The ancient practice of foot reflexology can be a surprisingly powerful tool in dealing with issues that are often beyond the purview of a regular massage. The thousands of nerve endings found in the feet and hands provide us with a unique access to the body’s nervous system. There are three main branches to the nervous system: the central nervous system (CNS), the peripheral nervous system (PNS), and the autonomic nervous system (ANS). It’s this last branch, the ANS, that is of particular interest to us. The ANS is in charge of controlling the involuntary actions that occur in our organs, glands, and certain muscles (i.e. the heart).

The ANS itself is divided into two branches: the sympathetic and parasympathetic. In moments of stress or activity, the “fight or flight” part of this system – the sympathetic branch – becomes active, initiating a series of changes in our body that increase our ability to deal with the issue at hand. Our heart rate increases, our lungs fill with air, our pupils dilate, and our muscles become primed for movement. The parasympathetic branch on the other hand has the opposite effect. The “rest and digest” branch of the ANS is in charge of regulating and establishing equilibrium once the stressful event has subsided. Things such as digestion, sleep, and the healing process in general, take place when the parasympathetic branch is active. And it’s this very branch of the nervous system that reflexologists stimulate via the reflexes found in the feet and hands. The positive changes that occur via manual manipulation of these reflexes have been well documented. An increase in blood flow to the organs, a lowering of stress hormones in the body, and a profound state of relaxation are just a few examples of these effects.

Since most headaches stem from tension found in the muscles of the shoulders, neck, and jaw, a visual assessment of the corresponding reflexes in the feet can provide us with a wealth of information. Are there calluses, corns, bunions, dry skin, etc… in and around the reflex? If so, it could indicate an imbalance or energy blockage in that part of the body. A vast majority of foot issues come from poor footwear. Choosing comfortable and properly sized shoes can have a remarkable impact on the health of your feet. Postural imbalances should also be taken into consideration. A functionally short leg, an over-supinated/over-pronated foot, or excessive medial/lateral rotation of the leg can over load certain muscle groups and lead to chronic headaches. The 12 meridians of the body also pass through the hands and feet. The liver, gallbladder and kidney meridians in particular, originate on the feet and pass through specific muscle groups that when tense or blocked, can contribute to the formation of headaches.

Reflexes for Headaches:

The reflexes that are of particular importance when addressing headaches are:

Head/Brain/Sinus/Jaw reflexes: All these reflexes are found in the toes of our feet. The big toe in particular contains several reflexes for: the pituitary gland  — which is considered the master gland in charge of regulating all the other glands; the hypothalamus – which regulates the autonomic nervous system; and the jaw – which when tight is a major contributor of headaches. The sinus reflexes, found along the sides of the toes, can be especially useful when dealing with sinus related headaches.

Neck/Shoulder reflexes: The neck reflex is found at the base of the big toe and the shoulder reflex, just under the pinky toe along the joint. Since a vast majority of tension related headaches come from excessively tight muscles in the neck and shoulders, working these two reflexes can be of great benefit. Unconscious guarding or holding patterns can often keep the muscles of the neck and shoulders in a perpetual state of contraction. In some cases an old trauma or injury that has long since healed, could be the underlying cause of this. Working these reflexes can help restore balance and lighten the load so to speak, of these workhorse muscles.

Kidney/Adrenal Gland reflexes: These two reflexes are found one on top of the other in the mid-foot. The kidneys regulate the retention of water and important minerals and filter toxins from the blood stream. Headaches arising from excessive alcohol consumption or dehydration are addressed here. The adrenals serve many functions. One of these functions is the release of adrenaline and noradrenalin, which work in conjunction with the sympathetic nervous system. Anxiety and over-stress can have a significant impact on the functioning of this gland.

Liver reflex: The liver reflex is found in the mid part of the right foot. The liver detoxifies the blood of contaminants such as drugs, chemicals, and alcohol. The liver reflex is of particular importance when dealing with medication overuse headaches (MOH), hangover headaches, and migraines.

Spinal reflex: Tension anywhere along the spine can easily translate into the head, especially along the thoracic and cervical vertebrae. The muscles of the neck and shoulders can have a direct impact on the alignment of the spine, as well as the positioning of the head. Maintaining good posture is at the core of reducing chronic headaches. The spinal reflex is located along the medial arch of the foot. The thoracic and cervical reflexes are on the upper half of this arch.

Solar plexus reflex: The solar plexus are a network of sympathetic nerve ganglia found in the abdomen. These nerves innervate a majority of the organs found here. It’s sometimes been referred to as our “abdominal brain” or “nerve switchboard.” The reflex, located along the transverse arch in the area between the first and second toe joints, can have a profound calming effect on people. For this reason, stimulating the reflex can have a significant impact on the breath and any nervous tension held in the body.

All the reflexes mentioned here can also be found in the hands and ears. Hand reflexology however, can be the most practical and effective way for people to administer self-care on a regular basis. Working the reflexes on the hand can be done practically anywhere. Here are few tips for addressing headaches via the reflexes in the hand.

Hand Reflexology for Headaches

hand chart

1)    Squeeze the fingertips to stimulate the head and brain reflexes. Pay particular attention to the thumb.

2)    Work the sides of each finger to alleviate sinus congestion or sinus headaches.

3)    Apply a gentle, circular pressure along the knuckle joint of the pinky finger, which corresponds to the shoulder reflex.

4)    Starting at the base of the thumb just above the crease of the wrist, apply pressure  along the outside aspect of the thumb all the way up to the top . This stimulates the spinal reflex.

5)    Located in the web between the thumb and index finger is a point in acupuncture known as large intestine 4. Stimulating this point for a minute or two is an excellent way to address tension held between the shoulder blades and helps provide relief when in the throes of a severe headache. It’s important to note that his point is contraindicated during pregnancy.

6)    Stimulate the kidney and adrenal reflexes found in the fleshy part of the base of the thumb.

7)    And finally, hold the solar plexus points located on the palm between the index and middle finger, with a light to moderate pressure as way of calming the nervous system.

Applying these self-care tips along with regular massage and reflexology sessions can be transformative when all else seems to fail. Over the long term, a holistic and preventative care approach may be just the investment you need to get you on the path to being headache free.

Joe Azevedo is a New York State/NCBTMB Licensed Massage Therapist, ARCB Certified Reflexologist, and an Advanced Reiki Practitioner. He is a graduate of the Swedish Institute and is the owner and founder of Brooklyn Reflexology.