by Nick Lakoff, CMT
The origins of reflexology date back to the earliest of civilizations. Ancient Egyptian, Chinese, Japanese and Tibetan texts and charts, thousands of years old, depict various methods of acupressure massage on the soles of feet. There are even Native American oral traditions that speak of massaging feet, hands and heads as a means of alleviating pain and illness. However it is an American ear, nose and throat specialist, Dr. William H. Fitzgerald (1872-1942) who is widely recognized at the father of modern reflexology. He discovered that applying pressure to certain points on the body could relieve pain and improve the function of certain organs of the body. Further research led him to find that pressure point zones had direct longitudinal relationships with various organs and systems in the body. He designed a system that used 10 of these zone line relationships as a basis for his new therapy which he coined Zone Analgesia. Along the way a medical critic and writer, Dr. Edwin Bowers, while investigating Dr. Fitzgerald’s claims became a convert to his techniques. Together they then collaborated in 1917 to publish the book “Zone Therapy or relieving pain at home”.
If Dr. Fitzgerald is considered the father of Reflexology, the title of mother definitely belongs to Eunice D. Ingham (1889-1974). Mrs. Ingham was a physiotherapist, author and lecturer who is largely recognized for having popularized the technique by giving seminars across the United States, Canada and abroad. While working closely with Dr. Shelby Riley M.D. who helped Dr. Fitzgerald further his zone therapy theories later on, she became fascinated with this new approach. She carefully, over years, put into practice the theories and documented the reflex point relationships on feet with the body’s internal organs. With the encouragement of Dr. Riley, she then published a book called “Stories the feet can tell” in 1938 in which she recounts case histories using her variation of the techniques and meticulously maps out the reflexes on the feet as they are represented by reflexology charts today. She followed this by “Stories the feet have told” in 1951 and founded the National Institute of Reflexology in 1968. Throughout her career she was a tireless promoter of Reflexology and continued to tour and lecture around the world up until the spry old age of 80. She passed away five years later at the age of 85.
It is through a phenomenon called embryogenesis that we can explain the functioning of reflexology. During the development of the embryo a structural tissue is formed called mesenchyme which connects all parts of the human body. Feet, hands, ears and scalp originate from this tissue and is highly innervated. To give you an example, a finger tip has 100,000 nerve endings by square inch compared to skin on the elbow which has about 1,000 nerve endings by square inch. By massaging these highly innervated regions, the therapist stimulates directly reflex points that activate vital energy patterns for various organs and systems in the body and helps re-establish cellular and organic order within them.
A complete foot reflexology session last about an hour, for the hands about 30 minutes and for the ears about 15 minutes. This technique is usually practiced on a table and the receiver can stay clothed. However it is possible to integrate precise reflex points within another massage technique. No oils, creams or gels are used normally since their use can cause unwanted slipping while working on the client. Using thumbs or fingertips, the massage therapist stimulates the different reflex points. Sessions can be just for relaxation and/or for a specific problem or ailment. The pressure can be light or deep depending on the result desired. Reflexology can be applied to treat a wide range of ailments but is particularly effective in treating insomnia, stress, chronic fatigue, migraines and neck sprains. It has proven over millennia to be an effective tool in stimulating the curative energy within us all. Being a practitioner of Reflexology myself, I would caution those seeking this form of massage to shop around and find a massage therapist that has an experienced and skilled touch. Feet especially can be very sensitive and I can’t tell you how many horror stories I have heard from clients who experienced sessions with Reflexologist’s who had a no pain no gain attitude and suffered greatly during their sessions. Pressure should always be applied gradually and using the thick part of the pad of the thumb and/or fingers and never beyond a persons pain threshold.
Nicolas Lakoff is a certified practitioner in the following disciplines: Swedish Massage, Sports Massage, Reflexology, Acupressure, Myo-Fascial Release, Massage for Pregnancy, Swedish Chair Massage, Hot Stone Massage and Reiki.