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18 Health Benefits Of Foot Massage/Reflexology (Part 1)

18 Health Benefits Of Foot Massage/Reflexology (Part 1)

There are so many benefits of foot massage, some of the benefits include: releasing endorphins, lowering heart rate, lowering blood pressure, improving balance, and assisting with mental health problems.

So How Does Foot Massage Work?

There are several components to foot massage. The physical aspect of the massage – the manipulation and massage of muscles – provides a therapeutic effect in and of itself (2). It increases blood flow, lymphatic drainage (the drainage of fluid from blood at its filtration before being put back into the circulatory system), and assists in the reduction of local joint pain (3).

However studies have found other benefits to foot massage, such as decreasing pain, assisting in keeping blood and heart rate low, and helping with some mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. These benefits result from a combination of the physical effects of massage, and the psycho-social aspect of getting a foot massage (4).

Most of the benefits above occur with any type of massage, though there are some benefits that are unique to foot massage, including increased balance, increased sensation and range of motion in the feet (5). Reflexology, a form of massage which we will also examine in this article, also tends to concentrate primarily on the feel.

1) Foot Massage Increases Endorphins

It is no secret that endorphins are good for us. Whether through exercise or eating chocolate, endorphins act as happiness hormones, robbing us of pain and discomfort and leaving happiness in their wake (6).

So what does massage have to do with endorphins? Several different studies looked at the specific effects that foot massage had on a variety of patients with a range of conditions. They found a marked increase in the release of endorphins across the board (7,8). This release of endorphins is responsible for some of the effects experienced during foot massage. They include an increased feeling of calmness, a decrease in pain and stress, and assistance with managing anxiety and depression.

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Put simply, tissue massage, whether of the feet or otherwise, makes you feel good. Massage activates endorphins which circulate around your body and brain, promoting happiness, muscle relaxation and a decrease in pain (9).

Take Away:

Foot massage prompts the release of endorphins, which in turn promote benefits including decreased stress, increased happiness and assisting with pain management and management of some mental health conditions.

2) Foot Massage Activates Parts Of The Brain Associated With Reward & Pain Control

One particular study looked at the effect that foot massage had on healthy adults by putting patients under an MRI scanner before the researches performed twenty seconds of massage (10). This study found activation of reward centres in the brain. Interestingly, though both hand and foot massage was used, the reward centres were only activated significantly when foot massage was performed (10). Activation of the reward centres was tied to the participants’ increased feelings of calm and a decrease in reported stress.

Another study noted activation of parts of the cingulate cortex when three different types of massage (Swedish, reflexology based massage and massage with an object) were applied to the foot (11).

The Cingulate cortex is responsible for many things, including pain moderation and the association between external events and memory and emotion (12). Thus, activation in this area of the brain suggests that foot massage may be useful when it comes to modifying the body’s response to pain, and how it responds to certain stimuli.

Take Away:

Foot massage affects the brain, targeting both the brain’s reward centres, as well as parts of the brain responsible for pain moderation.

3) Foot Massage Affects Cortisol Levels (Sometimes) & Stress (Always)

Given the above, it should come as no surprise that massage of all types also influences cortisol levels (13).

Cortisol is the stress hormone. It causes all sorts of havoc in our bodies – increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and anxiety. Foot massage significantly decreases reported stress levels across many different groups (14).

It goes without saying that a decrease in stress is a good thing – it enables people to go about their days without worry, leaving them with more room to think and concentrate on other things.

This decrease in stress was not a discrete effect – foot massage was found to prompt a decrease in stress in healthy undergraduate students, women with postpartum depression and middle aged women living in the countryside. This was even when the studies found no significant decrease in cortisol (15, 16, 17).

The fact that stress decreased in all groups (undergraduate student, women suffering post-partumn depression and middle aged women) signifies that while there may be other factors at play, foot massage is still an effective way to decrease stress levels.

Take Away:

Foot Massage decreases stress levels . Some studies found only small decrease in cortisol levels associated with this, while some studies found statistically significant decreases in the stress hormone.

4 ) Foot Massage Affects Us Because We Are Being Taken Care Of:

A study into the effects of foot massage and reflexology looked at whether advanced cancer participants reported changes in mood when foot massage and foot reflexology was incorporated into their treatment and care (18). Most participants reported significant increases in wellbeing (18). The same was found in patients who participated in a study on the effects of foot massage in a critical care ward (19).

Human beings are social creatures, and we do not operate primarily on the basis of hormones and medications. When someone dedicates time to your comfort, it feels good. This feeling in turn prompts a release of hormones in your brain which creates a positive feedback loop. We feel good because we are being cared for. Thus, we get a release of hormones which make us feel good, and then we associate massage with something that is good for us.

As we saw above, foot massage affects the pleasure centres of our brains (10), our endorphin levels and decreases stress. While some studies showed statistically significant changes in biology due to massage, there is no way to remove the social aspect of foot massage from the studies. Thus, it is highly likely that while foot massage has its own discrete effects, it is even more likely that the social aspect of foot massage is a large part of that.

Take Away:

Being taken care of is a social need, and a significant aspect of receiving a foot massage. Given that many studies reported decreases in stress, pain and anxiety, but could not find statistically significant changes in biological markers to explain this, it is likely that the social aspect of foot massage plays a large part.

5) Foot Massage Decreases Our Perception Of Pain

Pain has many different causes. Ranging from the psychological, to neural, to purely physical, it often combines many of these elements, making it a difficult condition to treat (20). It is a highly subjective experience, and one person’s agonising pain will be something that another person lives with day to day (21) . So how does foot massage help with pain?

If we look back at the ways that foot massage effects people, we see both physical effects and psychological effects. It provides social care, an increase in endorphins, and decreased stress levels. So it makes sense that when these things are effected, pain becomes easier to deal with. A study looking at how the perception of pain was affected by foot massage showed marked decreases in postoperative pain – so much so that the use of opioids in patients who received massage decreased when compared to the control groups (22).

This effect is most likely due to the ability of massage to treat several aspects of pain. We’ve already talked in this article about how massage affects parts of the brain involved in pain modulation (12), and how it also increases endorphin levels (9), and decreases stress levels (13).

Massage also provides a social element. Someone is taking care of you. It also has the potential to address the source of the pain. Deep tissue massage and massage focuses on the joints, looking to immediately effect the cause of the pain.

By combining an element of physical benefit, social benefit and psychological benefit, foot massage is able to effectively address multiple source of pain.

Key Take Away

Pain is a highly complicated phenomenon. As foot massage affects several different aspects of ourselves (physical, social and psychological), foot massage can be used effectively to treat pain.

6) Foot Massage Decreases Nausea & Vomiting

Barring a big night out, nausea and vomiting generally result from an upset stomach (in which case vomiting is probably the best thing for you), morning sickness, and the nausea and vomiting experienced by people in pain and cancer patients.

Nausea and vomiting is driven by specific mechanisms – activation of the vagus nerve, upset of your inner ear (motion sickness), or activating of dopamine receptors (related to stress) (23). While massage is not going to affect your inner ear, there is some theorisation in studies that massage may affect the dopamine receptors or the vagus nerve.

Evidence for massage’s effect on nausea and vomiting lies in studies that look at cancer patients. 10 minutes of foot massage was used to positively decrease the nausea and vomiting in cancer patients (24), with further studies finding the same (25).

Vomiting, especially if chronic, can cause a multitude of secondary problems, including dehydration and ion imbalances (an imbalance of the salts in your body) (24). This in turn can put someone in serious trouble – ions control nerve impulses, the beating of your heart and the ability of your muscles to contract (23). By assisting in controlling both nausea and vomiting, foot massage can help increase quality of life.

Take Away:

Nausea and vomiting cause significant issues if left unchecked. Even singular episodes can affect quality of life. Foot massage can provide a way to help control and manage these symptoms, in turn leading to a better quality of life for those who experience these symptoms.

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7) Foot Massage & Reflexology

Here we look at a specific type of massage, based on the principles of reflexology. Reflexology is based around the concept that by massaging the hands and feet, the masseuse can influence other parts of the body (26). There are several theories on how this works – one is that pressing points in the feet influences the central nervous system. Another is that energy flows through the body and by addressing points of problem in this flow, reflexology can return the body to its resting state. (26)

While there is some anecdotal evidence for this, much of the evidence regarding reflexology points to it increasing both circulation and lymphatic drainage as its main effect (26).

The lymphatic system and the circulatory system work together to maintain the water balance in the body, to filter the fluid in the body, and to protect against disease by housing and distributing white blood cells (23). By increasing the body’s circulation and lymphatic drainage, reflexology and massage of the feet has the potential to assist with fluid balance, and the movement of blood fluid through the bodies own personal inbuilt filtration system.

The practise of reflexology has also shown to have distinct effects that cannot be explained by increased circulation and lymphatic drainage (27). Such effects include relaxation, a decrease in pain, and a general improvement in quality of life (27). It is entirely possible, that as explored previously in this article, that this result from things such as the experience of being cared for, the increase in endorphins and the decrease in stress levels, rather than reflexology itself.

Key Take Away

Reflexology is a particular type of massage which focuses on points of tension within the soles of the feet and attempts to influence other body functions by their manipulation. While the evidence for how it works is largely anecdotal, its effects are well measured and include pain control and assistance with anxiety and depression.

8) Foot Massage Helps Maintain Healthy Blood Pressure

Blood pressure is a major measure of a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease (28). A higher blood pressure makes the heart work harder, resulting in increased stress and strain of cardiovascular muscle (28). For every extra 20 milligrams of mercury above a systolic pressure of 115 mmHG, a person’s risk of heart disease doubles (29). Given that heart disease is, in essence, a spectrum of disease spanning from angina to heart attacks, it is important that blood pressure be kept under control (30).

Blood pressure results from three different things – the force at which blood is expelled from the heart, the number of times it is expelled from the heart (heart rate), and the volume of blood present (23). Blood volume is a product of the relationship between the lymphatic system, which drains fluid from blood and sifts through it before pumping it back into blood, and the circulatory system. Heart rate is influenced by many things, but stress is a large external factor. The force at which blood is expelled from the heart relies on the size of the heart – an overlarge heart will pump out blood with far more force, driving blood pressure higher. An enlarged heart is generally the result of overworking it – after all, it is a muscle, and muscles grow with extensive use.

Given what we’ve already talked with regards to the effects that massage has on stress, the lymphatic and circulatory systems, it comes as no shock that foot massage also has a positive effect on blood pressure. Evidence for this can be seen in a study on foot massages’ effect in the Japanese community (31) . This study found a statistically significant decrease in systolic blood pressure and anxiety levels (31). Foot massage can therefore be used, in conjunction with its stress busting abilities, to help control blood pressure, and thus decrease the risk of heart disease.

Key Take Away

Blood pressure is influenced by many factors including stress, heart rate, and blood volume, and foot massage can benefit them all. While not a be all and end all, it can be useful in managing underlying causes of high blood pressure.

9) Foot Massage Helps Maintain A Healthy Heart Rate

Like blood pressure, heart rate is tied to the function of the heart. If the heart beats too fast, several things can occur. In critical situations, the heart does not have enough time to fill with blood, and thus cannot supply an adequate blood supply to the rest of the body (23). In less critical situations, a sustained increased heart rate can lead to feelings of anxiety, and experiences of dizziness and chest pain (32).

The same Japanese study that looked at blood pressure also examined the effect that foot massage had on heart rate. It found that foot massage decreased the average heart rate in the participants (31). Another study looked at children in intensive care – children who very obviously have undergone much in the way of stress, and found again that their long term heart rate decreased over several sessions of massage, despite their surroundings and situation (33).

This decrease in heart rate has very obvious benefits – it removes significant stress from the heart. A heart that works too hard is a heart that enlarges – thus contributing to increased blood pressure and a risk of cardiovascular disease (34).

Take Away:

Foot massage benefits in the area of heart rate – it helps keep it within normal levels. This in turn assists the body in maintaining its normal equilibrium, and decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Check out part 2 here.

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