension, it can ease the discomfort of post-operative patients and accident victims.

For people whose complaints are less specific, it can help bring about an experience of wellness as they tune into their bodies…and rediscover the vibrant good health that is their birthright.

Finding the Right Reflexologist for You

When looking for a reflexologist, there are a number of factors to consider: training (and the name of the school/program attended); additional certifications earned; membership in their state association, the Reflexology Association of America, the International Institute of Reflexology, the U.S. branch of the Association of Reflexologists or some other recognized organization of qualified practitioners.Other considerations include: How long has this reflexologist been in practice, and is he/she certified in any other form of holistic healing or clinical work (many nurses now specialize in medical reflexology).Most people find their reflexologists through holistic publications, by looking in the Yellow Pages or by going online—a convenience, as long as you do your homework and learn as much about the person behind the name with regard to training and experience.And, of course, don’t underestimate the value of a personal recommendation from a trusted friend, family member or healer you know. They’ll help you find the right reflexologist for you.

Ellen Lovinger Eller, of Shelburne Falls, MA, is a staff writer for Wisdom Magazine.

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