How to choose a good massager

We've been prescribing a supplementary home massage for patients for several years now, using a variety of products. This has given me the opportunity to see what is effective and what patients find easy to use. On top of that, sourcing my own meant I've had to work with manufacturers and study a large number of designs. In fact at one stage I actually filled a wheelie bin full of samples I'd been sent. What I’m going to do now is share with you what I've learned.

Percussion

If you want a massager to be effective it has to be a percussion machine. Percussion machines have hammers that send vibrations into the muscles. Forget the machines that kneed or vibrate across the surface. They don’t penetrate deeply.

One person machine v two person machine

Professional machines tend to be what are known as “two person machines". That simply means they are designed for practitioners to hold on patients, not patients to hold on themselves. One such machine we've used weighs 3.2kg. With that I just sat the machine on the patient and the weight of the machine is all the downward pressure I needed. However, if I’m doing the back of my shoulders myself I’m going to need a lighter machine with a completely different handle. I’m going to want something like consumer massagers you buy in places like Myers and Harvey Norman (Australian chain stores). They’re lighter with better shaped handles for self use.

Correct shape makes it easier to reach

Shape

There are two main criteria for the shape of a self usage massager.

  1. It should be easy to hold and feel "balanced".
  2. It should be designed to allow you to reach most parts of your body easily without you having to adopt some difficult or fatiguing position.

The picture (right or below depending on screen size) shows two massagers - the top one has some good shape characteristics which would make it well balanced and easy to use to reach parts such as behind your shoulders.

The lower massager shows some design features that cause a massager to feel bulky and unbalanced, plus make it more difficult and fatiguing to use in places such as behind your shoulders.

If you massaged behind your shoulders using the top machine you would be gripping the handle about level with the your ear. If you used the bottom machine to massage the same place your gripping hand would be about the back of your head.

Demonstration

Make a closed fist and hold it for one minute just in front of your ear. Next hold your clenched fist at the back of the top of your head for one minute. Which is easiest? Which causes the most fatigue? This illustrates the difference between using a well designed massager and one not so well designed.

Power

It’s not much use putting on some little buzz box that only massages the surface. Most muscular problems are deep, so hand held percussion massagers need plenty of power to penetrate. You'd think that comparing power would be simple: look on the box and see how many Watts the motor has. Unfortunately as the following examples show it's not that simple.

  • Manufacturers may add in the power used by the infra-red lights. The box might say "40w", making you think it has a 40 watt motor, but it really has a 25w motor plus 15w infrared lights.
  • We had one manufacturer claim his machine had a 35W motor. When we checked the motor's model number on the manufacturer's web site we found it was only 25W.
  • Some massagers may have decent motors but their hammer/drive mechanism is so flimsy that a lot of the power that should be penetrating the muscles is dissipated before it even gets there. (If you want to see what I mean go down to the shops and pick up some of the consumer massagers and push firmly on the hammers, and see how much give you find.)

Perhaps one of my patient's inadvertently came up with the best way to measure the power once when he commented about our massager. He said "I can tell that one has a lot more power. The one you used to use made my nose tingle when you put it on my neck. This one makes my nose tingle when you put it on my shoulder".

Weight

Weight is always a bit of a compromise. A self use massager needs to be strongly built in order for it to be durable (last a long time) and penetrate well, however too much weight makes it more difficult to use and hold for longer periods of time. Your machine should feel solid and strong, but not too heavy to be easy to use.

Durability

Apparently the average home handyman only uses his power tools every now and then, so a lot of consumer electrical tools are designed to last for about 12 hours of actual running time. Unfortunately a lot of massagers are built the same way. Ours are built extremely strongly. Others vary considerably.

Electrical compliance

Everyone who sells legitimate massagers in Australia has had to jump through a lot of hoops to get electrical safety accreditation. Part of this process includes having an independent laboratory test the machine and prepare a 50 page report. It’s a pain in the butt, but I’m glad its like that because the last thing you want is some inferior electrical parts or wiring in a vibrating machine you hold against your body.

Correct shape makes it easier to reach

We had factories in China send over same samples where the internal wiring connections were definitely sub-standard and would have eventually broken off. If you buy something from myself or a reputable outlet such as Harvey Norman or Myers it should be fine. However, it's really easy to import some sub standard stuff and sell it on Ebay or at markets. I've seen it done. If you buy from myself or any of the other reputable outlets you should be fine, but otherwise at a minimum you should look at the compliance label on the machine to make sure it has the proper accreditation for the country you are in.

Price

I've seen massagers sold for about $40 in the shops that are "cheap and nasty". I also know of a massager that retails in Australia for about $400, yet the factory sells them for $14.50. I've also had a "professional" massager (a well known brand) that costs about $600, but was so poorly built that if you put any pressure on it the thing would start to rattle and need to be sent by courier (at my expense) to the distributor for repairs. I've pulled it apart, and if my factory couldn't build them for $20 I'd be very surprised. On the other hand if you've got a couple of thousand dollars or more you can by a machine called a "G5" which a great massager and superbly built.

We've also been through through the process of upgrading so I know the following costs very well. Do you know how much it cost us to replace basic consumer grade components in a hand held massager with top quality commercial grade parts? It cost us about $2 per machine. Even if it were much more expensive, say $5 per machine this still doesn't account for a cheap machine being about $40 while a "good" one costs $400.

In other words price is a guide, but is not that reliable. Let me explain in very general term how this happens.

Chain stores

Chain stores will get something that's consumer oriented (ie looks pretty with lots of "bells and whistles"), buy large quantities, have a reasonably efficient distribution chain, and sell for a reasonable profit margin. Their products are very reasonably priced, but not meant to be of professional standard.

$14.50 massagers that sell for $400

The businesses that have these try and make something a bit better, but instead of selling volume through an efficient outlet such as a chain store they have a chain of agents and distributors, a lot of advertising and things such as stands at trade shows and professional conferences. That adds hugely to their costs so they have to sell them for way more to cover costs. This creates further problems. Because this makes them so expensive it limits the market. Therefore they need to make a high profit on each sale rather than the chain store's smaller profit on many sales, further increasing the the price.

Being different.

How do you make really good quality massagers available for a fair and reasonable price? As a practitioner I've used a different resource: fellow practitioners who want a solution for their patient's problems. Simply, we get the factory to especially build the machines then pass them on to other practices with a fair mark up. That allows those practices to recommend (and usually sell) them to patients at a fair and affordable price. There is no chain of distributors and agents costing money. As long as the massagers are providing a great solution for patients at a reasonable price (and making practitioner's lives easy) practitioners keep buying and recommending them. That means no huge marketing costs to pass on.

Lastly, our massagers are a very reasonably priced solution for patient's problems, and there are a lot of practitioners with lots of patients. This means that instead of selling a smaller number of higher priced massagers we sell much larger numbers. Because of this manufacturers are very keen to give us a reasonable price and meet our quality expectations.

If you wish to take advantage of this please check out our practitioners list for a practitioner near you, or if that's not practical get one from us.

More Information

If you're interested may we suggest you check out how we've implemented these ideas into our DrGraeme Deep Tissue Massager and General Purpose Massager. You may also be interested in why machine massage can be much better than massage done by hand, and also why we think it is so important to give patients the tools and resources to do supplementary massage at home.

Deep Tissue massager or General Purpose Massager?

  • See video (to the right or below depending on screen size)
  • The Deep Tissue Massager is excellent for specific focussed massage such as trigger point therapy or accupressure, and is a very high quality economical alternative if you don't mind massaging smaller areas at once.
  • The General Purpose massage is more powerful. It massages deep every bit as well as the Deep Tissue Massage, and does other things better. For a little bit extra it is a great choice.

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