In this summary we investigate the science behind the use of vibration massage. This helps us envisage uses and to develop protocols. ... Read Article
Common massage gun mistakes: how to use your massage gun safely and effectively
If you use a massage gun incorrectly you may not get any benefits, or worse still hurt yourself. To help you get the most out of your massage gun and stay safe in this guide we will show you:
Percussion massagers or “massage guns” are therapeutic vibration massagers that have been modified to drive their heads into muscles in the attempt to add the benefits of conventional massage. However, as discussed in our article Vibration vs percussion or the case study below this is really just a marketing gimmick. These modifications dramatically reduce the amount of therapeutic vibrations the machine delivers, while delivering little if any extra benefits and increasing the risk of causing injury. You are better off getting a genuine therapeutic vibration massager , but if you have a massage gun we’ll show you what to do.
Please note that we cannot give specific advice to people we have not examined so please consider this as general information to be discussed with your own health care professional.
Where not to use your massage gun
As shown in this pic massage guns come with heads capable of acting like mini jackhammers, which means they can cause a lot of damage if used in the wrong places. In the next section we recommend that you do not use these hard “jackhammer” heads at all, but regardless the following areas should be avoided.
I once brought a chiropractic adjusting tool that had instructions stating not to use on eyeballs or testicles. I’m going to assume that you have enough sense not use one on really stupid places.
Do not use over injured tissues such as sprains, torn muscles, bruising or inflammation.
There are a large number of medical conditions that may prevent or modify the way you use a massage gun. When in doubt discuss any condition with your heath care professional.
There is no benefit in massaging bones, and this may cause pain or injury.
The front and side of your neck
There are sharp projections at the side of your cervical (neck) vertebrae, and many sensitive structures towards the front.
Very thin muscles
If your percussion massager head goes up and down 12-16mm but the muscle you use it on is thiner the head will drive right through the muscle and potentially do damage.
There is generally no benefit in using a massage gun directly on a joint, and you will likely cause injury.
There are parts of your body where there are major nerves and blood vessels with little overlying muscle to protect them. Here are some examples:
- in your groin
- behind your knees
- in front of your elbow
- the front of your neck
If you have deep vein thromboses in your calves and dislodge a clot this clot may block the arteries to your lungs and kill you.
The common usage advice that will dramatically reduce your massage gun’s effectiveness
In this section we will discuss:
- setting up your machine, and
- usage techniques.
Setting up your massage gun like scientists do for clinical trials
As discussed, percussion massagers are therapeutic vibration massagers that have been modified to drive their heads into the muscles. This reduces the amount of therapeutic vibrations while adding little if any benefits. The scientists who have done clinical trials of massage guns understand this so they use special soft or damper heads to stop the heads driving into muscles and maximise any vibrations.
We recommend that you follow the example set by the scientists.
- Discard the hard, pointed “jackhammer” heads
- Use the softer, flatter heads that are better at transferring vibrations to the muscles and less likely to hurt you.
Use techniques appropriate for a vibrating massager
It is the vibrations that have the real therapeutic benefits
The basic principle is that it is the vibrations that have the therapeutic benefits. For more information please see our article The scientifically proven effects of vibration massage- with clinical applications . Massage gun marketers use studies of vibrations promote their machines (even though they modify their machines to reduce those vibrations), and we’ve seen that scientists trialling massage guns modify their machines to deliver vibrations rather than drive their heads in.
The correct way to apply vibrations
As discussed in our article How to use a hand held massager the correct way to use therapeutic vibrations is to apply the vibration pad of a therapeutic massager and let the vibrations “soak in” and have their effects. The basic principle is to:
- find an areas that need to be treated
- sit the vibration head over the part, allowing the vibrations to penetrate and have their therapeutic effects.
- Move on to the next part that needs treating.
How the techniques shown for massage guns reduces their effectiveness
If you watch this short clip of highly watched and “famous” YouTube gurus demonstrating the use of massage guns your will see that they press in and move their machines around like doing conventional massage. This does not let the vibrations soak in, while the rubbing adds very little benefits.
Video: YouTube gurus showing ineffective techniques
The advertised uses that are actually harmful
There some uses that massage gun marketers advocate that are inherently wrong and dangerous.
Dispersing or breaking up fat cells as a treatment for cellulite
Some massage gun marketers claim that their machines will either break up fat cells so the fat can be reabsorbed, or disperse the fat cells. Fat cells cannot be dispersed, and any force strong enough to smash fat cells would damage the much flimsier fine blood vessels.
Breaking up adhesions
While there can be adhesions in muscles most conditions treated by massage guns do not actually involve adhesions. Where there really are adhesions their treatment can involve physically re-injuring the tissues, which is not something that you want someone not qualified trying to do.
Having a percussion massager driving it’s head into muscles is inherently dangerous, but the consequences are usually just pain and non serious injury. However, when we have marketers telling people to smash up fat cells or break down adhesions with what is basically a jackhammer people can hurt themselves seriously. In one scientific journal here is even a report of someone nearly dying from their massage gun injuries (2).
Case study: Why a Theragun is far less effective
To understand why a Theragun can be far less effective we need to understand two basic facts, then we will look at what a Chiropractic colleague found when trying to use one.
Therapeutic vibrations are best at about 50 hz
Science has shown that the best therapeutic vibrations are at around 50 hz (cycles per second) and to get decent benefits you need probably at least 30 hz.
How massage guns are modified
As the analogy in the pic shows genuine therapeutic vibration massagers have a vibrating pad designed to send vibrations deep into your muscles, whereas massage guns have a head goes up and down a lot further and is shaped to penetrate. At the extreme of this we have Theraguns, whose heads go up and down 16mm.
What my Chiropractic Colleague found
My colleague found that patients could only tolerate the “jackhammering” at very low speeds. She cannot run the Theragun at anywhere near the speed for effective therapeutic vibrations because it would be too severe and hurt the patients. The fundamental problem is that the modifications made to drive their heads in reduces their ability to deliver effective vibrations. P.S. it is not my colleague in the pic :-)
Genuine therapeutic vibration massagers have been around for decades, doing an excellent therapeutic job and having an enviable safety record. Modifying them to create massage guns has been a gimmick that decreases the effectiveness and increases their risk. The advice on how to make them safer and more effective has been basically how to do what the scientists conducting the clinical trials do: negate those changes as much as possible. It is stating the obvious though that you are better off buying a genuine vibration massager in the first place.
For more info see our article How to choose a massager .
- Garc M, Jurado-castro JM, Ben J. Acute Effects of a Percussive Massage Treatment on Movement Velocity during Resistance Training_. International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 18,15 7726. 21 Jul. 2021,
- Chen J, Zhang F, Chen H, Pan H. Rhabdomyolysis After the Use of Percussion Massage Gun : A Case Report. Phys Ther 2021;1–5.
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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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