Touch Therapy That Helps Reduce Stress and Pain and Improve Health

Reflexologist and naturopathic doctor Natalie Boulware-Scott giving a reflexology session to a client.

I lie on the heated massage table fully clothed. My feet are bare. Natalie Boulware-Scott, a reflexologist and naturopath at Lavender Retreat, gently manipulates my toes. It feels wonderful. For an hour she kneads my feet. At times I can feel a twinge in another area of my body that corresponds to the point that she is manipulating on my foot. Other times I may have slight discomfort when she finds a particularly tight area in my sole, ankle, or heel. At the end of the hour I am relaxed and calm.

Reflexology is not just a foot massage. It is an ancient therapeutic method of healing by stimulating pressure points on the feet (and often hands or ears). It can relieve pain, but in the absence of pain reflexology can be effective for promoting good health and for preventing illness. It can also relieve symptoms of stress and injury.

The feet are extraordinary structures. Each foot contains 26 bones (together the feet hold a quarter of all the bones in the body), plus 7,200 nerve endings and 107 ligaments. These structures provide exceptional strength and range of movement. Not only do they hold our entire physical structure upright, they keep us balanced and mobile. As we all know, if our feet hurt, our whole body is in agony.

What Is Reflexology?

Reflexology is a complementary holistic therapy. Its purpose is to treat the whole person, not just the symptoms. The theory behind reflexology is that certain points on the foot correspond to organs and systems of the body. Pressure applied to these areas affects the corresponding areas and can benefit physical and emotional health.

According to the Mayo Clinic website, studies funded by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health indicate that reflexology may reduce pain and psychological symptoms, such as anxiety and depression, and enhance relaxation and sleep. Studies show that reflexology may have benefits in palliative care of people with cancer. “So much of what happens systemically in our body is so impacted by stress. Even if you don’t buy into the theory about how energy works in our bodies, reflexology can have an impact on heart disease, diabetes, insomnia, anxiety, depression, and autoimmune disorders,” explained Aviva Pittle, reflexologist and massage therapist at Freed Bodyworks. “It isn’t a cure but it can affect the way a disease manifests. Reflexology is the most stress-relieving form of massage that I have studied.”


Reflexology’s beginnings are not well documented. Reliefs on the walls of an ancient Egyptian tomb (about 2450 B.C.) depict two seated men receiving massage on their hands and feet. References are found in pre-dynastic China and in ancient Indian medicine. The Inca civilization may have used reflexology and passed it on to Native Americans in North America.

In the 1930s a physical therapist, Eunice D. Ingham, discovered that pressure points on the human foot were situated in a mirror image of the corresponding organs of the body. She documented her findings, which formed the basis of reflexology, in “Stories the Feet Can Tell,” published in 1938.

How Reflexology Works

Reflexologists consider that all parts of the body are connected by subtle energy, which flows down the body from the head to the feet. Uncomfortable illness can block the channels and disturb the flow of energy. Working on the feet unblocks the channels and allows energy to flow and restores the balance. This relaxes the body, enhances circulation, and relieves uncomfortable symptoms. “Reflexology helps the nervous system and our emotional system connect and balance,” said Boulware-Scott. “Reflexology helps connect the physical with the emotional. It allows people to relax on a deep [nervous system] level. It can improve circulation and improve the mind-body connection.”

It can also help lessen the effects of debilitating diseases. Boulware-Scott had a client in his early 70s who was newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. “He wanted to improve his balance. After 10 to 12 treatments he had much less of a shuffle and more balance and stability.”

Who Is Reflexology For?

“It’s for everyone,” said Meghan Halderman, reflexologist and polarity therapist at Freed Bodyworks. “You have full access to the whole body through your feet. It can alleviate headaches, depression, anxiety, and any physical problem including plantar fasciitis and other foot problems. We can even help with issues with the shoulder and the neck through the feet.”

Halderman said reflexology is good as a part of preventive healthcare. “We can see signs of areas that may not be on a healthy track but have not yet manifested into an illness or injury. We can then readjust the energy back into balance. It’s also perfect for people who have had surgery, who don’t like full body massage, or who can’t have an area touched. I can address the area from the feet.”

Perhaps the most important reason that reflexology is for everyone, including children, is our inability to control the amount of stress we have on a daily basis. “When a person is under pressure or ‘stressed’ he/she is walking through life with a suppressed immune system,” explained Pittle. Reflexology can help get us on an even keel and thereby be less vulnerable to illness and injury.

When I was growing up my mother used to massage my feet in the evenings before bed. I got used to the pleasure of having my feet massaged. As an adult, when I learned about reflexology more than 10 years ago, I became a regular recipient almost every month of this therapeutic modality.

I can’t say with scientific accuracy that reflexology is the source of my wellness. I rarely get a cold, sleep all through the night, have never been in a hospital, nor am I on any medication. But I can say with certainty that regular sessions of reflexology help keep my body in balance, release tension in my feet, and reduce my physiological and emotional reaction to normal life stresses. It is one of the tools that I use to keep myself well and healthy.

To contact Natalie Boulware-Scott log onto www.lavender-retreat.comor call Lavender Retreat: 202-450-2329.

To contact Meghan Halderman or Aviva Pittle go to www.freedbodyworks.comor call Freed Bodyworks: 202-277-8629.

Pattie Cinelli has been writing health/fitness columns for more than 25 years. Topics focus on giving readers choices about how to restore and maintain health. She is a holistic personal trainer who incorporates yoga, Pilates, and core strength and flexibility into her sessions. Email questions or column ideas to