Learn the key differences between reflexology and acupuncture from someone who’s studied both so that you can choose the healing modality that’s best for you.
As a teacher of Chinese Reflexology, one of the questions that students often ask me is,
“What’s the difference between reflexology points and acupressure points?” or “What’s the difference between acupuncture and reflexology?”
Since I’ve studied both acupuncture and reflexology, I can share a unique perspective with you on the pros and cons of each of these healing modalities, and when it might be better to choose one over the other.
But before I explain further, I wanted to mention that I studied the Traditional Chinese method of reflexology, so you’ll gain a perspective on the differences between acupuncture and Chinese Reflexology.
By the way, if you’re curious, read about the difference between Western vs. Chinese Reflexology here.
Ancient Chinese Roots
Acupuncture, acupressure and Chinese Reflexology are all based on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), an ancient healing philosophy that’s been around for over 2,000 years.
The Chinese Medicine approach to health and vitality is based on the concept of strengthening and harmonizing the body’s qi—your life force energy. Qi flows through your body via a network of energy meridians. It’s similar to how blood flows through your arteries and veins, only instead of blood, qi flows through energy channels.
When qi is flowing smoothly and abundantly, you experience good health. But if there’s a qi disharmony—too much in one area, not enough in other areas, or a constriction in the flow of qi—this can result in dis-ease. That’s because qi helps move the physical substances in the body such as blood, air, lymph and food.
When your qi is flowing as it should, your body is in a state of balance. However, when your qi is disrupted, if it’s not brought back into balance, this disruption will eventually show up as dis-ease in your physical body.
A good analogy is to compare the flow of qi to a river. When the river is flowing smoothly, then the ecosystem is in balance. However, if the river is obstructed, sediment such as dirt, leaves, twigs, etc. begins to accumulate.
If the block isn’t cleared away, then debris continues to build and constricts the flow of water, leading to problems upstream and downstream. Similarly, when the body’s qi isn’t flowing smoothly, toxins and waste start to accumulate. This energy block can lead to a physical blocks that can cause pain or lead to abnormal growths.
And if there’s not enough water flowing through the river, the banks dry out, the riverbed becomes exposed and the life teeming within the river dies off. Your body is the ecosystem that needs the nourishment of the river.
If you think of Chinese Medicine as a tree trunk, then acupuncture would be one of the large branches extending from the trunk, whereas Chinese Reflexology would be a small twig.
Traditional Chinese Reflexology is not as well known as acupuncture even though it’s just as powerful because it has the same roots. I have my theories on why this is so. I think it’s because it’s all about feet! Lol!
Foot massage appears so deceptively simple that no one gets accolades or prestige for being the person who rubs other people’s feet. Chinese Reflexology is a simple healing art that’s incredibly powerful because it’s based on Chinese Medicine theory.
You don’t need years of study to become proficient at practicing Chinese Reflexology. Almost anyone can learn how to practice this ancient healing art. I was teaching my son how to rub his feet when he was just five years old. That’s how simple it is.
On the other hand, you need to study for years to learn acupuncture. Inserting needles to restore balance requires a solid understanding of TCM principals and theory because the acupuncturist must choose the best points when treating patients.
There are literally hundreds of different acupuncture points located along the body’s energy meridians, and each point has a very specific function. For example, some points are used to strengthen qi in a meridian when it’s weak, while other points are used to sedate the energy when it’s congested or blocked. In acupuncture, the practitioner must choose which points to insert needles based on their assessment of their patient and the desired outcome.
Acupressure is also based on the acupuncture points, but instead of using needles, pressure is applied to a point. Needling is much more potent than pressing on an acupuncture point, but with acupressure, you can massage your own points.
Chinese Reflexology is similar to acupressure in that there are points on your body that you can stimulate to strengthen and harmonize your qi, but the potent points are located on your feet. The theory is that the feet contain the master control points for harmonizing the flow of energy throughout your body’s meridians.
Difference #1: Ease in Choosing the Best Points
Acupuncture and acupressure involve stimulating points located along the body’s energy meridians, and each of the points has a different purpose. As a result, the effectiveness of these healing modalities is highly dependent on choosing the best points to stimulate.
Because there are hundreds of different points and some have completely opposite effects, it’s impossible to insert needles or press on every single acupuncture/acupressure point in one treatment.
An acupuncturist must discern which points to use, and this is especially important if a patient has more than one underlying health condition—which is usually the case because Chinese Medicine takes a holistic approach to healing. If one area of the body is showing signs of disease, this is a sign of disharmony in one or more of the body’s organs and energy meridians.
The practitioner must decide which imbalance to address first because they can’t treat every disharmony at the same time. Diagnosis involves examining the patient’s tongue and pulse, and asking extremely detailed questions about the patient’s health, lifestyle and habits.
Having spent hundreds of hours in acupuncture clinic, I’ve noticed that most patients are unaccustomed to this type of questioning and will share what they feel is relevant from a Western medical perspective. They’ll share in depth about the medications they’re taking, but fail to mention they only have one bowel movement every other day, or they’ll have no idea what shade of red their menstrual blood is.
Oftentimes, the things that a Chinese Medicine practitioner seeks to learn may seem completely inconsequential. What time did you wake up last night? Do you like to lounge in bed in the morning? Do you feel thirsty in the afternoon? Do you have cold feet?
While there are some acupuncture/acupressure points that can be used to address different disharmonies at the same time, there isn’t usually just one “perfect point.” There’s also a limit on how many points can be stimulated in one session.
That’s why the acupuncturist needs to discern and make a judgment call about which disharmony to treat first and which points to needle. Two different acupuncturists could have completely different approaches and choose different points to stimulate on the same patient.
I like Chinese Reflexology because it’s a lot simpler. Ironically, this is probably why it’s not as popular as acupuncture!
With Chinese Reflexology, it doesn’t matter what the underlying imbalances in the body are. As long as you know the complete system of Traditional Chinese Reflexology—all 50-plus points and how to massage them with a reflexology stick—you don’t need to choose which points to massage because you can massage all of the reflexology points in a single session.
So instead of having to figure out, “Does this need qi strengthening? Does this need energy clearing?”, you massage all of the points and your body knows what to do with the stimulation.
Essentially, you’re giving the body what it needs to restore balance and support it’s natural healing powers. Having knowledge of Chinese Medicine lets you finetune your massage, but it’s not a prerequisite for benefiting from Chinese Reflexology.
Difference #2: How the Qi Flows
Both acupuncture and reflexology stimulate the flow of qi through your body’s energy meridians and throughout the body. Good flowing energy is the key to good health.
But there’s another key difference between acupuncture and acupressure versus Chinese Reflexology, and that’s how qi is directed through the body.
As I mentioned earlier, different acupuncture points have different uses. Some are intended to tonify, while others are meant to sedate. Some have specific uses in relation to Chinese Medicine theory such as “release the exterior”, raise the yang, draw yang powerfully from the head, or increase overall qi flow. Some points are for specific organs while others are more general, but all of the points are best used in tandem with principals of Traditional Chinese Medicine diagnostics.
In order to treat chronic conditions effectively with acupuncture and acupressure points, a person should have advanced knowledge of Chinese Medicine theory. For example, in California, a Masters in Traditional Chinese Medicine is a four-year degree. Reputable schools of acupuncture in the United States require at least two years of full-time study. The California program includes a large component of studies in western medicine, which is why it’s a four-year program. There are also very strict requirements in order to become a licensed acupuncturist in the U.S.
Interestingly, in China, one needs to study to become a western medical doctor in addition to learning Traditional Chinese Medicine. While there’s quite a range of training, my main point (bad pun intended) is that it takes time and commitment to be able to utilize acupuncture points for maximum benefit.
On the other hand, when it comes to Chinese Reflexology, the points on the feet are not as specific and targeted as acupuncture and acupressure points. The stimulation of qi is more general and not as specialized.
When you massage the point, your body knows what to do with the qi so the reflexology point can help strengthen qi over time and it can also help clear energy constrictions, and do both simultaneously. Regardless of whether an area of the body needs a qi boost or a qi clearing, you simply massage its correlating reflexology point.
Difference #3: Self-Practice
Another key difference between acupuncture, acupressure and Chinese Reflexology is the ability to practice on yourself. Aside from the years of training necessary, even acupuncturists can only insert needles into certain acupuncture points on themselves.
For example, there’s a really beneficial acupuncture point called Stomach-36 which is good for boosting your overall immunity. When I was studying acupuncture, students would often put needles into their Stomach-36 points themselves because the point was located on the side of the lower leg.
I’ve done this myself, but I have to say it takes a certain amount of steeliness to jab yourself because you know exactly when the immediate sting of the needle will happen. But when you’re getting acupuncture, it happens so quickly that you really don’t feel much, especially when you don’t know when the needle is coming. But once the needle goes in, you can’t move your leg until the needle is removed.
Fortunately, you don’t need to use needles to stimulate your own Stomach-36 point. This acupressure point is easily accessible by reaching down just below your knee. On the other hand, there are also really good points for digestion located on your back, but those points are difficult to reach on yourself. While one could theoretically massage the back points, an acupuncturist would most definitely not be able to stimulate these points on themselves using needles.
While acupressure massage is not as powerful as using a needle, it’s still very beneficial. Because Stomach-36 is a really powerful point, massaging this point can be a part of your general health and wellness routine.
Chinese Reflexology is something you can definitely practice on yourself as long as you can reach your feet. While you don’t need to have a complete understanding of TCM, it certainly helps to know why you’re massaging points so that you can customize your reflexology routine. This is something I teach in my Sole Mastery program, along with the complete system of 50-plus reflexology points. When you massage all of the Chinese Reflexology points, this covers all of the body’s major systems and energy meridians, so then your body simply takes what it needs from your practice session.
Difference #4: Application During Pregnancy or When Trying to Conceive
In many cases, the general qi-boosting and harmonizing effects of Chinese Reflexology are preferable for their convenience and simplicity. However, because acupuncture points have targeted applications, it would be better to see an acupuncturist if you’re pregnant or actively trying to conceive.
The reason why is because there are reflexology points on the feet that are close to acupuncture points that are used to induce pregnancy. Without extensive knowledge of Chinese Medicine theory and experience locating these points, it would be best to not practice Chinese Reflexology if you’re pregnant or trying to conceive.
In addition, because Chinese Reflexology helps get your overall qi flowing, this helps improve blood circulation. However, the Chinese Medicine perspective is that too much circulation of qi and blood during pregnancy can disturb the fetus.
That’s why this is another important difference between acupuncture, acupressure and Chinese Reflexology. I would not advise stimulating Chinese Reflexology or acupressure points on yourself because it’s important to not send too much qi and blood flowing through the reproductive system.
When you see a licensed acupuncturist, the practitioner can select points for their specific benefits and avoid others that are contraindicated during pregnancy.
Difference #5: Benefits for Pain and Soft Tissue Injuries
Now I’ve been writing a lot about the benefits of Chinese Reflexology, but there’s one key difference that allows acupuncture to really shine, and that’s in the application of needles for pain and soft tissue injuries.
While needles are generally inserted into acupuncture points, they can also be placed in sore muscles to stimulate the flow of qi and blood and this assists with healing. Conditions such as a sore back, sprained shoulder, headache, and tendonitis in the wrist would benefit from the insertion of needles because of the increased circulation which supports healing.
The effect is often rather quick and gives patient immediate relief. This is referred to as “local needle insertion” because the needles are inserted into a localized area to help with healing. This technique is particularly effective for conditions caused by a physical injury, overuse or strain.
There’s a TCM saying, when qi is flowing, there’s no pain. When qi is not flowing, there’s pain.
Acupuncture needles help move the qi, which helps to clear the pain. For localized soft tissue injuries, acupuncture is vastly superior to Chinese Reflexology because the practitioner can insert multiple needles into the injured tissue and surrounding area. It’s like applying a heat pad to help healing, only at a level that is much deeper than the surface of the skin.
While there are some Chinese Reflexology points for areas like the shoulders and spine, massaging them doesn’t have as strong an effect as inserting multiple needles in the area. There are also some parts of the body that don’t have corresponding reflexology points. This includes the wrist, arms, legs, ankles, and ironically, the feet.
Most of the Chinese Reflexology points are for the body’s primary organs, so there isn’t as much support for the limbs or the back muscles. The traditional style of Chinese Reflexology is also focused more on bringing the body back into balance over time, which often helps to reduce a person’s propensity to get injured or experience pain. But in terms of immediate pain relief and healing of injuries, I’d give two thumbs up to acupuncture.
Difference #6: Identifying Energy Imbalances
The last major difference I’d like to address is the ability to use Chinese Reflexology to identify qi imbalances in the body. When you know there’s an energy imbalance in the body, then you can look at what you might be doing to cause the imbalance. E.g. eating certain foods, lifestyle, habits.
For example, if you’re not getting enough sleep, your Kidney point’s sensitivity will be much higher than your baseline sensitivity. By feeling a person’s foot, I can even tell if they have back problems or poor posture—right down to which vertebrae is affected!
Chinese Reflexology gives you a simple and powerful way to identify where qi is out of balance in your body. It’s very easy to spot imbalances based on the sensitivity of the points on your feet. If a point is sensitive or feels unusually hard or “crunchy,” then there’s an energy imbalance in the corresponding area of the body.
Because Chinese Reflexology can give you a clear picture of where imbalances exist, this lets you know where to focus your energy (second bad pun intended) even if you don’t have any physical symptoms. It’s much better and easier to catch things at the energy level and turn your health around before the qi constrictions manifest as physical problems.
One of the most powerful testimonials I received about the benefit of Chinese Reflexology as compared to acupuncture was from my acupuncture professor, Dr. Fu. When I had finished writing my book, Sole Guidance, I asked Dr. Fu to review the manuscript to confirm that my simplified descriptions of Chinese Medicine theory kept the true essence of the theory. While she was reading the book, Dr. Fu tried some of the techniques on herself and saw a measurable improvement in her allergies (based on laboratory tests).
When I met with Dr. Fu to get her feedback on my book, she declared, “Now I’m teaching my patients to do your techniques at home and practice on themselves. Acupuncture is good, but people can’t needle themselves. With Chinese Reflexology, you can do it anytime, anyplace. It’s much easier, it’s economical, and it’s so convenient.”
Which Is Best for You?
Because Chinese Reflexology, acupuncture, and acupressure are all branches of Traditional Chinese Medicine, they’re all very powerful healing modalities and can work in harmony together to help you strengthen your body and improve your health.
Acupuncture is fabulous for localized pain and injuries, or if you’re pregnant or trying to conceive. It’s also beneficial to see a licensed practitioner in person because they can assess you from a Chinese Medicine perspective and use their knowledge and experience to select the best points to stimulate with the acupuncture needles.
Acupressure is also beneficial for local pain and injuries. While pressing on points isn’t as strong as using needles, this is something you can do yourself and add to your general “toolkit” for self-care.
Chinese Reflexology is a powerful modality for self-care and taking command of your health. Practicing regularly helps support your body’s natural healing process to help with chronic conditions and also maintain your health. It’s a powerful healing modality to identify qi imbalances and bring them back into balance.
To me, it’s not about one being better than the other as it can depend on the situation and the individual. The important thing is to keep your qi flowing and look after yourself.
Take care of yourself because there’s only one you, and you’re special!
Lots of Love and Light,