Human beings have always sought methods of easing discomfort. Whether emotional or physical, any feeling that is less than optimal drives us to find something to ease the pain.

Ancient literature is filled with formulas, descriptions of remedies, and examples of maneuvers and procedures aimed at easing pain. While many of these have been forever lost to history, such practices as reflexology have not only survived, but are enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Research focusing on this technique’s potential utility in pain management is increasing.


It is commonly believed that reflexology began in China roughly 5,000 years ago. The ancient Chinese, particularly the Taoists, were known to heal the whole body by tapping pressure points on the feet.

However, reflexology actually might have originated in Egypt around 2500 B.C. Archaeological evidence unearthed at the tomb of Ankmahor, at Saqqara, details an elaborate foot treatment ritual.1 Surviving pictographs found in this tomb depict two seated men receiving massages on their hands and feet at some time during the Sixth Dynasty (circa 2450 B.C.).1 A series of hieroglyphic inscriptions beneath the images suggests a doctor/patient exchange.  

Although it is difficult to pinpoint precisely where the practice originated and how it evolved, one fact is clear. William Fitzgerald, MD, an American ear, nose, and throat specialist, significantly advanced the modern practice of reflexology.2

In 1913, Dr. Fitzgerald started studying what he called zone analgesia. He exerted pressure on specific body parts, or zones, in patients to determine whether this provided substantive — and lasting — pain relief. In addition he believed that applying pressure to regions of the foot corresponded to relief in other, more centrally located areas of the body. Fitzgerald’s research led him to divide the human body into 10 equal longitudinal zones running from head to toe.

Reflexology’s use of controlled pressure for analgesia may be as effective for promoting good health and for preventing illness as it may be for relieving symptoms of stress, injury and illness.1 Reflexologists today work from maps of predefined pressure points located on the hands and feet.1 In theory, these pressure points can affect bodily organs and glands.


Reflexology uses subtle pressure on specific muscle areas of the feet or hands to stimulate blood flow and nerve impulses that then trigger the release of endorphins and retained toxins.3 The majority of clinical trials examining the efficacy of reflexology have targeted conditions involving pain management and anxiety.

In a recent analysis of several randomized, placebo-controlled trials evaluating the efficacy of reflexology, the practice was found to be weakly positive.4 While objective data may not support the use of reflexology, subjective data were more positive.

To evaluate the potential effect of reflexology on conditions affecting 21 elderly nursing-home residents with dementia, researchers conducted an eight-week crossover controlled study.3 Participants were given either foot-reflexology therapy or no therapy, with groups reversed at four weeks. They were evaluated based on end points of physiologic distress (measured by salivary alpha-amylase), observed pain (by the Checklist of Nonverbal Pain Indicators), and observed affect (by the Apparent Affect Rating Scale).3

Persons in the treatment phase showed significant reduction in both observed pain and salivary alpha-amylase measurements.3   

This article originally appeared on Clinical Advisor