You just spent one hour too many wearing those stylish—but horribly uncomfortable—high heels and now your tired old dogs could use a serious rub down. Come to think of it, your lower back kind of hurts, too. The solution? Slip into some sensible footwear and find your way to a reflexologist stat. This alternative therapy uses a reflexology chart—a diagram of pressure points in the foot—to ease foot pain and relieve tension in general, too. Here’s everything you need to know.

What is reflexology?

Reflexology is a form of massage with roots that go back to ancient Chinese medicine. The technique used relies upon a map of the feet, which identifies pressure points that supposedly correspond to certain organs and muscles in the body and can even be used to stimulate the endocrine and nervous system. In other words, reflexology is basically a foot rub with targeted goals attached to it. For example, a reflexologist might focus on your heels if you’re suffering from pelvic or sciatic pain, and the tops of your four small toes for sinus trouble. Alas, science doesn’t quite support the claims made here regarding these pressure points and their relationship to other parts of the body (so don’t ditch your Mucinex just yet). Still, reflexology does boast other benefits, so it may very well be worth your time—more on that below.

What is a foot reflexology chart?

As previously mentioned, a foot reflexology chart maps out various pressure points on the foot which are supposed to be energetically connected to other areas in the body. While there are some slight variations when it comes to these charts, the below image is one widely-accepted map that points out the different zones of the foot and which parts of the body they represent.

Foot Reflexology Chart
Kaitlynn Collins

Does reflexology really work?

If the outcome you’re hoping for is stress relief and a feeling of general wellness, then the simple answer is yes, reflexology can really work. That said, reflexology is ultimately just a form of massage and should not be relied upon to treat serious health issues. Again, there’s not much in the way of scientific evidence to support the idea that massaging a certain pressure point in your foot will have any effect on another part of the body. Still, many studies do show that reflexology can be beneficial to well-being in general, by increasing relaxation and lowering stress (similar to other forms of massage).

What are the benefits of foot reflexology?

As previously mentioned, stress reduction and relaxation are the main rewards of reflexology. Both anecdotal evidence and scientific research suggests that reflexology can provide relief from fatigue, insomnia and chronic pain—namely because these conditions are often either caused or exacerbated by psychological symptoms (think: anxiety). For this reason, perhaps, certified reflexology and massage therapist Lakshmi (Ambujam) Keyes has found that many clients end up sleeping better and feeling better overall after a single session, or even after just a DIY reflexology-inspired foot massage (keep reading to find out how to perform this type of rub down on your own feet).

What are the risks associated with foot reflexology?

Good news: There are precious few risks associated with reflexology, which is why it is widely embraced as a complementary therapy for individuals suffering from any or all of the aforementioned ailments (i.e., psychological stress, pain, fatigue and poor sleep). However, as with all types of massage, it is important that the person performing it has adequate training and considers the individual’s personal health profile and needs. Per Tsao-Lin Moy, a licensed acupuncturist and massage therapist, “diminished sensory in [the] feet or nerve damage” are important considerations, as “some conditions can cause more inflammation such as RSD.” She also notes that women in their first trimester of pregnancy should make sure the practitioner has experience with pregnant clients, which is just sound advice across the board; there’s no evidence that points to reflexology posing a pregnancy risk.

What does it mean when a reflexology point hurts?

So your tootsies are getting prodded and it feels a little painful...well, you needn’t read into it too much. Again, there is no science to support the notion that a sensitive spot on your foot corresponds with a health issue in another part of your body. In fact, Keyes says that “reflexology doesn’t have to be painful to work,” so discomfort might just be an indication that the reflexologist is going at it a little too aggressively for your taste. (She also shared a personal anecdote on the subject regarding her mother, a master reflexologist, whose massage technique brings her to tears: “Even though my headaches, or whatever the problem was, would go away in five minutes, [it was] maybe because the pain was so much worse in my big toe.”) The takeaway? When it comes to reflexology, the ‘no pain, no gain’ philosophy does not apply.

That said, it’s always a good idea to pay attention to tender spots in your feet and give them a little extra love, says Keyes, who cites “a combination of blockages due to toxins and poor circulation or chi energy flow” as sources for such pain. Moy adds that pain is very common in the feet: “Muscles and connective tissue between the metatarsals and toes get stiff and have less flexibility or joint mobility so when they get mobilized it can feel painful.” The massage therapists agree that reflexology is meant to alleviate such pain though, not exacerbate it. As such, you can just interpret this along the lines of general massage wisdom: If you discover a knot or sore spot, gently rub it—but, per Keyes, only “apply just enough pressure to bring about relaxation and circulation,” whilst avoiding a high degree of discomfort, as this will ultimately make the body tense up even more.

Can you do reflexology on yourself?

Both experts agree that you can indeed perform reflexology on yourself. Keyes recommends giving yourself a reflexology foot rub every night before bed for improved sleep, along with the other benefits that go hand-in-hand with a little self-love. Moy mentions that “learning reflexology can be a great activity for couples to explore together [to] support their intimate relationship.” (In case you missed it, foot rubs can be foreplay.)

If you’re curious about giving it a try, Keyes suggests you start with the toes, which are purportedly (i.e., according to the reflexology chart) connected to the head and neck; after all, she quips, “all our problems start with our head, don’t they?” No matter where you begin, though, you’ll find that reflexology is a healing art that can be easily adapted to your personal preferences—and remember, the main goal is that the massage feels good.

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