How to Tap Reflexology to Give Yourself a Foot Massage That’s Worthy of Being in a Spa

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When I'm walking around the streets of New York City, there are a lot of things I've come to expect on almost every block: a bodega, a food cart, and a massage place with a foot reflexology chart posted on the window. I'm always interested in all three, but it's the foot reflexology that I've yet to actually try for myself—and everyone who's tried it tells me I'm missing out.

So, what is foot reflexology? Also known as zone therapy, it's a centuries-old practice rooted in Chinese medicine that involves touching certain points of your foot that correspond with other points in your body for all sorts of benefits.

Experts In This Article

This is not just about foot mobility. "Different points on the feet can help stimulate and pass energy to organs throughout the rest of the body," explains Juhi Singh, Chinese herbalist, acupuncturist, and founder of the Juhi Center. "For example, points on the tip of the toes can stimulate the head, while the ball of your foot can reflect in your heart and chest."

The purported benefits of doing this? "You can get improved blood circulation, it improves your nerve response in your body, and it gives you balanced energy levels," says Naveen Sharma, a holistic wellness expert, Reiki healer, and yoga expert. Because the feet have so many nerve endings, touching them at specific points can be pleasurable and helpful (it's why cricketing the feet feels so calming, too).

How does reflexology differ from massage?

When you think of a massage, you likely imagine a highly moisturized (if not slick) foot or full-body rub down. According to Kevin Monterrosa, the lead therapist at Auberge Du Soleil, a resort and spa in Napa Valley, California, that offers reflexology, that’s not the case for foot reflexology. “No oils are used during reflexology, whereas oil, lotion, or cream is often used for massage,” he says. Instead, a practitioner will use their thumb, fingers, and props. For an at-home foot reflexology sesh, you can use a gua sha for deeper pressure.

Another key differentiation between reflexology and massage is location. As Monterrosa points out, reflexology focuses primarily on the feet—sometimes the hands and ears—but massages can be performed all over the body. “Reflexology aims to improve the function of different organs or body systems whereas massage works to achieve generalized improvement in health or relieve tension within the soft tissues of the body,” he says. 

Furthermore, Monterrosa says that the means for performing foot reflexology versus general massage varies. “With reflexology, the practitioner uses only their fingers during the session, whereas in a massage they might use their fingers, knuckles, hands, forearms, elbows, or even feet,” he says.

One way that massage and reflexology are similar? Their ability to encourage circulation. “Reflexology promotes circulation of the blood and overall optimum function within the body,” Monterrosa says. “This includes the major organs of detoxification and excretion, as well as the lymphatic system that work together to clear metabolic waste from our bodies.”

Because of this, Frida Bojko, assistant spa manager at the Four Seasons Resort Lāna’i, a Hawaiian resort spa that offers reflexology, reminds us of the importance of staying hydrated after reflexology sessions. She also suggests “staying active, eating anti-inflammatory foods or those high in antioxidants, and/or drinking herbal tea with little to no caffeine,” she adds. 

What can a reflexologist tell from your feet?

A foot reflexology chart can go both ways. While the colorful charts are often referenced to alleviate symptoms in other areas of the body, knowing their divisions can help identify problems within the body, too. For example, Monterrosa says a reflexologist can reveal potential issues with your organs that you may not even be aware of.

“A reflexologist can feel tightness or firmness in areas of the foot, showing where there might be imbalanced function within the corresponding areas of the body,” he explains. “Some reflexologists may also be trained in toe-reading, which takes the approach that the position and shape of a person’s toes reveals much about the story of their life.”

According to Bojko, reflexologists can also detect “dietary habits, working habits, and many other daily life activities based on the pressure points of the feet and the way your body responds to each point that is stimulated by a reflexology massage.”

It’s not uncommon for pressure points to hurt during foot reflexology. Bojko says that reflexologists believe that pain can be an indication of a larger issue. “When an area of the body is congested, the reflexology point will hurt,” she says. “With reoccurring sessions—as the areas decongest—the pain in that targeted area will begin to subside with progression.”

The reason repeat sessions are effective is because regular manipulation of pressure points can dislodge blocked energy pathways and lead to less inflammation, according to Monterrosa.

How to read a foot reflexology chart

Intrigued by foot reflexology and all it can reveal? Now it's time to learn how to read a foot reflexology chart for yourself. Foot reflexology charts are colorful and clearly depicted, but it takes time to really absorb what applying pressure to each part of the foot can do for your body as a whole.

"Reflexology works with the central nervous system through nerve endings of the peripheral nerves," says Sharma. "The foot, generally, is divided into different zones and specific parts of it represent different organs in your body."

A simpler way to think of it is like reflexes—touching certain areas of your foot (not feet, because each foot has different zones, though, some overlap) can directly trigger different areas of your body.

foot reflexology chart
Photo: Courtesy of Juhi Singh

Though there are so many pressure points on your foot (as the above detailed foot reflexology chart proves), here's the basic gist of things: "The left foot will stimulate the left side of the body and all its organs, and the right foot will do the same for the right side," explains Singh. "The second and third toes relate to the eyes, while the remaining toes connect to the teeth, sinuses, and head. The bottom of the foot from the tip to the heel will relate to your spine."

Who is the best candidate for reflexology?

Before getting hands-on with your newfound knowledge of foot reflexology, know that the Traditional Chinese Medicine practice may not be entirely universal. “Reflexology is a powerful noninvasive option for well-being and as such appropriate for nearly everyone, bringing about deep relaxation, reduction in stress, and improvements in overall physical function,” Monterrosa says. 

But there are exceptions. “Reflexology [should] not be performed on expecting women,” Bojko says. “Reflexology is also not recommended to those with foot injuries or those who have a history with foot conditions.” 

Overall, since foot reflexology can trigger responses in other areas of the body, Monterrosa and Bojko agree that it’s best to consult a licensed medical professional before undergoing treatment or trying to hit your own foot reflexology points.

Frequently asked questions

Is foot reflexology legit?

Modern science has yet to confirm specifically how reflexology works and what it can do. Some small studies have found that the practice can be helpful for reducing anxiety and pain3 and managing migraines1 in conjunction with other therapies. However, a 2015 review notes that reflexology does not currently have "sufficient evidence to support its clinical use2," in large part because there is just very limited high-quality research on reflexology, period.

That doesn't mean that reflexology is without benefit, especially since, as mentioned, it is a mainstay of Traditional Chinese Medicine. In fact, the same 2015 review concluded: "Reflexology practice should be implemented as a complementary therapy in developed countries due to its functions which can give many benefits to body health condition...With the basic [sic] of reflexology which can be done by ourselves, it helps to improve the performance in our life day by day."

Can reflexology only be accessed through the feet?

Not necessarily, Monterrosa says. “Ancient Chinese, Indian, and Egyptian cultures knew that the body was projected onto the feet, ears, hands, spine, tongue, and eyes,” he says. “These body image maps are considered to be points of energy that can open up blocked energy within the area of the body correlating to each specific point. These points help the flow of Qi, or energy, causing relaxation and calmness in mind and body and potentially relieving chronic pain.” With this in mind, you may also want to explore ear reflexology charts, hand reflexology charts, and spine reflexology charts. Acupressure is known to help with a number of ailments, including constipation

Can reflexology detect illness?

Since reflexology isn’t scientifically-proven, Monterrosa says that it cannot diagnose illness. Reflexologists do believe, however, that it can indicate parts of the body that may not be functioning optimally, he says.

Can you do foot reflexology at home?

You don't have to rely on the pros to give you the foot reflexology massage action—you can do it at home (or have your S.O. do it...) by walking on a foot reflexology mat (which you can buy for less than $25 on Amazon), walking barefoot on small round stones to cue your body, or just using your thumb to fire up pressure points. Another option is to buy a foot reflexology chart with a foot roller (like the Lala Jojo Foot Roller Massager & Reflexology Board with Pressure Point Chart, $23).

Though it may not be the traditional approach, Singh recommends using some salt or essential oils to work through reflexology at home, too: "One of my favorite traditions in the evening is to come home and place my feet in comfortable water with either Himalayan sea salt or Epsom salt, and using essential oils such as lavender or eucalyptus to self-massage the feet, stimulating points that promote relaxation," she says.

What ailments can foot reflexology help with?

According to foot reflexology charts, massaging your feet (or getting them massaged for you) can lead to a whole host of benefits. For instance, Singh says you can turn to foot reflexology to ease a headache. "For something like a headache, you can make small circles with your thumb on your big toes," says Singh. According to the modality, "if you're having digestive issues or stomach pain, take a hard ball—like a golf or tennis ball—and press down on the ball with the middle part of your foot. This pressure helps to open up energy pathways, which relax the stomach and improve your digestion."

All very good reasons why you shouldn't just let your feet hide inside of your sneakers all day, every day.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Wojciech, Kobza et al. “Effects of feet reflexology versus segmental massage in reducing pain and its intensity, frequency and duration of the attacks in females with migraine: a pilot study.” Journal of traditional Chinese medicine = Chung i tsa chih ying wen pan vol. 37,2 (2017): 214-9. doi:10.1016/s0254-6272(17)30047-x
  2. Embong, Nurul Haswani et al. “Revisiting reflexology: Concept, evidence, current practice, and practitioner training.” Journal of traditional and complementary medicine vol. 5,4 197-206. 28 Sep. 2015, doi:10.1016/j.jtcme.2015.08.008
  3. Hudson, Briony F et al. “The impact of hand reflexology on pain, anxiety and satisfaction during minimally invasive surgery under local anaesthetic: a randomised controlled trial.” International journal of nursing studies vol. 52,12 (2015): 1789-97. doi:10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2015.07.009
  4. Ficke, Jennifer. and Doug W. Byerly. “Anatomy, Bony Pelvis and Lower Limb: Foot.” StatPearls, StatPearls Publishing, 7 August 2023.

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