According to a comprehensive report of Americans’ health, Health United States, 2006, released in November by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics, one in four U.S. adults said they suffered a day-long bout of pain in a previous month, and one in 10 said the pain lasted a year or more. The report noted low back pain among the most common complaints, along with migraines or severe headaches, and joint pain, aching or stiffness. While reflexology may not be able to cure every pain, Peoria resident Bob Wilton said the practice has helped him become more in tune with his body’s processes and improve his quality of life.

Reflexology involves applied pressure to specific neurological reflex zones in the feet and hands which are coordinated to the organs, parts and systems of the body. The Reflexology Association of America defines it as “the systematic, manual stimulation of the reflex maps located on the feet, hands and outer ears that resembles a shape of the human body.” Wilton has sought out alternative health practices for the past 27 years to provide comfort for his handicapped daughter who sometimes doesn’t find results with traditional medicine. “I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, not all were good, but it’s different ways of looking at something,” Wilton said. “Reflexology scans your system in a different way than a CAT scan, to find any reflexes that are sensitive. It’s totally different than getting a massage from a masseuse; a reflexologist gets your system in top condition.” For the last two years, Wilton has made weekly visits to certified reflexologist Pam Donath, who has been practicing the craft for the past 11 years. She sees around 30 clients each week at her Peoria home-based business. Donath said reflexology brings the body to homeostasis, a balancing of the body’s internal equilibrium.

“It promotes healing and lets the body heal itself. It improves circulation and the delivery of oxygen to cells,” Donath said. “With a society that is so fast paced, we have environmental factors our forefathers never had. I feel the Lord led me to what I’m doing now.”

The retired nurse has worked with people of all ages, ranging from a 91-year-old senior to a 3-day-old infant, and said it is fascinating to watch people heal from reflexology.

“No one can explain why it works. I do not prognosticate, but I do encourage you to drink more water,” Donath said. “Water is the key, without it the body is stressed.”

According to Donath, reflexology’s ability to stimulate circulation and flush out unnecessary chemical buildup, like lactic acid, sheds some light on how reflexology works. Lactic acid is produced in the body by muscles during intense activity. It is also added to a variety of foods including cheese and yogurt and is used in the production of acid-fermented foods like pickles. It builds up in your muscles and blood when it can’t be used as fuel fast enough. The buildup of lactic acid can eventually settle as tiny crystals in the feet and hands, Donath said, and since each foot contains over 7,000 nerve endings, the crystals can be a source of aggravation. Many reflexologists maintain that the crystals put pressure on these nerve endings, which are associated with the body’s organs and systems, and cause pain. A reflexologist seeks to remove these crystals through a finger and hand technique which is said to alleviate the affected areas. And if a particular body system or organ is stressed for some reason, the corresponding reflexes in the feet and hands will also be sensitive, Donath said. It is essential to drink adequate amounts of water after a session to remove the toxins, Donath said, because through the process, the body is “flushed” of toxins.

“Some people may hurt for a day after a treatment, some feel great and have instant energy and some cry, it reaches all levels,” she said.

Donath has also worked with cancer patients and said they expressed a relief from pain with reflexology. “You don’t need a doctor’s release, but a practitioner needs to assess you and see what’s going on with your anatomy and physiology,” Donath said. “You don’t want to do something inappropriate.”

Because of a strong connection between reflexes and organs in the body, Donath requires all clients to indicate any pre-existing conditions in writing. Sessions for pregnant women and people with kidney stones may involve less deep tissue treatment in certain areas of the foot, Donath said, such as just an inch above the heel of the inside of the foot which represents the uterus or prostate. To map the foot, the big toes generally represent the head with the smallest toes representing the right or left shoulders and the toes in between coordinating with the eyes and ears. On the mid-bottoms of the feet rest the reflexes associated with the kidneys and small intestines’ reflex can be found just above the heel line.

Reflexology is credited to Eunice Ingham, a trained masseuse and physiotherapist, who modified the science in the early ‘30s from Dr. William H. Fitzgerald’s “Zone Therapy.” Fitzgerald’s zone therapy concentrated on ten zones in the body, which he mapped out laterally from the toes and fingers to coordinate with organs in the body. The goal of zone therapy is to bring about the normal physiological functioning of the body.

The practice of reflexology can be traced back to Europe in the early 15th century. Others say it goes back even further to around 2330 B.C. because of drawings found etched into the wall of an Egyptian physician’s tomb showing people massaging the hands and feet of others.

Donath said she’s noticed that a number of reflexologists have begun popping up over the last five years, especially in the Midwest. Some of them, she says, are the “McDonald’s version” of reflexologists—quickly and poorly trained. While laws vary by state, in Illinois, reflexology as well as methods not involving fullbody oft-tissue manipulation, are exempted from the Illinois Massage Licensing Act which requires a state license to practice.

“As soon as it becomes popular, people jump on the bandwagon,” Donath said. “But if people are getting benefits from it, that’s the bottomline.” Peorian Becky Cobb trained with Donath and became certified in reflexology by the American Reflexology Certification Board about a year ago. She said consumers should be aware of their reflexologist’s credentials.

Peoria is now home to at least four professional salons that offer reflexology.

At Raylene’s, trained reflexologist Jennifer Coffelt said many massage customers request reflexology as an add-on to their appointment. While others are hesitant to try the non-invasive technique, Coffelt said she’s noticed many people are looking for holistic treatments. Many of her reflexology clients notice results before the third session, she said.

With a Master’s Degree in Health Sciences, Cobb said she got involved with reflexology to help others achieve a healthy lifestyle.

“It helps to turn off our emergency mode,” Cobb said. “With so many daily stresses, we don’t kick out of emergency mode. Reflexology can improve digestion and helps the muscles relax.”

While it doesn’t take the place of a doctor, she claims incredible things can happen with reflexology. “After a session, a woman was able to wiggle an arthritic toe she couldn’t move prior to the visit,” Cobb said.

Wilton said the benefits from his hour-long appointments are numerous—including stress relief and better functioning reflexes— but that eating right and exercising is a must when anyone is trying to get a leg up on their health. “Reflexology doesn’t cure anything, it just brings the body back to health,” Wilton said. “It’s an additional tool to get to optimal health and stay there. Pam helps to keep our motors running.” a&s

Fancy Footwork

The colors on this chart differentiate the reflex zones found on the soles and sides of the feet, according to reflexology. While reflexology charts often have slight variations, as local reflexologist Pam Donath notes, “everyone’s foot is different.” The same reflex zones correlate to similar areas on the hands as well. Donath prefers using the charts diagrammed by the woman who is considered the founder of reflexology, Eunice Ingham. Ingham toured the United States extensively in the ‘20s and ‘30s campaigning for reflexology and the benefits she believed it brought, like improved circulation. She recommended practitioners use only their hands and fingers to work the reflexes and cautioned against using massage tools. In the last five years, interest in this centuries-old technique has grown, especially in the United States.