Foot massage is an ancient art, having been practised across many different cultures for hundreds, probably thousands of years. It dates back to Ancient Egypt, India and China, but was introduced to the Western world only in the early 1900s when Dr William Fitzgerald developed what he referred to as ‘zone therapy’. It’s wonderfully relaxing and, just like most other massages, has many health benefits and can also create a lovely bond between the person giving the massage and receiving it, for example massaging a friend, a loved one, or a parent massaging a child.
It improves health and wellbeing in a number of ways;
- it relaxes the body, which we know leads to a calm, serene mind
- it lowers cortisol levels (the stress hormone)
- it improves our sense of well-being
- it improves the quality of our sleep
- massaging the extremities promotes enhanced circulation throughout the entire body
- the act of touch releases dopamine
- massage releases endorphins (the body’s natural painkiller)
Foot massage generally has its roots in practices such as reflexology and shiatsu. These methods can be used for pain relief, stress relievers and even to speed up injury, because applying pressure to the nerve endings in the feet (of which there are around 7,200) releases energetic blockages in the rest of the body (see below for further info on vital energy flow and shiatsu massage).
The principle of reflexology is that all the pressure points in the external parts of the body such as the arms, legs, hands, ears, face and feet mirror and reflect systems and organs inside the body. The now well-known foot map of pressure points was the first one to be produced in the 1920s.
In the early 1930s, Eunice D. Ingham further developed Dr Fitzgerald’s zone therapy, spending many hours massaging, probing, and examining the feet, with the aim of finding the equating inner parts of the body. In 1938 she published Stories The Feet Can Tell Thru Reflexology, which quickly spread the benefits of reflexology across the globe. Ingham travelled the world attending health seminars and conferences, advising on reflexology and discussing the practice with medical practitioners. It is a complementary health therapy, which I’m sure you know means that it is practised alongside conventional therapy techniques. Complementary therapies are generally hugely effective, as they often aim to and succeed in healing the mind through their balancing of the body.
The main reflexology points are as follows:
- Spine: the instep
- Liver: the outside of right foot
- Spleen: the outside of left foot
- The head and face: the toes
- Lower back, lower limbs, genitals: the heel
- Kidneys: the sole of the foot
So as the therapist applies pressure to these areas of the foot, the inner organs and structures will gradually become balanced and aligned. This may not happen on your first trip to a therapist; it may take a few sessions. This is because reflexology is a highly personal treatment customised to your entire self, and the therapist will take into account any personal aspects that may reflect your wellbeing. However, reflexologists do not claim to cure, neither do they diagnose problems within the body, and it is important to remember that the practice should not be used as a substitute for seeking medical advice.
Similar to reflexology, the ancient art of shiatsu (meaning ‘finger pressure’ in Japanese) massage is one which aims to pinpoint particular areas of the body, then apply pressure with the fingers, thumbs and palms in order to regain balance within the body. The patient’s vital energy, or qi (pronounced chee), flows through various pathways within the body known as meridians. The meridians can become blocked, thereby causing illness and/or stress. Unblocking the meridians through applying pressure to various points on them can heal ailments and restore harmony. So—foot massage, I hear you wondering… well, six of the body’s twelve main meridians begin or end in the feet!
DIY during lockdown
Very sadly, massage therapy studios have been hit hard this year because of the global Covid-19 pandemic. Gradually, therapists will be able to re-open their studios and invite the public back in for treatments – treatments which are so hugely beneficial for the body and just as much for the mind, an incredibly important thought in this tricky year we are living through. Mental wellness sadly took somewhat of a nosedive for some people over the summer lockdown, as humans are such social beings; we miss touch, we miss talk, we miss interaction and exchange. This study from 2018 showed that hand and foot massage ‘can be a useful […] intervention in attenuating anxiety levels and improving the vital signs in patients’. So what I’m proposing is one of two options (actually why not both?!):
- that you offer a foot massage to someone in your household or support bubble
- you give yourself a foot massage
Give a massage
Start by washing and thoroughly drying the feet if necessary, then apply oil or lotion to your hands.
- Rub the feet all over to cover with oil or lotion
- Begin with some warm up twists, gently moving the right side of the foot away from you and the left side towards you, working upwards gradually form heel to toe
- Rub the arch of the foot: hold the toes with one hand, then with either the thumbs or knuckles, rub the length of the arch
- Heel squeezes: hold the top of the foot in one hand, the heel in the other, and repeatedly press and release the heel
- Use knuckles or the fist on the bottom of the foot, working your way down from the ball of the foot to the heel. Begin with less pressure and increase it
- Use your thumbs on the bottom of the foot to work your way up and down the full length of the base of the foot; place the fingers on the top of the foot and move the thumbs from the ball, down the arch to the heel and back up again
- Toe massage can release tension and cramps. Hold the base of the foot in one hand, and gently pull and twist the toes one by one, beginning with the outer toe
- Have your reflexology map close at hand to see which inner parts of the body you’re healing!
Tools for self-massage
There are some interesting accompanying tools to assist you on your journey to foot and full-body heaven: I have a prickly massage ball that feels absolutely fantastic, just while I’m sitting reading, watching TV or working. I also found this acupressure foot massager that seems to provide a similar acupressure experience. If you’re looking at the higher end of the financial spectrum, there is always this shiatsu foot massager with heat therapy which looks rather spectacular, but to be honest I think we’d feel just as good with a nice warm bath and then a foot massage performed with loving hands.
Whether you’re saving yourself for the professional therapists after lockdown, or doing it yourself at home, have an immensely enjoyable time exploring the wealth of benefits of foot massage. Really—you’ll feel better all over!
Claire King is a copywriter and translator based in York, the UK. When she’s not reading, writing, or doodling ads, you’ll find her practising Pilates or enjoying some top-notch comedy!