Everyone enjoys a good foot-rub every now and then, especially from a spouse or significant other. There’s something deeply soul-satisfying about coming home after a hard day at work, pulling your shoes off, and allowing someone else to relieve the day’s accumulated pressure from our long-suffering feet.
But there’s more to foot massage than simple domestic tranquility; foot massage is a big business, and it has real, tangible medical benefits.
In this article we will explore the therapeutic and medical benefits of various types of foot massage. We will also explore the darker side of the massage industry, and explain how con artists peddle New Age massage “therapies” with no medical value whatsoever.
Medical Benefits of Foot Massage
It may surprise you to learn this, but real medical authorities have established actual medical benefits associated with massage in general, and foot massage in particular. Studies have demonstrated that massage is effective for reducing muscle tension, muscle and joint pain, and stress.
In addition to pain and tension relief, foot massage stimulates the muscles and improves blood circulation.
Types of Foot Massage
There are myriad types of massage—the Wikipedia entry on the subject lists nearly forty, including Shiatsu, Ayurvedic, and many others. For our purposes here, however, all types of foot massage can be divided into four categories:
- Swedish massage
- Deep massage
- Sports massage
- Trigger point massage
Swedish massage, the most widely practiced massage technique in America, is effective for reducing joint pain and stiffness. The technique uses five different types of strokes: gliding (which enhances blood flow); kneading (which reduces muscle tension); and tapping, friction, and vibration (all of which stimulate the nerves).
Deep massage is done more slowly and more forcefully. Deep massage is generally used to help treat injury-related damage to muscles, especially in deeper layers of muscle and connective tissue that may not be reachable with gentler massage techniques. Deep massage is not necessarily as relaxing as Swedish massage, and may even be painful.
Sports massage is also known as manual therapy, and typically involves kneading of the muscles and manipulation of the joints in order to mobilize them and restore range of motion following an injury. For athletes, regular sports massage can also help to prevent injuries.
Trigger point massage, also known as myofascial release or MFR, is medically controversial. In the simplest terms, this is a massage technique that focuses on tight knots of muscle fiber that can form after injury or overuse.
There is also the loosely associated idea that these knots can cause pain in other areas of the body, and some practitioners even go so far as to tout the effectiveness of MFR as a cancer treatment. However, the American Cancer Society says there is no good scientific evidence to support such claims.
How to Give Yourself a Foot Massage
Sit down on a chair or other piece of furniture that you find comfortable. Pour a generous amount of lotion or baby oil into your hand. Rub the lotion or oil into your skin, gently working your fingers around your entire foot, including the toes and heel.
Then begin working your knuckles into the sole and arch. Also squeeze firmly with your thumb. Knead the muscles and tissues the same way you would knead a lump of dough if you were making bread.
Benefits of Foot Massage for Diabetics
Diabetics must always be on the lookout for foot problems. While more study is needed, there is preliminary evidence to suggest that massage in general—not necessarily just foot massage—may have benefits for diabetics.
Small studies have suggested that massaging the injection site just prior to injecting insulin may aid insulin absorption. It is also possible that massage may improve blood glucose levels and symptoms of diabetic neuropathy. However, these studies have not used statistically useful sample sizes (i.e., the number of people studied), and other proper controls may not have been observed. The reader is advised to be careful when searching the Internet for information about this topic, as much of what has been written on the subject is potentially misleading.
Benefits of Foot Massage for Runners
Obviously a massage feels good after a run. However, there are a great many myths surrounding the benefits of massage for runners. Contrary to widespread belief, a massage after a run can’t push “toxins” out of the muscles tissue and into the bloodstream where they can be eliminated (nor is there any reason to believe such a thing is necessary).
Foot massage can benefit runners in other ways, however. Massage can soften clenched muscles, reduce inflammation, and remove adhesions between muscles and fascia tissue. It can also reduce the severity of a condition that athletes are susceptible to known as delayed onset muscle soreness.
The upshot of all this is that foot massage—and massage, generally—can enable runners to tolerate longer and more rigorous training with less risk of injury.
Risks and Dangers of Foot Massage
While most people benefit to varying degrees from foot massage, there are circumstances under which it is not medically advisable. Foot massage is not advisable if you have an unhealed injury or burn on your foot, or if you have recently suffered a break or fracture.
Foot massage may also not be a good idea if you suffer from deep vein thrombosis or severe osteoporosis. Consult a podiatrist if you are uncertain whether foot massage is safe and medically advisable for you.
It is also dangerous to use any type of massage as a substitute for proper medical treatment. There are a great many massage techniques touted by practitioners as effective treatments for various diseases and conditions—with no sound scientific evidence. Reflexology is one of the more prominent of these pseudo-scientific “therapies.”
The idea behind reflexology is that disease or poor healing of injuries can be caused by an imbalance in an invisible energy field they call qi or chi, and that manipulation of the feet can fix this problem. Each part of the foot is supposedly a “mirror” for some other part of the body that is “reflexively” connected to it. For example, the big toe is a reflex area for the head, and manipulation of the big toe is supposed to be able to treat headaches.
Needless to say, there is zero evidence that this practice is beneficial in any way. Although most people consider them harmless, these kinds of treatments can in fact cause great harm (apart from their monetary cost) by discouraging patients from getting proper medical treatment for real problems.