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Applying Pressure: The History and Efficacy of Reflexology

By Danielle Grilli, content director of

My first brush with reflexology was on a soccer field.  Sitting on the sidelines, watching my big brother kick the ball around, my little 8 year old head began to ache something terrible.  One of the soccer moms, a nurse, took my hand and began to squeeze the area between my thumb and index finger; several minutes later, my headache began to dissipate. At the time I thought it was magic but she corrected me saying, “It’s not magic, it’s just reflexology.” 

Although the exact origins of reflexology are unclear, it is believed that the practice reaches as far back as ancient Egypt.  Evidence of use can also be found in China, North America and in other areas of the ancient world.  Modern reflexology as we know it has its roots in Zone Therapy which was established by Dr. William H. Fitzgerald in the early 1900’s.  Several years (and theoretical adjustments) later, in the 1970’s, the International Institute of Reflexology was established.

As a therapy, reflexology involves the application of pressure to specific points in the feet, hands or ears.   Not unlike Acupuncture points, reflexology points are thought to coincide with different energy channels in the body.  As a result, it is believed that the application of pressure to a particular point stimulates the muscles, organs, and nerves that lie along that zone, or channel, allowing them to function more effectively.

As regards the efficacy of reflexology, the jury’s still out.  Although several studies have shown reflexology to be beneficial in the treatment of conditions such as premenstrual syndrome, recurrent migraines, and high blood pressure; to date, there have not been enough successful results to unequivocally prove its efficacy for any given condition.  That said, as with many CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) treatments, reflexology is personalized and trials are few and far between so it is difficult to determine how effective it really is as a system of treatment.

Science aside, I can say that I have never had to take a pain pill for a headache.  The first thing I do when I start to feel a impending headache is squeeze that point the soccer mom showed me all those many years ago and – just like the magic I thought it was – the pain disappears into thin air.      


1. rVita: Alternative Therapy
2. T Oleson, W Flocco, "Randomized controlled study of premenstrual symptoms treated with ear, hand, and foot reflexology" Obstetrics and Gynecology, Vol 82, No 6, Dec 1993, 906-911.
3. "Headache and Reflexological Treatment" by E Brendsstrup & L Launso, publ. by the Council Concerning Alternative Treatment, the National Board of Health, Denmark, 1997.
4. B.S.M. Frankel, "The effect of reflexology on baroreceptor reflex sensitivity, blood pressure and sinus arrhythmia", Complementary Therapies in Medicine (1997) 5, 80-84