Tuesday 30th November, 2021

How to choose a massager: vibration? percussion? massage gun?

How to choose a massager
In this article we will share with you how to choose an effective, easy to use massager you will be very happy with

The main considerations when choosing a hand held personal massager such as a vibration massager, percussion massage or a massage gun are:

  1. do they deliver quality therapeutic massage, and
  2. are they easy to use effectively on all parts of your body.

After that considerations should be:

  • build quality, and
  • value for money.

In this article we’ll discuss each of these so hopefully you get something you will get a lot of benefits from and be very happy with.

CONTENTS

Part One: effective massage and ease of use
Part two: secondary considerations- build quality and value
Appendix: how to tell the difference between a vibration massager and a percussion massager.
Professionals
References

Part One: effective massage and ease of use

Effective therapeutic massage

When considering the therapeutic effects there are the following three types of massager, each having a variety of possible features.

Types of massager

  1. vibration massagers
  2. percussion massagers
  3. ineffective “consumer” massagers
Dr Graeme's comments

Graeme’s comments

Your main choice is between a vibration and a percussion massager, so in this section I’ll discuss the pros and cons of each. You'll obviously get very little benefit from ineffective consumer machines. As a professional who has been using massagers for over 30 years I can pick one in under two seconds flat, but to help people such as yourself without this experience I’ve made a guide below. I'll also share with you which features are useful and which are just gimmicks

Percussion vs vibration massage

What is the difference between a percussion massager and a vibration massager

The simplest way to explain the difference between a percussion and vibration massager is that vibration massagers use vibration to penetrate whereas percussion massagers use mechanical vibration to assist physical penetration. This is like comparing a jackhammer with vibrating compactors used in the construction industry. To find out how to tell these apart please see the appendix In this section we discuss:

  • The scientifically proven benefits of vibration vs percussion
  • Comparing the penetration of vibration and percussion massagers
  • Comparing the safety of vibration and percussion massagers
  • Table summary
The scientifically proven effects of vibration massage
Summary of the scientifically proven effects of vibration massage
The scientifically proven benefits of vibration vs percussion

Vibration massage is supported by extensive scientific research. For an excellent summary please see the The scientifically proven effects of vibration massage- with clinical applications. In summary, these clinically proven effects include the following. To help you choose a massager these benefits typically need vibration frequencies from 30-55hz (1,800 to 3,300 rpm)

  • Relaxing muscles
  • increasing blood flow
  • “stretching muscles”
  • reducing post exercise soreness and speeding recovery
  • improving performance
  • reducing pain
  • helping musculoskeletal conditions
  • increasing healing
The therapeutic benefits of percussion massage

We were not aware of any research or other scientific information supporting the use of percussion massagers so we did an extensive search of websites claiming to show the benefits of percussion massage. In every case where they referenced a scientific study it was a study of vibrations, not percussion. For example: on Hydragun’s website their article 5-scientific reasons percussive therapy works references the following journal articles (1–6)⁠. They are all studies of vibration therapy, not percussion.

Please see our article on the “science” of percussion for more information on how scientific information is misrepresented, and how to get half decent results in trials researchers even modify percussion massagers so they act as vibration massagers.

Comparing the penetration of vibration and percussion massagers
False claims about the penetration of percussion massagers

In our research we found many unsubstantiated claims that percussion massagers penetrate 60% better than vibration massagers. We believe the source of this claim is the following statement on Theragun’s website, claiming that their professional grade percussion massagers penetrate 60% more than consumer grade vibration massagers. This is probably true, but consumer grade vibration massagers are generally poor quality, poorly designed and not very effective (7). A comparison with these is neither valid or flattering.

Quote from Theragun regarding penetration
Quote from Theragun website regarding penetration
Vibration penetrates much better

It is a fundamental principle of physics that properly applied vibration penetrates much further than physical penetration. For example, according to a scientific journal article on the effects of vibrations in the construction industry (8)⁠ vibrations from a pile driver travel from 18- 247m, whereas vibrations from a quarry blast travels 1.6-6.4km. There is no question that a properly designed vibration massager can penetrate much further than a percussion massager.

Dangerous use of a massage gun
Driving in heads like a jackhammer can do serious damage
Comparing the safety of percussion and vibration massagers

The physical penetration of a massager head that occurs in percussion massage creates a far greater risk of causing damage or injury.

Comparison of percussion and vibration massage

NOTE: You may need to scroll the table below left/right for more information

Mode of operation

Scientifically proven benefits

Safety

Amplitude

Heads

Vibration massage

Penetrates with vibration

Extensive: see research summary

Relatively safe

3-5mm

Flattish for vibration transfer

Percussion massage

Uses vibration to push in head

Tries to claim the benefits of vibration

Penetrating head can cause injury or damage

larger

rounded or pointed

Ineffective “consumer” massagers

Years ago manufacturers built massagers mainly concerned about how they looked rather than how they worked. They were primarily intended as mothers day presents that were used a couple of times then were put away in a cupboard. With massage guns becoming a fad a lot more manufacturers are building these machines to cash in. So how can a person who is not a professional pick these?

Alibaba listing of massage gun
Alibaba (manufacturer's portal) has tens of thousands of listing like this. Sellers can buy massagers for under $10 and sell them to you.
Look and feel

Effective massagers usually feel solid and well built. If they don’t feel solid, or come with cheap plastic heads and accessories they are likely ineffective consumer machines.

Try one

An effective massager should feel as though it delivering strong effective vibration without the need to press in. If it feels as though you need to “dig” the head in it’s likely an ineffective consumer machine.

Recommendations

Your best recommendations will come from your own trusted professional such as a Chiropractor, Osteopath or therapist. Please be aware that there is a proliferation of non-qualified people doing Youtube videos and review web sites for the primary purpose of getting kick backs when you click their links to buy. I’ve seen:

  • review sites highly recommending junk that I’ve thrown in my wheelie bin, and
  • famous professionals who don’t even use the machines properly when demonstrating them.

Which features do you need

Features such as power, vibration frequency and how far the heads go up and down are important because they directly affect the quality of massage you will receive. I've discussed these elsewhere. Other features relate little to the effectiveness. For each of these features we suggest you ask.

  1. Does it increase the quality of the massage or ease of use?
  2. Would you expect to see that on a quality power tool such as an electric drill?
Massage gun with gimmicks
Would you expect to see a quality power tool with fiddly push buttons, a LED speed display, cheap nasty plastic attachments and a handle like an aerosol can?
Example

As an example, lets look at a massager described as an "Amazon best seller”.

Push buttons, 30 speed LED display

Would you expect to see a quality power tool with push button controls with 30 speeds displayed on an LED display? Probably not. It would be fiddly to use and likely to fail. The quality tool would likely have a robust variable speed trigger control.

The assorted heads

As discussed, quality massagers have their effects without having to “dig in” their heads. These cheap plastic heads are pure gimmick. Unfortunately some look as though they could do serious harm if used incorrectly.

Ease of use

The main things to look for with regard to easy of use are:

  1. does it’s handle allow you to easily massage all parts of your body, and
  2. are the controls easy to use

Does it’s handle allow you to easily massage all parts of your body

Advantages of a proper handle
A proper ergonomically designed handle allows you to use the massager anywhere on your body
Ergonomically designed handles

The best massagers have ergonomically designed handles that allow you to effectively apply the massage all over over your body.

Aiming a massage gun
Massage guns are extremely poor

In contrast to this massage guns are extremely poor. As this diagram shows, like a real gun massage guns need to be pointed correctly to have their proper effect, but their handles do not allow doing this for self massage for a lot of your own body, unless you have arms like Inspector Gadget. This is why we so often see people demonstrating massage at the back of the shoulders with the massage gun at an ineffective angle.

Part two: secondary considerations- build quality and value

If you are happy with the quality of massage delivered and the ease of use it’s time to look at:

  1. the quality of build, and
  2. the value for money

Quality of build

It’s best if you can pick the machine up yourself so you can check the following. It’s stating the obvious, but you will need to have it plugged in or charged up.

  • Does it feel solidly built?
  • Do the switches and controls appear to be sturdy and reliable?
  • Does it run smoothly? If so test it under load.
  • Does the motor perform strongly under load, or does it appear to labour or slow down?

If you buy on-line

If you buy on line see if you can access a sample to check. If not, you you will need to rely on a quality recommendation such as a trusted professional.

Dr Graeme's comments

Graeme’s comments

The bulk of our massagers are sold by professional clinics. Here you can not only examine them and get a professional recommendation, but most of the professionals actually use them themselves. To find these clinics click here, select your country, then option one.

Value for money

Marketing and paying for celebrity endorsements add hugely to the cost of a massager, but add absolutely nothing to it’s effectiveness, ease of use or build quality. To help you understand this and be able to work out if a massager is value for money please allow me to share three examples. For consistency all values are from USA sources.

Quality DEWALT Jigsaw
Quality jigsaw from Home Depot $169 USD

Example one: a high quality power tool

This is a very robust power tool with a mechanism that goes up and down just like a massage gun. It probably comes with some quality metal blades. The price at Home Depot $169 USD

Theragun PRO
Theragun PRO $599 USD

Example two: a Theragun Pro

This “top of the line” massager is about the same size and also has a mechanism that goes up and down. Instead of metal blades it has a few cheap to make (I assume) plastic heads. The price on Theragun’s website $599 USD

Vibration massager
Well built vibration massager for only $166 USD

Example three: a quality vibration massager

This massager is sold by a company that supplies professionals.
I believe they are well built and would do a much better job than a Theragun. Price from Scripp professional suppliers $166 USD

The DrGraeme Ultimate Quad Head Massager
The DrGraeme Ultimate Quad Head Massager

Check out our massagers

For comparison, check out our economical, easy to use professional standard machines: the General Purpose Massager or our Ultimate Quad Head Massager. Prices quoted are in Australian dollars.

Appendix: how to tell the difference between a vibration massager and a percussion massager.

While there is some crossover between the two types of machine there are certain characteristics to look for.

Percussion vs vibration massage: amplitude

The amplitude of the vibrating head

Amplitude simply means how far the head goes up and down. A typical vibration massager will use an amplitude of about 3-5 mm. If the amplitude was much greater it would push the head in or tend to patter and bounce uncontrollably. Theraguns have an amplitude of 16mm, which is clearly to help drive the head in. To tell how far a massager head moves up and down you can look at it side on while it is running.

The shape of the head

Looking at the example of the compactor and the jackhammer, vibration massagers tend to use a flattish contact to help vibration transfer, whereas percussion massagers tend to have shaped heads such as balls or more pointed contacts to help the head penetrate.

Professionals

If you are a professional and wish to know more about vibration massage please check out practitioner page for more information and possibly a sample massager to try this therapy yourself. Our DrGraeme massagers were originally built by Dr Graeme for use in his clinic, and to prescribe to his patients for additional self use at home. Now these are used by colleagues and other professionals for similar purposes.

References

  1. Imtiyaz S, Veqar Z, Shareef MY. To compare the effect of vibration therapy and massage in prevention of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). J Clin Diagnostic Res. 2014;
  2. Johnson PK, Feland JB, Johnson AW, Mack GW, Mitchell UH. Effect of whole body vibration on skin blood flow and nitric oxide production. J Diabetes Sci Technol. 2014;8(4):889–94.
  3. Herrero AJ, Menéndez H, Gil L, Martín J, Martín T, García-López D, et al. Effects of whole-body vibration on blood flow and neuromuscular activity in spinal cord injury. Spinal Cord. 2011;49(4):554–9.
  4. Lau RWK, Liao LR, Yu F, Teo T, Chung RCK, Pang MYC. The effects of whole body vibration therapy on bone mineral density and leg muscle strength in older adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Vol. 25, Clinical Rehabilitation. 2011. p. 975–88.
  5. Thompson WR, Yen SS, Rubin J. Vibration therapy: Clinical applications in bone. Curr Opin Endocrinol Diabetes Obes. 2014;21(6):447–53.
  6. King LK, Almeida QJ, Ahonen H. Short-term effects of vibration therapy on motor impairments in Parkinson’s disease. Vol. 25, NeuroRehabilitation. 2009. p. 297–306.
  7. McDonagh D, Wilson L, Haslam C, Weightman D. Good vibrations: Do electrical therapeutic massagers work? Ergonomics. 2005;
  8. Svinkin MR. Minimizing Construction Vibration Effects. Pract Period Struct Des Constr. 2004;9(2):108–15.

We are continually adding more information on research and uses. Subscribe below to have us email them to you "hot off the press".

Dr Graeme

About Dr Graeme

Several years ago Dr Graeme, a Chiropractor practicing in Victoria, Australia was looking for a serious hand held massager his patients could use at home to get the extra quality massage they needed. The ones he found in the shops and on-line for home use looked nice but were not serious, and... read more



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