Reflexology and the Special Needs Child


Helping Each of these Children Feel More Comfortable and at Peace in their Bodies and their Emotions

When 5-year-old Bobby came into my clinic he had great difficulty falling asleep and sleeping through the whole night.

When 8-year-old Edward came into my clinic he would get distracted and easily frustrated, get out of his seat often in class and blurt out the answers.

When 5-year-old Marcus came into my clinic he would get overly excited when playing in the ball pit and on the swings and act out when it was time to go.

Three different children, three different behaviors: but all of the behaviors represent over-reactive nervous systems that can be addressed with a combination of treatment approaches. In my clinical pediatric practice I am seeing excellent results when I add reflexology into a treatment regime.

What is Reflexology?

Reflexology is a gentle method for helping bring the body back into balance. It dates back to many ancient cultures. In the tomb of an ancient Egyptian doctor were carvings picturing circumcision, pharmacology, embalming, dentistry and reflexology. When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt he created the portal for reflexology to travel from Egypt to Greece. Then when Greece was part of the Roman Empire reflexology had the opportunity to spread into Europe.

Like the concept of “chi” or “life energy” from acupuncture, the paradigm of reflexology specifies there are 10 zones of energy that run the length of the body which are then subdivided into 5 zones on each foot (or hand). Stimulating any point in one of the zones on the feet by applying pressure with the thumbs and fingers can effect a positive change in the same zone in the body.

Reflexology involves the manual stimulation of “reflex” points on the hands or feet that correspond somatotpically to specific areas and organs of the body (Oleson & Flocco, 1993, p. 907). This means all organs, glands and body parts are represented in the foot and are laid out in the same configuration as they are in the body. The areas of the feet where these representations are found are called reflexes (Norman, pg 22-23). Although the actual mechanism that controls the 10 zones and reflexes is not yet understood, recent brain research provides tantalizing clues. Information from our internal organs is mapped in an area of the brain known as the insula. There are sense receptors on the skin that activate with gentle touch that also travels to the insula. Thus, when we touch someone gently, our touch mixes with the information from our internal organs in the insula (Blakeslee, pg 182-183). Perhaps this is the neurological mechanism through which reflexology has such a profound healing effect on the body.

The Science of Stress

Reflexology helps the body enter into a deep state of relaxation. Our special needs children often need help to unwind from their stressful days. Everyday life can be challenging for our special needs children. It can be stressful to try to keep up with peers in class, to follow directions, and to write neatly, and to eat foods that don’t feel good in our mouths. Quite often our special needs kids are able to “hold it together” in school and then “lose it” when they are safe at home with mom. We need to help our kids calm down in a gentle way, to help their nervous systems shift into a more calm state. This calm state is when the parasympathetic nervous system is in the lead. We’ve all heard of the “fight or flight” response. When we become frightened or feel threatened our emotions send a message to our bodies that we have to either “fight” the perceived threat or run away from it. Our autonomic nervous system is triggered by our fearful emotions to engage the sympathetic nervous system’s flight/flight response. This state physiologically prepares the body for defensive action: heart and respiration rate increase and as a result, shut down digestion so more oxygen travels to the limbs to prepare for battle or flight.

However in our modern society neither fist fights nor running away are socially acceptable. The excess energy that has been triggered by our fight/flight response often has no place to go and can remain stuck in our bodies, contributing to the rampant stress levels in our modern society. Another negative consequence to this sympathetic activation is it makes digestion and elimination much more difficult. Many of the children I’ve treated also have difficulties with constipation. In my practice I’ve taught moms a simple reflexology protocol for elimination. After a month of the parents applying reflexology a few times a week they report their child begins to have more regular bowel movements.

These results from my clinical practice are being echoed in research studies. There was a two-year study done in Scotland from 2003 to 2005 with 184 children suffering from chronic constipation. In this study the parents were taught a reflexology protocol for constipation. The children were randomized into one of three groups: standard treatment and reflexology, standard treatment and foot massage, and standard treatment only; all for 12 weeks. “The primary outcome was the increase in the mean number of bowel movements and improvements in constipation symptoms at 12 weeks: soiling, pain, medication use, general health status and behavior per 4 week period” (Adler, et al, 2006, p. E55). A study in England found reflexology also helped children with chronic constipation. Fifty children were given six, 30-minute sessions of reflexology once weekly. For the 36% of children who did not have bowel movements for 7 days in the beginning of the study, at the end of the study their percentage dropped to only 2%. For the 46% of children who reported 1-4 bowel movements a week, at the end of the study it rose to 72% of the children. Best of all, none of the children in the study required an enema during the course of the study. And anecdotally, many parents commented on their child’s increased appetite and improved sleep pattern (Bishop, et. al, 2003).

Reflexology helps countermand the effect of the fight or flight response by helping shift the autonomic nervous system into a deep state of relaxation (parasympathetic bias). When we are in a deep state of relaxation (parasympathetic bias) our heart rate decreases, our respiration slows and deepens. Digestion is a slow and gentle processes and our digestive system needs to take its time to digest, assimilate food and eliminate waste for everything to run smoothly.

Calming Over-Active Children

From my work both with adults and children I’ve witnessed the calming effects weekly reflexology has on the nervous system.

Little Bobby came to me as an overactive 5 year old who could not fall asleep unless he was laying next to his mom, yet it still took him at least 2 hours each night. I taught his mom a simple reflexology protocol she could do with him at home. That in combination with a therapeutic listening program allowed him (over a 2-3 month time period) to fall asleep at night within 15-20 minutes and to sleep through the night.

With 8-year-old Edward I gave him 15-20 minutes of reflexology twice a week. After 4-5 months mom stated, “My husband and I have seen vast improvements. He’s less frustrated, more focused and stays on task. His teachers at school also see a huge improvement! He doesn’t get out of his chair as much and doesn’t blurt out the answers as much as he used to. Even his grandparents have noticed a huge difference—he will talk to them on his own with great eye contact.”

With 5-year-old Marcus, his mom gave him 10-minutes of reflexology at home 2-3 days a week plus the 10-minutes of reflexology I gave him in the clinic twice a week. After 3-4 months he began walking into the clinic and would stop and look at the toys, instead of immediately running for the swing after he arrived in the gym. His transitions went from extremely difficult, needing physical and verbal cues to needing only verbal cues.

Ten year-old Allen received 10-15 minutes of reflexology twice a week. Within 3 months his mom reported he tantrummed much less and noticed he would often pause and think instead of acting out.

Reflexology has played an important role in helping each of these children feel more comfortable and at peace in their bodies and their emotions. It can be a very powerful tool to help calm and regulate over-active nervous systems, to help smooth transitions and to have happier and healthier children.


Adler, E., Mathews-Smith, G., Hendry, I. (2003). How effective is reflexology when practiced by parents as an adjunt to standard medical treatment in childhood idiopathic constipation? Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, Volume 42, Issue 5, p. E55.

Bishop, E., McKinnon, E., Weir, E., Brown, D. (2003). Reflexology and the management of encorpresis and chronic constipation. Pediatric Nursing. 15.3.

Blakeslee, S., Blakeslee, M.(2007).  The Body has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better. Random House: New York

Oleson, T., Flocco, W. (1993). Randomized controlled study of premenstrual symptoms treated with ear, hand, and foot reflexology. Ostetrics & Gynocology, Vol. 82, NO. 6, pp. 906-911.

Norman, L. (1998). Feet First: A Guide to Foot Reflexologist.  Simon & Schuster: New York

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