The origins of reflexology explored.
Many of my clients are understandably curious about the history of reflexology. I often wish there was a straightforward answer for them but in reality the origins of reflexology stretch across many cultures and thousands of years.
Reflexology has both ancient and recent origins which cover many cultural communities. The Egyptian use of therapeutic foot massage can be seen in a wall frieze at the tomb of Ankhm.ahor (2500-2330 B.C.) at Saqquara near Cairo. This specific tomb containing these images is known as the physicians tomb due to the array of medical images seen on its walls. The use of foot therapy for healing is implied by its inclusion in this tomb. We cannot determine the exact relationship between the ancient therapy practiced by the early Egyptians and Reflexology as we use it today. Different forms of massaging and applying pressure the feet to effect health have been used all over the world.
Ancient chinese writings describe pressure therapy using fingers and thumbs. Acupressure using fingers was used before acupuncture with needles. In the 4th century BC a Chinese doctor called Wang Wei was documented using thumb pressure on the soles of his patient's feet to release healing energy. It is also worth recognising that the Chinese had, in acupuncture, divided the body into longitudinal meridians by approximately 2,500 B.C. These meridians do relate in may ways to the zone therapy that developed as a precursor to modern reflexology.
The use of therapeutic massage and application of pressure to the feet to promote well being can be seen across many cultures through history but the development of reflexology as a therapy began more recently.
During the 16th Century books were published on the treatment known as Zone Therapy, one was written by Dr Adamus and Dr A’tatis and another by Dr Ball in Leipzig. In 1890 Sir Henry Head of London identified the study of zones within his neurological studies and called his findings head zones. At a similar time Dr Alfons Cornelius discovered that when painful reflexes were massaged it caused the corresponding body part to heal faster.
More recently the re-discovery of systemised foot therapy is accredited to Dr William Fitzgerald who called it Zone Therapy. He studied and shared his findings with the medical world between 1915 and 1917. It was in 1915 that an article entitled “To stop that toothache, squeeze your toe” was published in “Everybody’s Magazine”, written by Edwin Bowers, which first brought Dr Fitzgerald’s work on Zone Therapy to public notice. In 1917, Dr Fitzgerald wrote “Zone Therapy or Relieving Pain in the Home”. Two years later, they enlarged this book and published it under a second title “Zone Therapy or Curing Pain and Disease”.
Fitzgerald did not clarify where he became acquainted with the theory of zone therapy. He did not express any understanding of the oriental connection but many of his reflex areas correlate with acupuncture points. Many of the specific points discussed in Fitzgerald's work correspond to Chinese meridian points. There is also a notable overlap between the reflex points and sen points in traditional Thai medicine. We can not know for sure if this is due to many cultures reaching the same conclusions about how to facilitate wellbeing through foot work or because the findings have been shared and developed directly.
Modern relfexology has grown from Fitzgerald's work. Dr. Shelby Riley worked closely with Dr. Fitzgerald and developed the Zone Theory further. It seems that he added horizontal zones across the hands and feet. A number of other medical practitioners took the work futher until it was focused on by Eunice Ingham (1889 -1974) an american physiotherapist. Ingham is known as “The Mother of Modern Reflexology”. Her work led to the reflexology foot maps we still see today. She wrote 2 well known books “Stories the Feet Can Tell”(1938) and “Stories the Feet Have Told”(1951). Modern reflexology has been adopted across the world. In Denmark, for example, it is the most popular form of complementary therapy with ten percent of the population using it.
There is, therefore no simple answer to the question of the origins of reflexology! It would be true to say that modern reflexology is a relatively recent western therapy developed by medical practitioners within the formal health setting. It is, however, difficult to ignore the ancient cross cultural use of foot therapy as an influence on this powerful therapy.