Think "reflex," and think "reactive response:" a finger touching a match flame, stepping on a sharp stone and, yes, tapping the base of the knee with a little hammer. The affected nerves tell the brain and body that something is wrong, and the body reacts accordingly. So how would the body react if the flame or stone were a gentle pressure or a firm stroke? This is the basis of reflexology.
It is a treatment, but not a medicine. Pressure and strokes applied to strategic areas stimulate the nerves, encouraging blood flow. Whereas masseurs conduct a topical application of pressure directly onto muscles in targeted areas such as the shoulders, back and limbs, reflexologists apply pressure to areas only on the hands and feet that correspond with organs and glands in the body. Depending on the combination of pressure points, reflexology is proven to provide relief from back pain, sinus trouble, headaches and stress.
As early as 5000 years ago, traditional Chinese medicine was incorporating foot and hand massage into its treatments. There are pictographs more than 4,000 years old showing Egyptians performing what appear to be foot massages. Modern reflexology's beginning is credited to England's Sir Henry Head, who in the late 19th century started researching the connections between illness and treatments of various areas of the body.
Working at a computer compresses the muscles and joints. Relieve the compression and relax the hand by gently pulling the fingers away from the palm.
Pressure points on tips of the toes and fingers correspond to the head and brain. Here reflexologist Angela Smith demonstrates part of an exercise for headache relief.
Reflexologists relax the hand muscles and prepare for treatment using a hand stretch, gently massaging the hand in opposite directions.
According to Reflexology: Health at Your Fingertips, rotating the ankles 360 degrees exercises foot muscles and relieves fluid retention in the ankles.
Within a few years, Dr. William H. Fitzgerald developed zone therapy, correlating 10 zones on the body with reflex areas on the hands and feet.
A physical therapist named Eunice Ingham fine tuned this theory in the 1930's, finding that pressure points on feet and hands actually mirror organ locations in the body, and she developed treatments accordingly. Because reflexology looks at the feet and hands as microcosms of the total body, reflexologists are able to treat one ailment or do a total body wellness course.
In St. Clairsville, Angela Smith, a registered nurse and licensed massage therapist at Secret Serenity MedSpa, has been practicing reflexology since 2002. She says that the technique is not as well known in this area as in other parts of the country, but clients who try the technique find relief. Smith and many clients like reflexology because it is non-invasive-no drugs, no needles, no allergic reactions and no special diets. It is safe for all ages, though a medical history is helpful to the practitioner. For instance, a practitioner would tailor a treatment differently for a pregnant woman to that of someone with heart disease.
Smith notes that a relaxation treatment by reflexology is ideal for those who are looking for health and stress relief effects of a body massage but don't like to be touched. Reflexologists only need access to the hands and feet. She has had excellent results in treating sinus problems, generally relief in one treatment. Other health issues like chronic headaches or ongoing problems may take more than one session.
A good introductory book is "Reflexology: Health at Your Fingertips" by reflexology experts and pioneers Barbara and Kevin Kunz. The book details the zones of the hands and feet, both top and bottom, that correspond to the rest of the body. It explains the techniques of various touches and strokes and illustrates treatments for relaxation, pain relief and health complaints. While many of the stress treatments are simple, straightforward and can be done by one's self, it's best to consult with a trained reflexologist before exploring treatments for more serious issues such as diabetes or heart conditions. Overworking certain related pressure points can have negative effects on that or other health issues.
Although by no means a substitute for a treatment, one way to experience some of the relaxation benefits and reach many of the body's pressure points is to use a cylindrical foot massager. They are inexpensive and can be found in drug stores and bath and body aisles. Rolling each foot over the tool for a few minutes each day at home or the office not only relaxes the feet, but promotes blood flow throughout the body.
What are common misconceptions about reflexology? "That it doesn't work, or that it's some type of 'voodoo'," said Smith. Though reflexology is safe and applicable for everyone, results may vary. "You have to be open to it. It's like any treatment, a mind over body thing."