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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.

In this third installment on headaches, we’ll be discussing how massage and trigger point therapy to key muscles in the neck and face can help diminish the effects of a headache.


If you consider the fact that 90% of all headaches are tension related in some way, then reducing tension levels, whether it be physical or psychological, should provide relief for a vast majority of people. Even those suffering from chronic migraines, cluster headaches, and new daily persistent type headaches are greatly affected by excessive tension in the muscles of the head and neck. It’s no secret that maintaining a healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet, plenty of exercise and sleep will go a long way in reducing stress levels. There may however be other factors at play that could be contributing to your headache. Factors such as postural imbalances, repetitive movements, strained sleeping positions, cervical arthritis, or even whiplash – all of which could be at the root of tight muscles. The one thing all these factors have in common though, are trigger points. Trigger points develop in strained or chronically tight muscles and are often the hidden and undetected cause of most headaches. There are close to 26 pairs of individual muscles in the neck and over 30 pairs of muscles in the face, all of which could be harboring trigger points! The work of Travell & Simons has shown that trigger points are the ‘operational element’ in most headaches stemming from physical trauma and emotional tension. The irony however, is that most headaches arise from trigger points found in the jaw, neck and upper back muscles! Knowing this saves a lot time and energy, but it also allows for a more focused and effective treatment plan. Now, let’s take a look at the key players.

There are four primary muscles in the head and neck that refer pain to the temples, forehead and jaw, and play a significant role in the development of headaches. The first two muscles, the trapezius and the sternocleidomasoid (SCM), are considered neck muscles (segments of the trapezius are also considered upper back and shoulder muscles). The other two, masseter and temporalis, are jaw muscles and are located on the face and head.


Trapezius Trgr PtThe trapezius is a flat, broad upper back muscle that functions to move the neck and shoulders. It also helps to support the weight of the head and is therefore particularly susceptible to postural imbalances, which can put undue strain on the muscle. A trigger point in the upper part of the trapezius is one of the primary causes of temporal headaches. The referral pattern of this trigger point includes the back of the head, sides of the temple, and angle of the jaw. It’s also been known to setup up satellite trigger points in these areas, which can lead to a deep pain behind the eye, toothaches, and TMJ. Stress and emotional tension can often keep this muscle constantly contracted and elevated on some people — as can wearing a heavy backpack or purse, a forward head posture, or tight pectoral muscles. Trigger points in the middle and lower half of the traps will often refer pain to the back of the neck.

Sternocleidomastoid (SCM):

SCM Trgr PtsThe sternocleidomastoid muscle, or SCM for short, derives its name from its points of attachment. The two branches of the muscle attach on the sternum, clavicle, and mastoid process — which is located behind the ear. Although these muscles rarely hurt themselves, trigger points found in the SCMs are usually at the root of frontal headaches and pain located on the face. This muscle serves several purposes. Much like the upper traps, it functions to rotate and laterally flex the head to the side, and is an accessory breathing muscle — helping to elevate the ribcage during inhalation. Its very functions however, make it susceptible to postural imbalances such as, a forward head posture, and shallow upper respiratory breathing arising from emotional and/or psychological tension. Triggers points in the SCM can also be a leading cause of a painless, stiff neck; a deep pain behind the eye, ear, and back of the head; tongue pain when swallowing; and a contributing factor in TMJ pain. Unfortunately these muscles are rarely worked on, despite their wide and primary effects.

The other two muscles are located on the head and face. Masseter is a chewing muscle found along the angle of the jaw, which provides the jaw with most of its power. Trigger points in masseter can restrict the opening of the jaw and lead to pan in the upper and lower teeth. It’s also one of the leading factors in the development of TMJ. Its referral pattern includes many points on the face such as, the cheek, above the eyebrow, along the jaw, deep in the ear, and can on occasion mimic the symptoms of sinusitis. Pain arising from masseter trigger points can be an underlying cause of frontal headaches. Temporalis, like masseter, is a chewing muscle. This flat muscle is located on the sides of the head just above the ears. Trigger points in temporalis refer pain to the area above the eyes and upper lips. They contribute to the formation frontal and temporal headaches and can sometimes lead to hypersensitivity in the upper teeth.  

Another set of muscles worth mentioning are the suboccipitals. These two pairs of four, short, individually named muscles are located at the base of the head and the very top of the neck. Pain from trigger points in the suboccipitals can feel like a band of tightness inside the head, starting at the back of the head and leading to the eye and forehead. This type of pain is commonly associated with migraine headaches. The suboccipitals are particularly vulnerable to emotional tension, as well as the effects of satellite trigger points coming from the trapezius. Research has discovered that one of these short muscles not only attaches to the occiput, but to the dura mater – the connective tissue that covers the brain. In light of this connection, it’s speculated that increased tension in this muscle can disrupt the normal fluctuations of cerebrospinal fluid and lead to headaches.

In some cases, focused work on these key muscles alone can have the added benefit of deactivating satellite trigger points that fall in their referral patterns. However, this is not always the case, especially in the more severe and long-term cases. The cascading effects of trigger points are one of the main reasons why some of them are so persistent and easy to miss. But once they are systematically treated and deactivated, relief is usually not far behind.

In the next and final post, we’ll see how reflexology to particular reflexes found in the hands and feet can help with headaches.

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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