In the early 20th century, you might be able to identify patients coming from a reflexology appointment by the clothespins on their fingertips. Today’s reflexologists generally carry out their treatments by hand in a wellness clinic or a massage studio, but the principle remains the same: apply pressure to specific points on the hands, feet, or ears, prompting responses in organs throughout the body.
The practice is similar to acupuncture and acupressure in positing energy pathways running through the body, although the scheme is a little simpler than Chinese medicine’s system of meridians. Envision vertical lines running from each toe up through the leg, joining lines running from each finger up the arm toward the neck and coming together in the head, and you have the body divided into 10 attractively slimming reflexology zones. Within each zone on the palm or—most common in reflexology sessions today—the sole, certain pressure points are thought to correspond to organs, joints, or other tissues elsewhere in the same zone.
Dr. William Fitzgerald—originator of the clothespin technique—began practicing what he called “zone therapy” in 1915. While research has yet to find a concrete link between modern medical thought and the millennia-old idea of imperceptible bodily energy, that doesn't mean reflexology can't be relaxing. Patients can expect the benefits of a treatment to include at least those of a good foot massage: increased circulation, relieved muscle tension, and decreased stress and susceptibility to tickle attacks. Even early proponents of the technique accepted that results might vary from person to person. Writing in 1928, physician Bernard Lust was content with claiming that “the adoption of the method is attended with absolutely no danger or disagreeable results, and may be the means of lengthening short lives and making good health catching.”