The Origins of Foot Reflexology
a Historical Discussion

 By Maria Belinsky posted  January 25, 2015 Last updated November 8, 2017

The origins of foot reflexology are hard to classify, the act of using touch and pressure to the foot has been said to be documented in Egyptian and Chinese cultures.  The modern translation that accompanies the Egyptians massaging the foot hieroglyphic is receiver "do not hurt me" practitioner "I shall act so you praise me".  It is believed by many that the practice of massaging the foot spread from Egypt across Europe with the Roman Empire.  An image of the feet with hieroglyphic symbols relating to parts of the body was found at the tomb of Ankhamor dating back to 2330 BC.  But does it actually depict massage of the foot or something else entirely?

Symbols like those used in modern reflexology have also been found on ancient statues of Buddha in India that are approximately 5000 years old.  Some believe that stimulation of the foot to balance the body energetically spread from India to China.  It is important to point out that some reflexology sites reference "The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine" written around 1000 BC and state that there is a chapter that covers methods for examining the foot.  Calling this text the first written documentation that connects the movement of energy within the body to points found on the human foot.  How did this information continue to travel outward across time and cultures and is it indeed accurate?  

Both Hippocrates of Greece who was born around 460 B.C. and Galen born in Turkey from Greek parents and lived between 129 AD - 100 AD spoke of massaging the foot to affect wellness. The internet again tells us that Marco Polo later translated a Chinese massage practitioner handbook into Italian sometime within the 14th century AD.  The translation of the Chinese text, could have been one of the sources that introduced massage and massage of the feet to the European population and culture.  Some today would still point out that foot massage and reflexology did not originate in China. 

The term Zone Therapy traces back to a text published in 1582 AD by European doctors Adamus and Atatis according to internet authorities.  Taking a look at their work can provide a greater understanding of the origins of foot reflexology and its path across the globe.   The first use of the term Reflexology seems to have come from a pair of Russian psychiatric physicians in the 1800's (Dr.'s Ivan Pavlov and Vladimir Bekhterev).  Dr. Ivan Pavlov is most noted for his experiment with the reflexive response of Dogs conditioned to the sound of a bell and the sight of food to produce saliva commonly referred to as the Pavlovian response. 

Foot reflexology and reflexology of the ears and hands as a massage technique has become popular in the US over the last 30 years because of the work of Eunice Ingham.  As a result of Eunice Ingham's teachings and others, the number of practicing reflexologists in the US has increased by over 500% since 1988. 

Who came before Eunice Ingham?  Prior to Eunice's grass root efforts to promote the benefits of reflexology two doctors took the precursor known as the Zone Theory and developed a theory of their own in the 1920's, Dr. William Fitzgerald and later Dr. Joe Shelby Riley.  Another physician Dr. Edwin Bowers encouraged his friends to document their papers and research on what they called "Zone Analgesia".  It is believed that Dr. Fitzgerald picked up his ideas on "Zone Analgesia" while studying in Vienna. 

Eunice Ingham was a Boston physical therapist of her day and worked with Dr. Riley seeing patients and conducting research.  Eunice took their work and developed it into a usable treatment modality that she named foot reflexology.  She wrote a book and promoted its teachings from the 1930's through the 1970's.  Eunice died in 1974 as a tribute to her genius many individuals and organizations have continued to promote her teachings.

Actual scientific testing of its principles began in the late 1800's with medical doctor and researcher Sir Henry Head.  Dr. Head established a connection between the nervous system and regions of the skin and internal organs.  In addition to Sir Henry Head, Sir Charles Sherrington was able to establish that pressure to any part of the body produced a nervous system stimulation that was responded to by the entire body.  Dr. Alfons Cornelius a German physician found that pressure to certain spots on the feet and other areas of the body produced muscle contractions, as well as changes in blood pressure. 

Studies in Russia on the benefits of foot massage have been conducted for over 100 years.  Many studies have followed Dr. Ivan Pavlov's reflexive response experimentation and additional psychological theories.  A great deal of modern touch research has been dedicated to the effects of reflexology of the foot with extensive experimentation in Russia and well over 300 studies conducted in modern day China.  This seems to have established it as a viable alternative therapy method for health and wellbeing.

Some may still point back to Hippocrates and Galan as the European source that would eventually influence Doctors Adamus and Atatis's discussion of Zone Therapy.  This may have influenced Fitzgerald and Ingham during an age when Russia was already studying reflexive responses in animals and humans.  We may never know the direct path from ancient understanding to modern application.

The explosion of foot reflexology around the globe is an amazing testament to the growing popularity of foot massage, full body massage and the natural health movement.  Walk along the streets of any large city around the world and you will find both modern and traditional foot reflexologists practicing their art.  The origins of foot reflexology are hard to pin down yet it is clearly a unifying worldwide global event As reflexology and touch therapy increases its grip on humanity, let wellness through awareness touch your life.

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