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Part of 100+ Q&A about legs. See all.

Is it true that massaging our soles or acupuncture on soles of feet can heal diseases?

The skin on the soles of your feet is thicker than elsewhere on your body. The need for protection has made this skin thicker through evolution. The cells in this part of the foot divide more frequently in response to pressure and friction and this allows the skin to thicken and create a protective barrier. In cases where too much pressure or friction has been applied, it can trigger excessive thickening, resulting in hard skin or callus. For the anatomically inclined, here are some images of the epidermis of a thick skinned sole.

Some ancient practices and a growing body of medical research suggest that massaging specific pressure points on your feet can heal conditions affecting entirely different parts of your body. The belief that putting pressure on certain areas of your feet can heal ailments elsewhere is called reflexology. It stems from traditional Chinese medicine. “The idea is that energy, called ‘chi,’ flows through the body along particular pathways, or meridians,” says Denis Merkas, an acupuncturist and massage therapist. “When there’s a problem in the body, we’re usually talking about blockages of chi.”

Does science back it up?

The science behind reflexology remains unclear, but a great deal of research shows that it is effective at soothing and managing pain. In 2014, an audit of British physiotherapists found that reflexology was effective at reducing pain and inducing relaxation in people with chronic pain. Studies also show that foot massage can help reduce pain after breast surgery.

Further studies show that reflexology can reduce anxiety in people about to undergo medical testing or hospitalization.

This theory builds on research done in the 1890s by Sir Henry Head and Sir Charles Sherrington, who began to show through their research that a neurological relationship exists between the skin and the internal organs, and that the whole nervous system adjusts to a stimulus. According to the theory, the reflexologist’s application of pressure to feet, hands, or ears sends a calming message from the peripheral nerves in these extremities to the central nervous system, which in turn signals the body to adjust the tension level. This enhances overall relaxation, brings internal organs and their systems into a state of optimum functioning, and increases blood supply (which brings additional oxygen and nutrients to cells and enhances waste removal). It positively affects the circulatory, respiratory, endocrine, immune, and neuropeptide systems in the body.

Reflexology reduces pain by reducing stress and improving mood.

Another theory that may also explain how reflexology can produce pain relief is the gate control theory, or, more recently, the neuromatrix theory of pain. This theory suggests that pain is a subjective experience created by your brain. The brain does this in response to the sensory experience of pain, but it can also work independently of sensory input and create pain in response to emotional or cognitive factors. Thus things that influence the brain, such as your mood or external factors like stress can also affect your experience of pain. According to this theory, reflexology may reduce pain by reducing stress and improving mood.

Reflexology keeps the body’s “vital energy” flowing.

Another theory that may also explain how reflexology can produce pain relief is the gate control theory, or, more recently, the neuromatrix theory of pain. This theory suggests that pain is a subjective experience created by your brain. The brain does this in response to the sensory experience of pain, but it can also work independently of sensory input and create pain in response to emotional or cognitive factors. Thus things that influence the brain, such as your mood or external factors like stress can also affect your experience of pain. According to this theory, reflexology may reduce pain by reducing stress and improving mood.

Yet another theory holds that there is a “vital energy” in the human body. If stress is not addressed, it leads to congestion of energy, which in turn causes bodily inefficiencies, which can lead to illness. According to this theory, reflexology helps keep the energy flowing.

Zone theory

The recognition of reflexology as a specific type of treatment began with Zone Theory, in which the body is divided into 10 vertical zones. Each zone corresponds to fingers and toes all the way up to the top of the head. For example, if you are standing up with your hands on your thighs (palms facing down) the thumbs and great toe would be zone 1. On either side of the body, the index finger and second toe would be zone 2, etc.

In reflexology theory, every organ, valve, muscle, etc. that lies within a zone can be accessed via a point or area on the feet or hands. For example, working between toes 2 and 3, or fingers 2 and 3, the eye point is found. These pathways between pressure points and other parts of the body are thought to be connected via the nervous system, as described above.

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