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It’s been widely speculated that the origins of reflexology date as far back as 5000 years to China. As part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), some form of hand and foot therapy was being practiced alongside herbal therapy, acupuncture and qigong. Its roots have also been traced back to ancient Egypt through pictographs dating to 2330 B.C. Commonly referred to as the “Physician’s Tomb” for its depiction of several medical procedures, the pictographs were found at the burial site of a high ranking official named Ankhmahor. One of the images depicts two practitioners applying pressure to the hands and feet of two other people, with the inscription loosely translating to “Do not let me feel pain” and the response, “I will act as you please.”

Other cultures such as those of India, Japan and the Native Americans, have also used some form of pressure therapy to the feet as part of their tradition. The Native Americans for example believe that because our feet make contact with the earth, that we are connected to the whole of the universe through the energies that pass through them. In Europe, a form of pressure therapy known as “zone therapy” was being practice as far back as the 14th century.

In 1898, an English Neurologist by the name of Sir Henry Head discovered what are now known as “zones of hyperalgesia” or “Head’s Zones.” In a series of experiments, Head was able to demonstrate a link between diseased organs connected to a specific “zone” of skin by nerves and a hypersensitivity to pressure in that zone of the skin. Around this same time the work of two notable Russians: Ivan Pavlov – a physiologist, and Vladimir Bekhterev – a neurologist & psychiatrist, made their contribution through what are known as “conditioned reflexes”. Pavlov and his work with classical conditioning were able to demonstrate a causal link between a stimulus and a response. Bekhterev’s work was very similar in nature to Pavlov’s, although he referred to this link as an “association reflex.” Bekhterev however has the unique distinction of coining the term reflexology in 1917.

The first instance of a “reflex action” being attribute to massage occurred in Germany in the late 1890’s. What the Germans referred to as reflex massage was being widely practiced as a way of treating various diseases. A German doctor by the name of Alfons Cornelius had experienced first hand the therapeutic effects of a reflex action while recovering from an illness. He noted that during his massages, focusing on the tender and painful areas helped to significantly reduce his pain levels and speed up his recovery time.

It wasn’t until the work of an American physician named Dr. William Fitzgerald, that the reflexology that we know and practice today took form. Fitzgerald was the head of the Nose and Throat Department at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, Ct in the early 1900’s. Commonly regarded as the father of zone therapy, Fitzgerald discovered the anesthetic effects created through the application of pressure to the fingers and toes. A series of ten longitudinal zones for the hands and feet, where found to run the length of the body from the fingers and toes all the way up to the head. Through the use of clamps, pins and rubber bands which he used to apply pressure to the digits, Fitzgerald was able to map out the distinct areas on the body where the anesthetic effect took place. He soon realized that could relieve pain and the underlying causes of the pain using this technique. Fitzgerald became so skilled at this that he was able to perform small surgeries using his technique, which he referred to as zone analgesia. Along with colleague Dr. Edwin Bowers, Fitzgerald co-wrote the book “Zone Therapy” in 1917. In it they discuss the general principles behind this therapy. The idea being that areas of the body found along specific zones will be linked to one another through energy that flows through that zone. The zone therapy that’s used today in reflexology is largely based on Dr. Fitzgerald’s pioneering work.

Another physician by the name of Dr. Joseph Shelby Riley was so fascinated by Dr. Fitzgerald’s work with zone therapy, that he went on to refine and use his techniques in his own practice. Riley was the first to create detailed diagrams of reflex points on the feet. He also discovered the eight horizontal divisions governing the body. It was his assistant however, a physical therapist by the name of Eunice Ingham, that finally charted the reflexes we use today in reflexology. Ingham has been called the “Mother of Modern Reflexology”. It was Ingham who focused on the feet as a means of treatment. By applying the techniques used in zone therapy, she meticulously checked and rechecked the reflexes until she had created a detailed map of the body on the feet. After writing her first book, “Stories The Feet Can Tell” in 1938, she tireless promoted the practice of reflexology throughout the general public. Along with her nephew Dwight Byers, which she often practiced on, the two of them helped bring the modern practice of foot reflexology to the forefront.

Another key contribution worth noting came around the mid 1960’s. In 1965, Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall published an article in the journal of “Science” entitled, “Pain Mechanisms: A New Theory”. In it they describe how the body transmits and inhibits pain signals through a gate response found in the spinal cord. This theory would go on to explain one of the possible ways that this anesthetic affect was being created in the body. The theory was called the “Gate Control Theory” of pain.

The body’s normal response to pain is to inhibit it through the use of endorphins; the body’s natural pain relievers. Endorphins are endogenous opioid compounds produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus in response to strenuous exercise, excitement and trauma. And they are as strong as any opiate out there, including morphine. As a matter of fact, the word endorphin is actually an abbreviated version of “endogenous morphine”. When you stub your toe for example, pain signals are sent to the brain where they are processed by the thalamus. During this time, the first wave of endorphins is released into your system. But there’s a curious thing that happens along side this. Our immediate reaction is often to reach for the area in pain to try and soothe it. Ever wonder why that is? Somehow it helps to diminish the pain and the gate control theory can explain why.

The gate control theory states that a competing signal can essentially block pain signals from reaching the brain. Nociceptive pathways or pain pathways, have two different types of nerve fibers. A-Delta fibers are myelinated pathways that conduct pain signals to the spinal cord at approximately 40mph (fast, acute, sharp pain). C-fibers are unmyelinated pathways that carry signals at approximately 3mph, (slow, continuous, throbbing pain). Sensory neural pathways however, are myelinated but also larger in diameter, which essentially means they can transmit signals faster than both pain pathways. Basically, sensory information reaches the spinal cord faster and takes precedent over pain signals. This explains why rubbing your toe seems to miraculously help ease the pain. When the sensory input reaches the spinal cord it stimulates inhibitory inter-neurons, which act as gates that can close and suppress the pain signals. It’s a complex interplay and not an all or nothing phenomenon, which is why we still feel some pain. Interestingly enough, the theory goes a step further. Melzack and Wall also state that “the psychological condition and cognitive content of the mind” can affect our experience of pain. This includes emotions, thoughts and our overall outlook! This could explain why pain is such a subjective experience.

This last theory has wide implications for the therapeutic effects of touch therapy such as massage, Reiki and in particular, reflexology. Firstly, the sensory input created when pressure and movement are applied to the feet and hands help to close the gates, lessening the effects of pain. Secondly, the psychological effects of stress reduction can help generate feelings of ease and comfort, and ultimately give us hope that relief is within sight.

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.

Zone therapy is often considered the foundation for the theoretical and practical application of reflexology. In the late 1800’s, an English neurologist by the name of Sir Henry Head discovered through a series of experiments that there was a link between a diseased organ and specific areas of skin on the body. These areas often displayed a heightened sensitivity to pressure and touch that other areas did not. Twenty to thirty years later, an American doctor by the name of Dr. William Fitzgerald would take these findings and refine them into the practice of zone therapy used by reflexologists today.

Fitzgerald discovered that there were ten longitudinal zones on the feet and hands, which ran the length of the body. Five zones on either side of the body, with each zone corresponding to a section of the foot and hand that lead up to each toe and finger. See the diagram below. By applying pressure to these zones, Fitzgerald was able to create and observe an anesthetic effect in that part of the body. He became so adept at doing this, that he was able to perform small surgeries using his techniques.

zone therapy

Over the years reflexology has evolved into a finer application of these findings, but the underpinning of it has always been zone therapy. The practical application of zone therapy in a reflexology session can serve several purposes. If an area of the foot displays a heightened sensitivity to pressure, zone therapy can be used as a diagnostic tool for the organs and systems in that region of the body. Someone who is prone to chronic neck and shoulder tension for example may find that the toes, base of the big toe, and 5th metatarsal joint (pinky toe joint) are particularly sensitive. The good news is that applying systematic pressure to these zones will create an analgesic effect in the part of the body, essentially reducing tension and pain levels.

In addition, visual cues can provide a wealth of valuable information for what’s occurring in an area of the body. Bunions, calluses, and dry skin are just a few examples of these cues, which could ultimately signify a longstanding condition in a particular part of the body. The use of zone therapy can therefore help reflexologists ‘zone’ in on specific reflexes that may need extra attention. Having an open dialogue between the therapist and the client is also an integral part of the therapy. The simple reason fort this is that reflexology, or any form of bodywork for that matter, does not have to be painful experience to be effective. Research has shown that touch alone helps to release a flood of endorphins which the body uses to relieve pain. Staying within an individual’s pain threshold helps to relax the body while still creating the desired effect. The feet truly are mirrors of the body. And if we listen to them carefully and treat them accordingly, the health benefits could be immeasurable.

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.

The idea that one can relieve chronic muscle pain in less then two minutes seems almost too good to be true. The technique known as “strain/counterstrain” (SCS) was originally developed by an osteopath by the name of Lawrence H. Jones, DO. Often referred to as “spontaneous release by positioning,” “positional release therapy,” or “fold and hold,” its effectiveness is based on a surprisingly simple idea… move in the direction of ease.

The story goes, a client of Dr. Jones had come to him with a case of acute back pain. The pain was so severe that it prevented him from standing up straight and made sleeping nearly impossible. After having gone through two chiropractors, various remedies and still no success, Dr. Jones decided to work with him. Eight weeks worth of treatments later, there had been very little progress and the client was still in pain! One day, frustrated and tired from a lack of sleep, the client merely asked the doctor to help him find a comfortable resting position so he could lie there and sleep for a few minutes. For twenty minutes Dr. Jones moved him into various positions, checking and re-checking, until they found an optimal position that provided the most relief. He stepped out for the remainder of the session and upon his return, found his client standing fully erect and pain free! Somehow his patient had been miraculously cured. But how exactly? What Dr. Jones hadn’t fully realized yet was that he had inadvertently stumbled upon the secret behind the neuromuscular technique he came to call “strain/counterstrain.”

The technique works with the body’s own self-correcting reflexes to help relieve pain and discomfort. Sometimes a reflex, for all intents and purposes, can get caught in a loop. When this happens the body mistakenly perceives a stimulus as a threat and continuously engages the self-correcting reflex, which in turn perpetuates the problem. The body is trying to right itself, but unsuccessfully. We probably never give this any thought but whenever we contract a muscle, its opposing muscle must relax and lengthen in order for movement to happen. This is what’s known as “reciprocal inhibition,” and it happens all the time.

Whenever we flex our biceps, the triceps must relax so that our elbow can move. If the triceps were to lock up and spasm, movement would not be possible. Protective muscle spasms can occur when an opposing muscle is quickly and suddenly over-lengthened. As a result, a reflexive contraction occurs due to tiny propioceptive neurons located in the belly of a muscle known as “muscle spindle organs.” These MSOs are designed to detect changes in muscle length and contract as a means of protection. Once the threat has passed, the reflex should reset itself. On occasion however a reflexive contraction can be misperceived by the sympathetic nervous system as a continuous threat. The nervous system gets thrown off and maintains an elevated level of tone in the muscle. This maladaptive spasm is often very painful and only adds to the perceived threat. If the contraction becomes chronic, the muscle may be duped into thinking this new shortened state is its actual neutral position. And the cycle continues.

SCS can break this reflexive cycle and help reset MSO activity. How? By moving in the direction of ease. SCS does not involve any forceful movements, cracking or popping of joints, or painful stretches. These techniques only provide temporary relief at best and do not address the underlying cause of the problem. When you slacken a spastic muscle and allow it to relax for approximately 90seconds, you minimize the stimulation, which is actually triggering the reflexive contraction. The sympathetic nervous system in turn will perceive this new, comfortable position as non-threatening and allow the muscle to soften. Then when the muscle is moved back into its original resting length, a re-education of the MSOs takes place and the reflexive contraction is broken.

SCS is safe, gentle and always about moving into greater comfort. Although there are self-care techniques we can do on ourselves, the technique is most effective when done passively by a practitioner. There are several reasons for this. First, whenever we move our bodies into different positions we are contracting muscles in order to do this. It’s this constant contraction of muscle however that often perpetuates the protective spasm. Allowing someone to move us passively makes it that much easier for us to relax into these slackened positions. Being touched also has the added benefit of releasing endorphins, which act as powerful pain blockers.

There are four essential steps in performing SCS:

1) Find a tender/painful spot: Often times it’s these overly sensitive and hypertonic spots where the reflexive contraction is occurring. It’s important to locate these painful points and monitor their sensitivity as you perform SCS.

2) Fold the body over the tender spot: The next step is to maximally slacken the muscle involved. If you already know how to stretch key muscle groups, then moving in the opposite direction will essentially slacken the muscle.

Let’s consider the biceps again. To effectively stretch the biceps, you must a) rotate your forearm so your palm is face down, b) extend your elbow fully, and c) extend the shoulder back by extending the whole arm behind you. This creates a maximum stretch for the biceps. So to slacken the biceps, you take everything in the opposite direction. And this is where the importance of having someone perform these movements for you becomes obvious. For to do it ourselves, requires muscle contraction – the opposite of what we want. Consider these next steps for slackening the biceps as though you were performing them on someone else a) rotate the forearm so the palm is face up, b) flex the biceps by folding the elbow, and c) flex the shoulder by moving the upper arm to the head. This will maximally slacken the biceps.

So what do we do if we’re not sure what precise movements will maximally slacken a muscle (this will probably be the case in most instances)? From here we need to think of creating a cave around the tender spot. If you bring the two ends of a taut piece of rope together, the rope will slacken. The same holds true for muscles. Move the ends of the surrounding tender spot as close together as possible.

3) Hold the position for at least 90 seconds: Once you’ve maximally slackened the muscle with the tender spot, the next step it to hold this position for at least 90 seconds or until you feel the muscle soften. Having a finger or two on the tender spot will allow you to feel when the tension has decreased. This can take as little as 90 seconds or in some cases, a few minutes. The position being held should be relaxing and comfortable in order for this to happen. Doing this allows those propioceptive neurons (MSOs) to recalibrate themselves to this new, non-threatening position. One should also start to notice the decreased sensitivity of the tender spot.

4) Release slowly, back to a neutral position: This next step is critical and often overlooked. This is where the re-education in the sympathetic nervous system takes place. The once shortened and painful muscle has now softened and slipped back into place. The stimulus perpetuating the maladaptive reflex has ceased and the cycle is broken. Some gentle rocking or jostling by the practitioner will help to “remind” the body of its true resting position.

There is a whole school of thought dedicated to this unique form of neuromuscular bodywork. Position Release Therapy uses the concepts behind SCS and works with the body’s inherent self-correcting reflexes to help relieve muscle pain. If you’re interested in experiencing the effects of this relaxing yet effective technique in your next massage, ask for it by name.

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.

Feet come in all shapes and sizes. Some have well balanced arches with minimal callusing and a healthy appearance, while others deal with chronic foot pain due flat feet, high arches, and bunions – just to name a few. While most of us fall somewhere in the middle, it’s been reported that 80% of all adults will suffer some foot disorder during the course of their lives. Heredity can be a significant predictor of your overall foot health, but so can factors such as — the types of shoes you wear, the amount of time you spend on your feet, and whether or not you’re overweight. Add to this your mental and physical health and well being, and we start to get a clearer of picture of what your feet are saying about you.

The feet are the mirrors of the body. And since every part of the body is represented on the feet via its reflex, the appearance and sensitivity of those reflexes can hold a wealth of information about our health. Calluses and corns for example, tend to develop in areas of high friction – it’s the body’s way of protecting itself by adding more cushioning. But they could also be an indication of congestion or some other imbalance in that part of the body. Where it appears and to what extent can be of significant importance.

Bunions for example, form around the first metatarsal joint, just below the big toe. It’s true that some people inherit them from their parents, but it’s equally as true that tight, uncomfortable shoes can lead to bunion formation. When we consider the area where bunions form, we have the upper thoracic spine and neck reflexes. Could our choice in footwear be contributing to upper back and neck issues…? Whether the imbalance starts in the body or whether it starts on the feet, no one can truly say. What can be said is that there appears to be a strong connection between the two.

Flat feet and high arches are other fairly common foot conditions. The relative height of your medial arches can have a significant impact on how your weight is distributed on your feet. Most people with flat feet will have their weight shifted to the insides of their feet, while people with high arches bear their weight along the outer parts of their feet. This could have an impact on your posture and the proper functioning of the spine. People with low back pain should start with a pair of comfortable shoes with good arch support.

The tips of the toes represent the head and brain reflexes and the sides correlate to the sinuses. Issues such as hammertoe, claw toe, rigid toe, or any deformity of the toes, could create congestion in those areas but could also be representative of some imbalance that’s already present. People with high arches and those that wear open toed shoes such as sandals, are more likely to develop hammertoe.

Skin conditions such as plantar’s warts, athlete’s foot, eczema, or even just dry skin, could be used as an indicator for that part of the body’s overall health. Again, the placement and extent of the condition is key. Toenail problems such as ingrown toenails, thickened toenails, or fungal infections, could be an indicator of a poor diet or vitamin deficiency.

Pain anywhere on the foot is of significant importance and should be attended to with care. Whether it’s pain resulting from arthritis, gout, bunions, heel spurs, neuromas, or plantar fasciitis, any painful areas on the feet should be considered in relation to the whole body. The feet are our first and primary contact with the earth and the ground beneath us. Establishing a firm and secure foundation should be a top priority in our lives.

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.


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.

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April 2021

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