Chinese people have been practicing foot reflexology for at least 2,000 years. This form of treatment described in details in the ancient medical text called Huangdi Neijing (variously translated as The Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon or Medical Classic of the Yellow Emperor), a tome compiled sometime before 111AD, probably around the third century BC.
Whereas Chinese traditional herbal medicine is often dismissed as a pseudoscience, studies have concluded that foot massage (sometimes called zone therapy) can bring real benefits to the sufferers of various ailments. This is hardly surprising, as medical science has long understood how every form of massage effects the human body. When a person receives a comforting touch - whether it from the hand of a lover or a masseur - there are quick and significant falls in cortisol and arginine vasopressin levels. Both are hormones. The first is related to stress. The second restricts blood vessels, so any reduction means lower blood pressure.
Direct physical effects of the manipulation of soft tissue include better blood and lymphatic circulation. The lymphatic system removes fluid from the bloodstream so it can be filtered through lymph nodes which extract bacteria and other undesirable matter; it's thus crucial to the body's ability to resist disease. Better blood circulation means oxygen and nutrients are delivered more efficiently to the muscles, and likelihood of contractions or spasms falls. By straightening out compressed nerves, massage helps the nervous system work better.
There are 7,800 nerves in each foot, but traditional Chinese foot-reflexology concepts diverge from modern science when it comes to the age-old but unfounded notion that particular internal organs are linked to certain spots on our soles. Many foot masseurs in Asia tell their clients that if exceptional pain is felt in one of these reflexology zones, it likely means something is wrong with the relevant organ. They may also claim that such illnesses can be treated by massaging the appropriate part of the foot.
Such beliefs are reflected in the foot "maps" displayed at many reflexology establishments (see above). These charts make for fascinating reading, especially when you notice there are minor differences between the left and right feet. As you may know, the human body is actually asymmetrical.
The heart and spleen are located just to the left of center; the liver is on the right. Just as the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body, the pressure points for the heart and spleen are found not on the left but on the right foot. The one for the liver is on the left, as is the appendix zone. On the soles of both feet there are spots for the stomach, pancreas, lungs, bladder and kidneys, while a minute zone on the underside of the left foot’s big toe affects the pituitary gland. To treat anus or rectum problems, the masseur will attack an area near the right heel. Not all foot-zone charts are precisely the same, but all hold the toes are linked to the head. Individual pressure points are linked to the nose, ears, eyes and sinuses.
A good number of foot-massage fans say if it isn't painful, it isn't doing any good. Not all experts agree with this, but those going for their first-ever reflexology session should be warned: Don't be surprised if you leave the massage parlor in a near-stupor, relaxed yet exhausted. The ubiquity of foot-massage places in China and Taiwan (and in countries with large ethnic Chinese populations such as Malaysia and Singapore), and the growing number in North America, suggest this form of therapy is still growing in terms of popularity. Also, a number of centers offer short training courses for those who'd like to be able to massage their own feet.