How Does Reflexology Work?
Reflexology, in common with other complementary therapies, is trying to gain
scientific credibility in order to be accepted by the mainstream medical
profession. Part of this process involves explaining how Reflexology works.
Listed below are some of the common theories of how Reflexology works. Many of
the theories are not exclusive to Reflexology, and can be applied to a number of
The Nerve Impulse Theory
When pressure is applied to the foot, or any other organ in the body, afferent
neurons conduct the message to ganglia or groups of neurons outside the spinal
cord. Normally, messages pass from the ganglia to the spinal cord then up to the
brain for interpretation. Motor nerves than carry responses down the spinal
cord, out to the ganglia then on to the appropriate muscles for activity.
The electrical impulse theory says that for a reason, as yet unexplained,
messages from the feet reaching the ganglia connect up with the messages going
to muscles, so that working the feet has direct action on bodily organs. This
explains why Reflexology zones are vertical, with pressure on one side of the
foot affecting organs on the same side of the body. The theory can also be used
to explain how Reflexology benefits people with paralysis due to severing of the
The electrical impulse theory has much in common with the reflex arc, a
well-known physiological phenomenon. Examples of involuntary reflexes include
blinking, pupil contraction to light, knee and ankle jerks. The doctor tapping
the bottom of the knee with a rubber hammer so that the leg shoots up is
checking that the reflex arc is working, as an indication of proper neurological
functioning. The reflex arc relies on nerve synapses or connections between
sensory nerves and motor nerves in the spinal cord so that the activity takes
place a split second before the brain is told about it, or can initiate it
Gate Control Theory
A theory of pain is the gate-control theory. This theory says that pain
receptors in the spinal cord regulating the amount of pain that can pass up to
the brain. Once all the receptors are full, the 'gate' shuts, stopping further
pain messages going up to the brain. This limits the amount of pain we feel.
The Placebo Effect
Many studies have indicated that patients have benefited from medication and
surgery when they have in fact been receiving a placebo. Likewise, patients have
suffered side effects from inert substances taken as a placebo. Trust in the
therapist is an essential component of the effect as is the therapists'
confidence in what they are doing. Personality type is no indication as to
reaction to a placebo. Perhaps the reason that Reflexology works is because of a
placebo effect and the type of treatment is not as important as the relationship
between therapist and client.
Impeded and Unimpeded Energy Flow Theory
This theory suggests that the ground pulsates with positive and negative
electrical energy charges that are picked up by positive and negative receptors
on the feet. The energy receptors in the feet are a part of the nervous system.
In the healthy person, the charges and energy from the earth pass freely into
the nervous system.
If the positive and negative charges in the feet are not in contact with the
earth, due to congestion in the feet or particles impeding passage, they cannot
pick up the earth charges as effectively and energy flow is impeded.
Reflexology can unblock the pathways allowing the electrical terminals in the
feet to touch the ground again so that energy can flow freely again.
It is now thought that modern systems of pain relief e.g. TENS machines, work
by mildly stimulating the nerve pathways. All the receptors are filled, the
gates shut and severe pain stimuli cannot be passed up the spinal cord to the
brain. It has been hypothesized that Reflexology works in the same way as a TENS
The Relaxation Effect
It is known that much illness originates from stress and tension in the body. It
can be theorized that anything that relieves stress and tension and promotes
deep relaxation will enable systems and organs in the body to work much more
effectively. This theory suggest that Reflexology is very restful and relaxing,
and therefore alleviates and helps prevent illness.
Subtle Energy/Zone/Meridian Theories
Subtle energy is a life force that animates the physical body. It is absorbed
from the universe in general and from the air around us in particular when we
breathe, touch or eat and it can be channeled into the body by healers. Zone
theories have been around for several centuries, meridian theories for a lot
longer. Both believe that subtle energy flows through the body in channels and
that disruption to this energy flow results in ill health. Energy may stagnate,
become blocked, or speed up. Blockages may be caused by stress, pain, injury and
trauma or by a lack of exercise, amongst other reasons. The role of the
therapist is to work on the areas of disrupted energy to restore a normal flow.
See Zone Theory article for more details
The Holographic Principle
At a highly symbolic level, the holographic principle that "every piece
contains the whole" can be seen in the cellular structure of all living
bodies. Scientific discoveries in the world of cellular biology, have
demonstrated that every cell contains a copy of the master DNA blueprint, with
enough information to make an entire human body from scratch. The fact that
every cell within the human body contains the information to create an entire
duplicate body mirrors the holographic principle (see article "Understanding
the Holographic Principle" ) whereby every piece contains the
information of the whole.
This holographic principle when extended to the human body as a whole and
Reflexology in particular may be applied like this. Parts of the body such as
the hands, ears, and feet when stimulated affect the body as a whole. In that
each of these parts carries the picture of the whole body, and so homeostasis or
a dynamic state of balance can be achieved by stimulating the reflexes in any
one of these parts.
Electro-Magnetic Theories of Healing
A number of slightly different theories have much in common. It is known that
all matter, including human cells, vibrate at certain rates. The brain in
particular has recognized waves that can be detected on Electroencephalograms
(EEGs). Alpha waves (8 - 13Hz cycles per second) are indicative of deep
relaxation. It is also known that the earth is vibrating at a regular rate, in a
frequency band known as Schumann Resonance, and that this rate is similar to
that of Alpha waves. It can be postulated that the person whose cells vibrate at
an alpha rhythm is in harmony with their surrounding and therefore likely to be
in a positive state of health.
It is theorized that the brain is the link between the earth's vibrations and
our bodily vibrations. Electromagnetic messages are created in the brain as it
oscillates between positive and negative polarities. It is also known that the
human body contains iron (in red blood cells), dissolved electrolytes (sodium,
chloride and potassium bicarbonate, in blood plasma), proteins (which act as
semiconductors) and water, and therefore generates a bio-magnetic field. To send
rapid messages the brain works like a radio transmitter/receiver, sending and
receiving electro-magnetic signals directly to and from our body cells to
regulate their vibrational frequency . The brain also uses the much slower
nervous and circulatory systems to pass chemical and electro-magnetic messages
to and from cells to regulate vibrational frequency.
Problems can arise in two ways. Firstly, under certain conditions the
electrical messages from the brain can become blocked or distorted like a radio
not quite tuned into a station. With damage e.g. caused by stress, the pairs of
electrons spin in the same rather than in opposite directions, distorting the
signal and causing cells to malfunction. Secondly, cells can vibrate at less
than optimum frequency due to injury, emotional trauma or a decreased magnetic
field. Degenerative diseases, memory loss and conditions such as ME have all
been associated with magnetic field deficiency.
Healing focuses on these two areas. Simultaneous EEG recordings (measuring
brain electrical activity) often show that a client's EEG pattern comes into
synchrony with those of the healer during a healing session indicating
sympathetic resonance is taking place. Studies have shown that the brain waves
generated by healers are often Alpha waves. It is theorized that the healer,
having tuned the client into the same wave length as themselves, can retune the
messages to the correct frequency, or replace missing signals with their own
signals restoring the Alpha wave link between brain and cells. In developing a
relaxed alpha state prior to healing, the healer also taps into the earth's
vibrational energy to channel healing from outside through to the cells.
Healers monitored by electrometers have generated fluctuating surges of low
frequency body potential of between 0.3 Hz and 30 Hz, with most activity in the
range 7Hz. In some healers, up to 60 Hz of potential difference was found
between the head/hands and the feet. In electrical terms the healer's body
becomes a LF bio-electric dipole antenna. It is known that 2 Hz can regenerate
nerve tissue, 7 Hz can trigger bone growth, 10 Hz can heal ligaments whilst
15-72 Hz can decrease skin necrosis and generate capillary formation.
Magnetometers have measured palmar biomagnetic fields 1000 times greater than
those of the heart and a million times greater than those of the brain. In
everyday life, palmer bio-magnetism is borderline detectability. The theory can
explain why healers often feel tingling in their hands during a treatment. Areas
of heat or blockage that healers sometimes say that they can feel on the body
may be electrical resistance at the cellular or tissue level. It is also
theorized that the healer's sweeping or scanning of the body during healing
could re-magnetize the blood and stimulate the bio-magnetic fields of the body.
The circulatory system can then transport healing energy around the body in
blood and plasma to restore correct vibrations.
Evidence in support of a healing energy theory have included accelerated
tissue healing and bone repair beyond chance probability. Experiments with nerve
cells in petri dishes have shown that energy generated by healers can cause
impulses to travel along these nerve cells and jump between the synapses or gaps
between cells from one nerve to another. Research has shown that brain cells
contain millions of crystals suggesting that the brain acts like a radio
Endorphin Release Theories
Endorphins are the body's natural opiates or painkillers, with actions similar
to that of morphine. These are stimulated by pain, and serve to reduce the
amount of pain that we feel by inhibiting the activity of a neurotransmitter
called substance P, that is thought to transmit pain. It is theorized that a
Reflexology treatment stimulates the release of endorphins to help ease pain and
to give the body the same natural elevation in mood as strong painkillers.
This school of thought believes that the patient does their own healing when and
if they are ready, regardless of the therapist or the type of therapy. The role
of the therapist is to facilitate the process.
The Feet as a 'U' Bend Theory
In a plumbing system, the 'U' bend traps all the debris that passes through the
sink, toilet or wash basin. With time, unless proprietary cleaners are used, the
bend becomes clogged and waste water cannot flow away properly. The feet are the
furthest point in the circulatory system from the heart. They are also the part
of the body where the effect of gravity is greatest, and are in effect, the
"U' bend of the body. It is theorized that calcium, uric acid and lymphatic
deposits in the blood accumulate in the feet interfering with the normal
circulation of blood and lymph. Reflexology breaks up and moves these deposits,
thus improving blood and lymph circulation.
Maybe Reflexology works because it is a combination of all of the above. At this
point in time we just don't know. Whilst it is important for the credibility of
Reflexology to explain how it works, it may be many years before the scientific
capability is available to test some of the theories, if at all. The effect of
Reflexology may be due to an isolated factor, or due to a combination of
factors. The important point to bear in mind in the meantime, is that regardless
of how and why it works, Reflexology does work and brings benefit to thousand of