Reflexology (also known as zone therapy) is an ancient practice that many continue to seek out today in an effort to alleviate the symptoms of various physical and mental health conditions. Although some believe reflexology can reduce pain and ease anxiety, researchers say that additional high-quality studies are needed before it can be stated that the practice is backed by science.
Due to the lack of science behind reflexology, doctors disagree about how much the practice helps — if at all. But first things first: What exactly is reflexology?
"Reflexology is the technique of applying pressure at certain parts of the body, [such as] the feet, ears and hands," Dr. Janette Nesheiwat, a Manhattan-based physician and medical director at CityMD, tells SheKnows. "The concept suggests there may be a relationship between applying pressure and its effects on our nervous system."
Nesheiwat says that, although there's no data on its effectiveness, reflexology may aid in circulation, relieve stress and reduce anxiety. She notes that some people also report it helps with migraines and relieves fatigue. "This may be true for some — but again, there is no scientific evidence or data that it's effective," she explains.
Although she emphasizes the lack of data, Nesheiwat says she wouldn't object to patients coping with anxiety, depression, neuropathy or poor circulation in their lower extremities by receiving reflexology or therapeutic massage. "It may work well in conjunction with a well-balanced diet and a regular routine exercise pattern," she adds.
Other doctors take the firm stance that reflexology's benefits are likely the result of a placebo effect. Pointing to the lack of scientific evidence behind the practice, Dr. Morton Tavel, a physician and clinical professor emeritus of medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine, describes the practice as "snake oil."
"Apparent improvements following reflexology are basically 'placebo' responses — a [usually subjective] improvement in symptoms following some procedure that lacks any scientific basis," Tavel tells SheKnows, adding that placebo responses are enhanced by several factors, one of which is close contact with the caregiver, especially when it's accompanied by some form of physical contact.
But that's not to say all "mainstream" physicians have written off the practice. Dr. Nada Milosavljevic, a double board-certified, Harvard-trained physician who has specialty certifications in regenerative and functional medicine and medical acupuncture, does recommend reflexology to certain patients.
"For pain conditions like headaches, reflexology of the feet can target various nerve endings and also generally support good circulation," Milosavljevic tells SheKnows. "In traditional Chinese medicine, there are a number of acupressure points on the body and some corresponding points on the feet that are often manipulated to address chronic headache."
Although Milosavljevic acknowledges that studies about reflexology's effectiveness are mixed, she says that, like acupuncture, it can also help with conditions including fatigue, stress and chronic pain.
If you're considering giving reflexology or any other alternative medicine a try, it's crucial to make sure that the practice is safe and the worst thing that will happen is you won't find it particularly effective. The consensus among doctors is that reflexology is a generally safe practice even if it's not one they would recommend or endorse as helpful.
Nesheiwat explains that there aren't dangers associated with reflexology — just make sure you're exercising common safety measures. For example, avoid extreme pressure because it could cause nerve irritation or possible fracture.
"In general, it's a safe therapy and can be quite relaxing," Milosavljevic says. "But as with any treatment, always keep your individual health concerns and any limitations in mind."
In the interest of "better safe than sorry," it's best to check in with your health care provider before you try reflexology or add it to your regimen.