It began with Chinese medicine
‘Tis the season of tired feet! With holiday and end of year crunch time in full swing, it’s useful know there is a quick and easy path to relief in minutes. Few things feel better than a foot massage that warms tissues, increases circulation, and carries off metabolic waste. In fact, ancient practices and a growing body of medical research even suggest that massaging specific pressure points on your feet can heal conditions affecting entirely different parts of your body.
The belief that putting pressure on certain areas of your feet can heal ailments elsewhere is called reflexology. It stems from traditional Chinese medicine. “The idea is that energy, called ‘chi,’ flows through the body along particular pathways, or meridians,” says Denis Merkas, an acupuncturist and massage therapist who co-founded Melt: Massage for Couples with his wife, Emma. “When there’s a problem in the body, we’re usually talking about blockages of chi.”
Does science back it up?
The science behind reflexology remains unclear, but a great deal of research shows that it is effective at soothing and managing pain. In 2014, an audit of British physiotherapists found that reflexology was effective at reducing pain and inducing relaxation in people with chronic pain. Studies also show that foot massage can help reduce pain after breast surgery. Further studies show that reflexology can reduce anxiety in people about to undergo medical testing or hospitalization.
Foot massage for anxiety
Here are Merkas’s instructions for a foot massage that can lower anxiety.
- Curl your toes. You should see a small depression just below the ball of your foot.
- Place the pad of your thumb on this depression.
- Hold on to the top of your foot with your other hand.
- Massage the area in small circles.
- Alternate this with holding the area firmly and pressing down.
One study showed that people with low back pain saw better results with reflexology than with massage of the lower back itself.
If you want to treat your back to some reflexology, focus the massage on the arches of your feet and follow these steps:
- Concentrate on the pressure points in your arches. Merkas suggests using a few drops of oil or lotion for lubrication.
- Moving from the heel to the toes, alternate moving your thumbs in a series of short strokes.
“You can also use your thumbs to press in and ‘cat walk’ along the arch, like a cat making its bed,” says Merkas.
Foot massage for general pain
Myofascial release therapy targets the thin tissue that covers your muscles, bones, and organs. The pain in these tissues originates at trigger points that are hard to localize, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“Self-treatment is something I encourage all my clients to do,” says Rachel Gottesman, OTR/L, owner of Body Ease Therapy. “I use myofascial release therapy and it works by gentle, sustained pressure on areas of restrictions.” Gottesman suggests thinking of the myofascial tissues as a three-dimensional, interconnected web. Tightness in one place, like your feet, can pull the web out of place in other spots.
To perform myofascial release, follow these steps:
- Sit in a comfortable chair or on a sofa.
- Place a golf or tennis ball on the floor, just under your foot.
- Roll the ball around with your foot until you find a sensitive spot, or pressure point.
- Press down with your foot just enough to feel the point soften.
- Hold for 3 to 5 minutes.
Don’t continue to roll the ball — that doesn’t allow the pressure to go deep enough.
There’s mounting evidence to suggest that massaging your feet’s pressure points could be good for your health. And scientific opinion aside, it certainly feels good! Enjoy exploring your pressure points and learn which angles and how much pressure suit you.
A special note for people with diabetes: Check with a doctor before massaging, since diabetic nerve damage could be affected by pressure.
One thing is certain, our feet do take a beating, and deep massage can make them feel so good that you forget about other aches and pains.
- Bauer BA. (2015). Myofascial release therapy: Can it relieve back pain?
- Berry G, et al. (2014). Report on a membership audit of the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Reflex Therapy (ACPIRT). DOI:
- Eghbali M, et al. (2012). The effects of reflexology on chronic low back pain intensity in nurses employed in hospitals affiliated with Isfahan University of Medical Sciences.
- Korhan A, et al. (2014). Reflexology: Its effects on physiological anxiety signs and sedation needs. DOI:
- Reflexology. (n.d.).
- Ucuzal M, et al. (2014). Foot massage: Effectiveness on postoperative pain in breast surgery patients. DOI:
- Vardanjani MM, et al. (2013). A randomized-controlled trial examining the effects of reflexology on anxiety of patients undergoing coronary angiography.
- Wyatt G, et al. (2011). Health-related quality-of-life outcomes: A reflexology trial with patients with advanced-stage breast cancer. DOI: