Saturday 19th March, 2022

Are massage guns a gimmick?

Massage gun marketing
Massage guns are heavily marketed as a wonderful new therapy, but it's a gimmick
What is a gimmick

A gimmick is something that is not of real value used to attract attention, usually to get you to buy something.

The gimmick therapy

Massager gun marketers created the gimmick therapy percussion massage by modifying therapeutic vibration devices to create mini jackhammers. The gimmick is that this increases penetration and adds the benefits of conventional massage. The reality is doing this actually reduces the effectiveness and makes it a lot more dangerous.

Gimmick "knock offs"

Percussion massage is a gimmick, but with massage guns becoming a fad thousands of manufacturers with no real interest in making serious therapeutic equipment are using this gimmick to flood the market with poor quality immitations that are even less benefit.

CONTENTS

How marketers sell you on this gimmick being valuable
Percussion massage: the gimmick therapy
The false claims made by massage gun marketers
How marketers misrepresent scientific evidence about the effectiveness
Massage gun safety concerns
The alternative to massage guns
Appendix: how to tell the difference between a percussion and vibration massager
Appendix two: example of a trial of Theraguns where the scientists used a damper to reduce percussion and increase vibration
Appendix three: how we have delivered effective quality massagers at very reasonable prices
Professionals
References

How marketers sell you on this gimmick being valuable

To sell a gimmick marketers must sell you on the idea that it actually has real value. In the case of massage guns this has been done by making false claims and misrepresenting scientific evidence about their effectiveness. Of course some celebrity endorsements help, but celebrities are not experts and likely a lot of money changes hands. In this article I’ll show you:

  • the gimmick massage gun makers are trying to sell,
  • the false claims,
  • how scientific evidence about the effectiveness is misrepresented,
  • safety concerns about massage guns, then
  • effective “non gimmick” alternatives

Percussion massage: the gimmick therapy

What percussion massage is

Massage gun marketers have modified therapeutic vibration massagers to create a new therapy called percussion. Vibration massage is a therapy where vibrations are used to penetrate your muscles in a similar way to the way sound waves of ultrasound do. Just like with ultrasound, the heads of therapeutic vibration devices do not need to penetrate. They just sit on the surface, and it’s the vibrations that penetrate and do the work. Massage gun marketers have modified those vibration massagers to drive their heads into the muscles. In doing so the gimmick claim is that this increases the penetration and adds the benefits of conventional massage. Lets use a simple analogy of a construction compactor and a jackhammer to explain why this is such a bad idea.

Why the gimmick of percussion massage is such a bad idea

Vibration therapy machines work like like the vibrating compactors used in the construction industry. These are designed to send vibrations deep into the ground while not harming the surface.

Therapeutic vibration principles
Vibration massagers use this principle to penetrate deeply without harming the surface
Professional therapeutic vibration massager
A professional therapeutic vibration massager with it's vibrating pad
Converting to jackhammers
The converted their machines into mini-jackhammers, wrongly believing it penetrates better

Jackhammer modifications

By modifying vibration massagers so they drive their heads into the muscles massage gun marketers made their massagers more like jackhammers. However, it’s the vibrations that give therapeutic benefits, not the head, and jackhammers are no where near as effective at sending vibrations deep into the ground. They are really good at smashing things at the surface though.

The false claims made by massage gun marketers

Vibrations can penetrate a long way

False claim: percussion massagers penetrate better

Percussion massage advocates claim that by having the head physically driven into the muscle it penetrates better. The problem with this that it's the therapeutic vibrations that need to penetrate, not the head. To put this into perspective, the heads of Theraguns penetrate 16mm, whereas a professional vibration massager will send vibrations right through your body.

How marketers misrepresent scientific evidence about the effectiveness

Massage gun marketers misrepresenting science
Although their modifications dramatically reduce the penetration of vibrations, marketers still claim all the benefits of vibration

Using results of clinical trials that don’t apply

Although they have modified their machines so they are very poor at delivering vibrations, massage gun marketers use a the scientific studies of vibration massage to support their effectiveness. As an example one massage gun manufacturer has a web page entitled “5 Science backed reasons why percussive therapy is good for you”. All the scientific studies referenced are of vibration.

For more info please see our article Is percussion massage (massage guns) scientific

Modifying massage guns for clinical trials
Although claiming the benefits of percussion, in clinical trials the scientists modify the machines so they are not percussion

Modifying massage guns for clinical trials so they actually work

Hopefully you understand now that vibration massagers are the genuine therapeutic devices, while massage guns are a gimmick that is less effective and more dangerous. So, if you were a massage gun marketer wanting to use massage guns in a clinical trial and get decent results (plus not hurt people) what would you do?

That’s simple!! Modify the massage guns so the heads don’t drive in and they work more like vibration massagers. That’s exactly what they’ve done in recent trials. They put soft or damper heads on them that won’t drive in. Of course course the marketing material still says “percussion”, even though the machines are modified so they don’t percuss.

For more info please see our article Is percussion massage (massage guns) scientific

Massage gun safety concerns

Dangerous use of a massage gun
Driving in heads like a jackhammer can do serious damage

Genuine vibration massagers have a long history of being fairly safe. Their heads don’t penetrate enough to do damage, and the vibrations are usually harmless. However, by adding the gimmick of percussion the head of the machine is actually driven into the tissues. Powerful massage guns such as Theraguns drive their heads in 16mm, and a lot of massage guns come with shaped hard plastic heads.

If you look at this pic I found you can see that there is potential to damage. This is enough to damage muscle tissue, plus if you are not an expert in anatomy there is the danger of hitting sensitive structures such as nerves and blood vessels.

Massage guns actually causing serious injury

Colleagues mention seeing damage caused by these instruments. This usually involves things such as the aggravation of injuries, intramuscular bleeding and the build up of scar tissue. To our knowledge there is no official reporting of these events so the extent is unknown, however one such episode was recently written up in a medical journal because the damage caused by a massage gun was so severe it became life threatening.

As reported in this medical journal (1) (quote below) a massage gun was used to relax tired muscles after cycling but afterwards there were multiple hematomas (bruises) on the person’s thighs and the damage was so severe:

  1. the breakdown of the muscles caused the release of products that were highly toxic, and
  2. there was so much internal bleeding that the woman suffered iron deficiency anaemia

Quote from report of life threatening damage caused by a massage gun

there are no published clinical or evidence-based reports on percussion guns regarding their benefits, indications, contraindications, and even side effects. The purpose of this case report is to describe the first case of rhabdomyolysis as a severe and potentially life-threatening illness following use of a percussion gun (1)

Even the shape of a massage gun is a gimmick

Even the shape of a massage gun is a gimmick. Having a distinctive shape and calling them “guns” is excellent for marketing, but as this diagram shows it has no functional value. Contrast that with the ergonomic shape of a vibration massager who’s maker focused of ease of use.

Poor ergonomics of a massage gun
Because of the shape of massage guns you cannot easily reach a lot of your body. It is a gimmick rather than being of any functional benefit.
Using a quad head
An ergonomic handle makes it easy to use a massager effectively on all your body

The alternative to massage guns

You probably realise now that your effective “non gimmick” alternative is to get a genuine vibration massager. As discussed, vibration massagers have been used by professionals for a very long time. They are clinically proven and have a host of scientifically proven benefits. In this section I’ll show you some examples of these machines. Any one of them will do an awesome job: much more effectively and safer than any massage gun. The two European ones are relatively expensive, but not when compared with high end massage guns. The difference is you are paying for very high quality rather than marketing and celebrity endorsements.

Professional vibration massager one
Example professional vibration massager
Professional vibration massager 2
Example professional vibration massager
Professional therapeutic vibration massager
A professional therapeutic vibration massager with it's vibrating pad

Our contribution: easy to use affordable vibration massagers

About 15 years ago we were looking for something that would deliver the quality therapeutic effects of those professional machines, but be affordable and easy to use. We couldn't find any so we've tried to do like Henry Ford did with cars: take them from being something only professionals had to something for everyone. If you are interested in how we did it please see our appendix how we have provided excellent massagers for very reasonable prices. Also, check out our personal use vibration massagers: The General Purpose Massager and the Ultimate Quad Head Massager.

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

So, if you’re after a massager how do you tell the difference? There is some crossover between the two types of machine, but there are certain characteristics to look for.

The shape of the heads

The most obvious is the shape of the heads. Again, if you think jackhammer vs compactor your percussion massagers are going to have heads that look like they’re for driving in, while vibration massagers will tend to have flatter heads designed for vibration transfer.

Percussion vs vibration massage: amplitude

The amplitude of the head movement

The next thing to look at is the amplitude, which is how far the head goes up and down. You can easily see this if you look at the head side on while it’s running. A good vibration massager will have an amplitude of about 3-5 mm, while a percussion massager will have more. Looking at our jackhammer and compactor again, a jackhammer head might go up and down a few cm to drive the head in, but if the big flat plate on the compactor went up and down that far it would just bounce around uncontrollably.

Appendix two: example of a trial of Theraguns where the scientists used a damper to reduce percussion and increase vibration

The following is a quote from a clinical trial of the Theragun Pro. Please note that it appears that it must have been determined that it was a rediculous idea to drive a jackhammer head in 16mm so they have used a damper attachment.

The Theragun® G3 Pro (Therabody, Los Angeles, CA, USA) device was used for the experimental treatment in the PTG. The PT treatment provided by the device during this study had the following mechanical characteristics: amplitude (16 mm), torque (60 pounds), and frequency (2400 per minute). PT was applied to each participant immediately following completion of the last rep at the end of each set. PT was applied to the pectoralis major and minor, given that the standardized grip used in our study was 100% or more of the biacromial width [24], and the bench had no inclination (0) [25], with the pectoral as the muscle group with the highest activation during the BP exercise. PT was applied to the muscle in the PTG with the dampener attachment using moderate force and fast movement, gliding up and down along the muscle belly from the origin to the insertion for 15 s, ensuring constant pressure at all times, and following the direction of the muscle fibers. (3)

Appendix three: how we have delivered effective quality massagers at very reasonable prices

Originally we built our massagers for our own use and for our own patients, then this extended to supplying colleagues for themselves and their patients. The following are the main reasons we have been able to supply such excellent quality for a very reasonable prices.

Having our massager built

From the beginning we’ve used a factory that was very efficient at making good quality consumer products at very reasonable prices. We then designed simple machines purely concentrating on functionality and durability rather than gimmicks that would add costs with no benefits. We then asked the factory to build them using proper commercial grade parts like motors and bearings rather than the lower quality parts that normally go into consumer machines. This gave us an excellent quality product for a very reasonable price.

No advertising

We are happy to give colleagues sample machines to try, but have never spent a cent on advertising, let alone sponsorships and celebrity endorsements. We’ve always had extreme faith in the integrity of fellow professionals, knowing that if we provide a good solution at a fair price they will tell colleagues and recommend them to patients/clients.

No “middle men”

Our massagers go straight from the factory to the warehouses, then are sent directly to either retail customers or fellow professionals who on sell to patients or customers. We have no agents or distributors taking their cut. Also, no one gets a commission or affiliate fee for recommending them. Not only does that add to the cost and open the possibility of making recommendations not in the best interest of the recipient, but in my profession and most others it is considered illegal or unethical to take “kickbacks” for recommendations. Again we have extreme faith in the integrity of fellow professionals.

Professionals

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. If you are a professional and wish to know more about this therapy, or possibly get a sample massager to trial please check out our practitioner page.

References

  1. Chen J, Zhang F, Chen H, Pan H. Rhabdomyolysis After the Use of Percussion Massage Gun : A Case Report. Phys Ther. 2021 Jan 4;101(1)
  2. Martin JD of H and WU of winchester. A critical evaluation of percussion muscle gun therapy as a rehabilitation tool focusing on lower limb mobility. A literature review. 2021.
  3. Garc M, Jurado-castro JM, Ben J. Acute Effects of a Percussive Massage Treatment on Movement Velocity during Resistance Training. Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Jul 21;18(15):7726.

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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