Is There Science to Support Reflexology?


The popularity of reflexology has been on the rise for the past two decades.

Reflexology is featured on the menus at thousands of spas, in addition to being practiced by trained massage therapists in private practice and certified reflexologists at medical facilities around the globe.

Reflexology research continues to shape the essence of the profession. Let’s take a closer look at the emerging validation process and update you with some new discoveries and key research findings to provide a glimpse into reflexology’s future.

The Validation Process

When reflexology first emerged in the 1980s, there was a desire among reflexologists to build the validation process beyond anecdotal evidence and establish reflexology as a legitimate profession.

A flurry of actions helped create state, national and international reflexology associations, as well as an independent national certification board, and establish a viable definition of reflexology.

As stated by the American Reflexology Certification Board, reflexology is not massage, and is defined as “a non-invasive, complementary practice involving thumb and finger techniques to apply alternating pressure to reflexes shown on reflex maps of the body located on the feet, hands and outer ears.”

While administrative actions took place in the 1980s and 1990s to build and support the network of a budding profession, more questions emerged about the lack of scientific research.

Reflexology has a definition, but how do we explain how it works?

Where is the scientific evidence—the reflexology research—that explains how we can press a tender spot on the big toe and bring relief to a headache? What’s the real meaning behind tender points or deposits in the feet?

Reflexology Research

In the movie Thank You for Smoking, lobbyists for the tobacco industry had a scientific research team that pumped out research to document the benefits of smoking.

The point is, research can be skewed one way or another, depending on who funds the research. Often, the enterprise with the deepest pockets wins, and it’s called a money game.

Although interest in reflexology is notable worldwide, the available funding for reflexology research compared to multibillion-dollar giants in the medical industry who would just as soon eliminate their competition is miniscule.

With respect to the time game, consider it took nearly 100 years to scientifically prove the mechanisms behind aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen and indomethacin.

Although the financial odds are stacked against the reflexology profession compared to those medical giants, time is beginning to paint a brighter future as more research trickles in, coupled with our ability to access information via the Internet.

Before we discuss reflexology and science, let’s review the basic tenets of the scientific method. This is the process of using science to prove or disprove the efficacy of, in this case, reflexology.

Topics for consideration could include reflex mapping, reflexology charts, tender spots and deposits and treatments used independently or combined with other therapies to help demonstrate an improvement in quality of life or relief from pain or other symptoms.

A common sequence involves formulating a question or objective, followed by a hypothesis or a tentative assumption made in order to draw out and test its logical or empirical consequences.

Next, a prediction is made, followed by testing, then analysis of the testing data and concluding statements.

When you review research, ask these questions to gain more insight and knowledge of the validity of the research:

  • Who funded the study?

  • What is the purpose or objective?

  • What is the quality of the study?

  • What are the credentials of the person who set up the methods or protocols?

  • What is the environment and setup of the testing area?

The first known scientific study on reflexology presented in a peer-review journal, Obstetrics and Gynecology, was authored by Terry Oleson, Ph.D., and William S. Flocco, of the American Academy of Reflexology, in 1993.

This was a randomized controlled study of premenstrual symptoms treated with ear, hand and foot reflexology that demonstrated a significantly greater decrease in premenstrual symptoms for the women given true reflexology treatment versus women in the placebo group. The research study concluded reflexology is indicated for women suffering from PMS.

Flocco and his affiliates have continued to lead the way in reflexology research with their second-edition text, Reflexology Research: Anatomy of a Reflexology Research Study, along with a website assembling the most compelling collection of more than 380 research studies from around the world.

In a recent, more substantial study that spanned a five-year period (2005 to 2010), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded a $3.1 million grant to Michigan State University to study the effects of reflexology on women with breast cancer undergoing chemotherapy.

Barbara A. Brower, a nationally certified reflexologist, set up the reflexology protocols and teamed up with chief investigator Gwen Wyatt, R.N., Ph.D., and Alla Sikorskii, Ph.D., co-investigator and statistician.

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