Reflexology: Pseudoscience or Legitimate Therapy?

Reflexology: Pseudoscience or Legitimate Therapy?

What do you think of when you hear the word “reflexology?”  Does it evoke impressions of 1970s free spirits in patchouli-scented rooms? Or do you immediately think “legitimate alternative therapy?” This question has been debated in the medical community for years, so I decided to do a little research and see for myself. Reflexology is based on the belief that reflex areas or zones in the hands, feet and ears correspond to organs, body parts and glands in the body. For our purposes, we will keep the focus on foot reflexology.


Applying pressure to specific areas of the feet as a means of healing can be traced back thousands of years and throughout many cultures. There is evidence of such foot work in the Physician’s Tomb in Egypt, dated about 2300 B.C., and in the Physician’s Temple in Japan, dated about 690 A.D.

Modern reflexology is based on reflex research done in the 1800s throughout Europe and Russia. Russian physicians in the early 20th century followed the research of Nobel Prize winner Ivan Pavlov (think “Pavlov’s dogs”), from which they derived reflex therapy. In 1913, a US physician, Dr. William Fitzgerald, noticed that applying pressure to a specific part of a patient’s feet often positively affected another part of the body. Dr. Fitzgerald created a chart which corresponded to 10 equal longitudinal “zones” that run the length of the body. The zones—five on each foot—ended at the tips of the toes. By applying on-and-off pressure to the tips of the toes, it was believed that the entire body could be manipulated.

In the 1930s, US-born Eunice Ingham, nurse and physiotherapist, further developed Dr. Fitzgerald’s foot maps by including reflex points on the foot. She is credited with inventing the term “reflexology.”  In a grassroots effort, Ms. Ingham traveled across the United States teaching her method of reflexology until her death in 1974.

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