Reflexology for Osteoarthritis

Reflexology is a complementary or alternative treatment sometimes used by osteoarthritis patients. Once you learn what it is and how it works, you may wonder how reflexology could help osteoarthritis.

Reflexology for Osteoarthritis

Frederic Cirou / Getty Images

What Is Reflexology?

Reflexology is an alternative, non-conventional treatment given by a reflexologist. According to the Reflexology Association of America, "It can be used with any medical or alternative therapy, or it can stand alone as an effective health maintenance technique. It is the systematic, manual stimulation of the reflex maps located on the feet, hands and outer ears that resemble the shape of a human body. Pressure is applied using thumbs and fingers in small movements to stimulate an area far removed from the reflex point. It is believed to work through the nervous and subtle energy systems of the body."


Reflexology was initially practiced in India, China, and Egypt in ancient times. It is included in a mural in a pyramid in Saggara dating from 2330 BC. It was practiced in Europe in the 14th Century and called zone therapy.The father of modern reflexology is William Fitzgerald, M.D. (1872-1942). He introduced reflexology to the West in 1913. Based on his knowledge that applying pressure to specific parts of the body could affect other related areas, he divided the body into 10 equal, vertical zones. Dr. Fitzgerald theorized that applying pressure on part of a zone could affect everything within the same zone.

The Theory Behind Reflexology

Reflexology is based on the theory that the body is capable of healing itself. With a ​chronic illness like osteoarthritis, the body is in a state of "imbalance." Not only that, vital energy pathways are blocked, causing the body to function less effectively. Reflexology is believed to work with the body’s systems to improve function.

What the Research Says

Ten systematic reviews of studies found insufficient evidence to support its clinical use in evidence-based practice. If used as a complementary treatment, it may have subjective benefits in soothing and relaxing patients. The authors of a systematic review say patients with these conditions may have adverse effects: pregnancy, diarrhea or vomiting, skin disease or inflammation of the hand, feet or ears, fever or infectious disease.

What You Should Do If Interested

Look for a reflexologist who has received instruction and certification at the 200-hour level. Many reflexologists are Board Certified by American Reflexology Certification Board, the national, nonprofit testing agency for Reflexology in the United States.

Talk to Your Healthcare Provider

It's always wise to discuss a treatment you want to try with your healthcare provider before you start it. Seek his advice so you will know his opinion. It would be ill-advised to stop your current treatment regimen when beginning reflexology. Be sure your healthcare provider feels there is no harm in trying it, even if there are also no guarantees. The effectiveness of reflexology for the treatment of osteoarthritis has not been well-studied.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Nurul Haswani Embong, Yee Chang Soh, Long Chiau Ming and Tin Wui Wong. "Revisiting reflexology: Concept, evidence, current practice, and practitioner training," J Tradit Complement Med. 2015 Oct; 5(4): 197–206. Published online 2015 Sep 28. doi: 10.1016/j.jtcme.2015.08.008 PMCID: PMC4624523
  • Reflexology Articles. Reflexology Association of America. 

By Carol Eustice
Carol Eustice is a writer who covers arthritis and chronic illness. She is the author of "The Everything Health Guide to Arthritis."