During my reflexology certification course, I conducted a case study about how hand reflexology might affect an artist’s chronic hand pain. It turned out to be quite helpful! I just found out it was recently shared in the most recent magazine of the International Council of Reflexologists. I’ve shared screenshots of the first and last pages here (the latter is particularly cool, because it gives the results of the study). You can click on the images to actually read them, and if you’d like to read the full study, here’s a link to it in the Academy of Ancient Reflexology’s research archive.
If you’ve ever received reflexology on your hands or feet, you’ve likely heard the reflexologist ask you “How is this pressure?” Maybe it feels fine, but maybe you’re not sure…How do you know? What is the right pressure for reflexology? There are probably several answers to this, and it’s going to differ from person to person, but I’m about to tell you why I think medium pressure might be the best…
First off, let’s look at what reflexology actually is and what it is not. The Reflexology Association of America, the American Reflexology Certification Board, and the National Council for Reflexology Educators all define the work this way: “Reflexology is a protocol of manual techniques, such as thumb and finger-walking, hook and backup, and rotating-on-a-point, applied to specific reflex areas predominantly on the feet and hands. These techniques stimulate the complex neural pathways linking body systems, supporting the body’s efforts to function optimally. The effectiveness of reflexology is recognized worldwide by various national health institutions and the public at large as a distinct complementary practice within the holistic health field.”
Here’s something important to know: it’s not the same as a massage. As a “distinct complementary practice,” reflexology is separate from massage, with its own origin, history, and techniques. They also differ in intent and focus. The intent of massage is to relax muscle tension by directly working on the soft tissue, whereas reflexology intends to relax the nervous system (thereby indirectly relaxing muscles), and to improve the functioning of internal organs and glands.
How does it work? While we’re not really sure, the following are several theories:
Energetically: Reflexology is thought to break up energy blockages in the body, activating the healing force of the universe, which helps the body return to balance. Pressure-wise, many energy-balancing techniques, like Reiki, do not even touch the body, so light to medium pressure in reflexology will likely be quite effective.
TLC: Compassionate physical contact offered by the practitioner is thought to help initiate the body’s healing response.
Rest/Awareness: A reflexology session might be someone’s only respite from an otherwise hectic day. The rest, repair, and awareness gained from tapping into the body’s parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite of “fight or flight” mode) can be catalysts for change to occur. Reflexology is almost magical at inducing relaxation. I’ve had so many reflexology recipients say they’ve never felt so relaxed so quickly.
Reflex Action: If I touch a hot stove, a message gets sent from my hand/fingers to the brain, which then sends a message back saying “OW—move your hand!!” It does not say “Yes, keep doing that—you’ll actually feel better!” The reflex arc is what we’re dealing with in reflexology—the theory is that there are reflex areas in the feet and hands which relate to different parts of the body. When we make contact through reflexology, the brain sends a signal through neural pathways to the related organ/gland/muscle. We don’t have to pound on it for it to get the idea. In 1932 Sir Charles Sherrington and Edgar Adrian earned the Nobel Prize for work on the physiology of the nervous system, proving that the whole nervous system adjusts to a single stimulus in an effort to coordinate the activities of the organism, which he termed the proprioceptive system. For instance, when a step is taken, the foot and leg move, but so does the rest of the body, adjusting to keep everything upright. Adrian made the discovery that the intensity of the nerve impulse is dependent on the size of the nerve, not on the strength of the stimulus. This suggests that deep pressure is not necessary in reflexology, as it is the contact that is important.
Disclaimer: The following is what I believe—you might feel completely different, and that’s ok!
Reflexology does not need to be painful to be effective. It is a stress-reducing modality at its heart and the goal is to relax. Of course, different schools and practitioners have different styles and focus. My school, the Academy of Ancient Reflexology, follows the approach that we slowly and thoroughly travel the whole foot with our thumb and finger walking, giving time for reflexologist and client alike to be aware and notice changes and sensitivities in the tissues. We’re working to support the body’s health, not to diagnose or treat/fix issues.
Pressure is a matter of preference—for both the client and therapist. I have found working at a medium pressure, where it’s deep enough to notice sensitive spots (where I will pause and give extra time for change to occur) but not so deep so as to cause pain throughout is most effective. Pain creates more pain, which makes it difficult to relax.
I started my studies in reflexology with the benefit of 13 years of being a massage therapist under my belt. Over the years, I have adhered to a “no pain, more gain” theory of working on people, but unfortunately, I’ve met many who have experienced way too much pressure from a practitioner, leading to days of soreness or bruising. Some are okay with that, because they say they felt so much better afterward. This is probably because the deep pressure caused a release of pain-relieving endorphins—like dropping a hammer on your toe might distract you from a pain in your finger—but why would you want to do that to yourself? Why not use relaxation and awareness and breathing to help dissolve pain, rather than brute force? Pain acquired over time might take a bit longer to go away (or it may not—the body is funny like that!)
As with many things in life, a little research before booking an appointment is a good idea—ask about the practitioner’s education, what she thinks her pressure is like, what she believes, etc. During the treatment, make sure you speak up if you need more or less pressure. If you come in for a reflexology session wanting very deep pressure and/or pain, I’m probably not the right practitioner for you. I will listen to what you need and try my best to accommodate, but I must also do what feels right to me. The first step to getting the most out of your reflexology appointment is be open-minded and see how it works for you, now that you know what the intent is—to relax and let the body return itself to optimum health!
Any questions? Call me at 904-274-1584