Tuesday 5th December, 2023

Why most massagers (and massage guns) are a waste of money: and how to get something effective

Insincere massage gun marketing
Most massagers are built to look good on shop shelves rather than be serious therapeutic devices.

There are hundreds of hand held massagers and massage guns on the market, but when we were looking for something to recommend our patients we found that most were an ineffective waste of money. A UK university study agreed, stating that most were more likely to do harm than good, and that manufacturers were more interested with how their massagers looked on shop shelves than building genuine therapeutic devices (1)⁠.

The marketing of these machines certainly does not help help you choose. Marketers bend the truth, endorsements are paid for, and there is a proliferation of websites and videos that will say anything is good to get an affiliate commission.

As a chiropractor looking for something for our patients all we wanted was something we could recommend for patients and be confident they would get better. To do that we’ve gone to the scientific journals and done practical trials to find what works and what doesn’t. In this article we will discuss what you need to look for and what to avoid.

It is the vibrations that have the therapeutic benefits.

The scientifically proven effects of vibration massage
Summary of the scientifically proven effects of vibration massage

With vibrating massagers (and massage guns) it is the vibrations that have the therapeutic effects. For more information please see our article The scientifically proven effects of vibration massage- with clinical applications . Because of this the most important thing for a massager is it’s ability to deliver good amounts of therapeutic vibrations. The effectiveness of these vibrations is determined by two things:

  1. The amount of vibrations
  2. The frequency of the vibrations

How massagers deliver vibrations

To deliver therapeutic vibrations a good machines will use technology you’ll probably be familiar with. This is a vibrating compactor, often called a wacker plate.

Vibrating compactor
Vibrating massagers use the same technology as these vibrating compactors
Example massager 1
Example of a massager with a similar vibration pad. To give strong vibrations this should go up and down 4-5mm. Less will "buzz the surface", while more will bounce around and do damage.

The amount of vibrations

The main problem is that most massagers and massage guns on the market do not deliver serious amounts of therapeutic vibrations. In this section we'll show a couple of common examples of machines that are totally inadequate, then some that will do a good job.

Example consumer massager
Example: "consumer" massager with decent quality head added
Example: A “consumer” grade massager

Our factory send me this machine to look at. Like most similar machines it came with cheap plastic gimmick shaped heads that are next to useless so I glued on a decent head from one of our massagers. When you use it though it feels like it’s not doing much and you need to press in to help it. That’s because it has got a low powered motor and it’s head doesn’t go up and down anywhere the amount a proper therapeutic device does.

Example: massage guns

Massage guns are percussion massagers. They are designed to drive their heads into your muscles, claiming to add the benefits of conventional massage. However, this is mainly a marketing gimmick because because percussion does neither vibration or conventional massage well. The easy way to explain this is by looking at this diagram.

Vibration vs percussion vs conventional

The machine on the left is a vibration massager. As we’ve seen it has a vibration pad designed to send in copious amount of therapeutic vibrations. The tool on the right is s T-bar which massage therapists use to press deeply into muscles, usually painfully. The massage gun in the middle is basically a t-bar with a jackhammer mechanism. It’s designed to drive the head in rather than deliver therapeutic vibrations.

As you can probably see massage guns deliver far less therapeutic vibrations than a genuine vibration massager, while to our knowledge “punching the head in” has no scientifically demonstrated benefits and is much more likely to hurt you.

Scientists agree that percussion is a bad idea

Even the scientists the massage gun marketers get to do clinical trials think percussion is a bad idea. As this excerpt from their report shows when they were asked to do clinical trials they fitted special damper heads. Damper heads stop the heads driving in (2), which is the very thing is the very thing the marketers say is a good idea. The scientists know that if they use the massage gun standard they’ll hurt people and get poor results. Of course this gets buried in the fine print and you get told that it’s massage guns giving good results.

Excerpt from massage gun trial
Excerpt showing that special damper heads are used to stop driving the massage gun heads into the muscles (2)
Example: genuine therapeutic devices

There are manufacturers that build genuine therapeutic devices. Some examples are pictured below. Most are built for professionals to use on patients rather than self use so we had some self use versions made .

The frequency of the vibrations

The other important thing that determines the therapeutic value of the vibrations for your machine is the frequency. The best therapeutic effects like relaxing muscles, increasing blood flow and speeding healing or recovery are around 30-60 Hz, with around 50 being ideal. A lot of machines give their specs as per minute so that’s 24-3600 rpm with the ideal around 3000.

This is important because a lot of machines won’t deliver this speed or maintain it under normal working loads. Even a Thumper Maxi, which is a very expensive machine marketed to professionals will only deliver up to 35 Hz.

The problem with high powered massage guns

If you get a powerful massage gun you run into run into a different problem: you usually cannot use them in the effective therapeutic vibration range or they may hurt you.

My colleagues' story

A colleague told me me she brought a Theragun, which drives it’s head in 16mm. Driving something 16mm into your muscles 50 times a second is a perfect way to end up black and blue with massive amounts of internal bleeding. People have nearly died after using massage guns (3)⁠.

Because of this my colleague found she could only use her Theragun on low speed, which I’m guessing would be about 10-15 Hz,. This is no where near the 30-60 Hz you need to get the therapeutic benefits. The ironic thing is you’d probably get more therapeutic benefits from a low powered consumer massager you can safely run at 50 Hz

Using a powerful massage gun
Powerful massage guns drive their heads in up to 16mm, which could cause injury if used in the effective therapeutic vibrations range
Journal report of massage gun injury
Journal report of someone nearly dying after using a massage gun
Example massager 2
Massager designed for professionals to use on patients

Ease of use

By far the most important thing in your massager is the therapeutic vibrations it can deliver. Of course to get the benefit from these you need to be able to apply it to all the parts of your body that need it. The machine pictured delivers excellent therapeutic vibrations, but they’re designed for professionals like myself to use on patients, not self use. To do that you need a proper handle. In this section we will show you an example of an excellent design, then what you will typically find.

Example: and excellent ergonomically designed handle

Probably the best example of an ergonomically designed handle for self use is the one on our General Purpose Massager . It’s length is about ideal, and if you look at it from the side you’ll see it curves down to a bit lower than the level of the head. What that means is you can easily use it somewhere hard to get to.

Using General Purpose Massager
With a decent handle you can massage anywhere on your body without needing to reach or strain
Using a machine with a decent handle

As you can see in this pic below I can easily massage the middle of my back with my arm only raised slightly, not having to reach or strain. Also, the ball at the end of the handle means I do not have to grip tightly to stop the handle sliding through my grip. With this machine you can give parts that are hard to reach a decent massage without suffering from fatigue.

A massager that has a decent handle and can be used like a cushion

As a bonus, if you get one of our Ultimate Quad Head Massagers it has the decent handle, but because the business end is larger and flatter you can easily use it like a chair or cushion massager. I stick mine behind me on the chair each morning.

Example: typical consumer massager

Using typical
Using typical "consumer massager"

Contrast this with the machine the factory sent me. It’s handle is shorter, doesn’t curve down as far, and the head pokes a long way out. To reach the same spot I have to reach my arm up a lot higher and strain.

Example: massage guns

Cannot reach with massage gun

The worst machines for self use would have to be massage guns. Like a real gun they need to be pointing directly into your muscle to work properly, so I think you’ll see that you’d need to be inspector gadget to use them effectively anywhere other than the front of your body where you could easily reach.

The gimmicks you don't need

Massage gun gimmicks
Gimmicks like lights, push buttons, LED displays and cheap plastic heads add nothing to the therapeutic value of a massager

They’re the things you need in a massager, now lets very quickly look at the gimmicks you don’t need. A lot of machines come with an assortment of cheap gimmicky plastic heads that serve no useful function. Another thing is buttons, lights and a lot of speed settings. While not actually harmful they’re just another thing that can break and you’re better off with an on/off switch and a simple variable speed control like you’d find on any quality power tool. It will be much more reliable and give you any speed you want.

We built our own machines

The panel of professionals such as physios and neurologists the UK researchers used (1)⁠ could could not find anything they could recommend and neither could I, so I built our own. They are the machines I’ve used as examples above, and you will seen me demonstrate in this video. They were originally for our own patients, but now a lot of other professionals use, recommend and sell them. To find one of these professionals or get one directly from us please see our order page .

Our massagers

General Purpose Massager
Ultimate Quad Head Massager

Usage advice

Another thing the UK researchers were critical of was the instructions/advice that came with the massagers they tested. It is very important that one gets the proper advice to use their machines safely and effectively. With this in mind I’ve condensed the information from hundreds of scientific journal articles and trials into a series of guide articles covering basic usage through to a variety of conditions you may use a massager on. You will find some samples below.
Vibration massage usage guide
The best massage for sports recovery
Trigger point therapy
Warm-ups: a guide to reducing injuries, increasing performance, and reducing post exercise soreness
Tennis elbow
Massage and trigger point therapy for shoulder pain
How to massage for cellulite _
_The easy way to release trigger points in your low back

The easy way to treat trigger points in your calf muscles
How to massage fibromyalgia

References

  1. McDonagh D, Wilson L, Haslam C, Weightman D. Good vibrations: Do electrical therapeutic massagers work? Ergonomics. 2005;
  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. Chen J, Zhang F, Chen H, Pan H. Rhabdomyolysis After the Use of Percussion Massage Gun : A Case ReportPhys Ther. 2021 Jan; 101(1): pzaa199

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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