The benefits of self massage

Massage therapy
Effective self massage allows the benefits of practically unlimited massage therapy

Summary

Massage from professional therapists has a huge amount of potential benefits, but you probably don't get to enjoy these because of cost and inconvenience. However, if self massage was an effective alternative this would not be an issue. In this article we look at:

Can self massage be effective?

In the following section we will look at the three main methods of self massage.

  1. self massage that mimics a massage therapist
  2. kneading massagers such as chairs and cushions
  3. vibration massage

Self massage that mimics manual massage therapy

Manual therapy from a professional therapist is an excellent therapy. However, can it be effectively self applied? We'll look at two key issues, then your options for applying this therapy.

Key issues

Skill, knowledge and training

Professional therapists have the skill, knowledge and training to effectively apply the therapy. Also importantly they know when and when not to massage, and may be able to help with other advice to manage your problem.

Not being relaxed when applying the therapy

The goal of massage is usually to relax muscles. Many self massage techiques require you to tighten muscles to apply pressure or to maintain a position.

Your options for self massage that mimics professional therapists

Self massage using one's hands

This therapy is limited to the parts of your body that can be easily reached, and to those muscles that are relatively easy to massage. However, in one of our videos we give an example of very effective forearm muscle massage.

Self massage using tools

Tools make it easier to apply pressure. This can be a good thing in that it allows you to apply firmer and deeper pressure, and apply pressure where you cannot easily reach with your hands. On the other hand it makes it easy to apply too much pressure and cause injury or damage. We'll show you a relatively safe alternative, then a very popular but not so safe one.

The safe alternative

Professional therapists often use painful pressure techniques. If you mimic this you can easily hurt yourself by either pressing too hard or pressing on something you shouldn't like injured tissue, blood vessels or nerves. The good news is that as discussed in our article on a traditional form of thai self massage, a clinical trial found that it is very effective using only moderate pressure for five applications of 10 seconds each. This pic shows a lady in the trial applying this pressure using a tool called a Wilai Stick, but there are many alternatives.

The not so safe alternative

Despite being heavily marketed the use of foam rollers and balls is a lot less effective and more dangerous. We discuss this in our article on foam rollers, but in summary some key issues are:

  • it is very easy for someone to apply too much pressure
  • you often have to get into awkward positions, and often this means tightening the muscle you are trying to relax
Foam roller vs professional therapist
Massage cushion
"Kneading" massager

kneading massagers such as chairs and cushions

Massagers such as massage cushions and massage chairs generally use a "kneading action" that mimics the conventional massage given by professional massage therapists.

How effective are they

Cushion and chair massagers that work like this would be moderately effective and allow practically unlimited self massage. This makes them great for something like relaxing after a hard day's work. However, they would not be as effective as a professional therapist, and their kneading contacts are not directed by a therapist with skills and knowledge. Therefore they would not be a serious consideration for therapeutic applications or for massaging deep problem spots.

Vibration massagers

We cover the effectiveness of vibration massagers in our article Machine vs hand massage. In summary, when compared to conventional massage a proper vibration massager:

  • does not need painful pressure
  • can penetrate deeper
  • is more effective
  • and is easy to self apply

Potential benefits of self massage

Dr Graeme's comments

Most of our patients had long standing muscular issues that needed more massage therapy than they could afford, so we started building our hand held massagers to give the option of extra quality massage therapy at home. However, with these available this opened up a host of other opportunities where extra massage would be of huge benefit. Let's look at some of these

Rehabilitation and musculoskeletal pain syndromes

As discussed in our article Why do trigger points keep coming back a hand full of therapy sessions rarely fixes problems like back, neck and shoulder pain. They need more regular applications over time. The following articles show how regular self massage is used to help with a variety of problems.
Tennis elbow
Shoulder pain
Low back pain
Calf pain
Headaches

Fibromyalgia and other chronic pain syndromes

As discussed in our article Massage for fibromyalgia, fibromyalgia is often caused by pain from poorly treated musculoskelal problems bombarding and sensitising the nervous system, and massage is an excellent therapy. However medical guidelines discount this allegedly due to the expense and lack of availablity of massage therapists. Of course the fact that they would sell less drugs has nothing to do with it.

Sports and exercise

Professional sports clubs and athletes extensively use massage therapy. With the use of self massage these benefits become available for everyone. Please see our Sports and exercise guide to vbration massage for a more details.

Warning: massage guns are extensively marketed for this purpose. As discussed in our article Do massage guns actually work these are actually a gimmick bastardisation of vibration massagers that makes them less effective and more dangerous. Make sure you check out our article on how to get something that actually works and won't hurt you.

Health and wellness

Some people get regular massages for health benefits, while many companies including google provide their employees with regular massages to help them avoid pain and injury, and to generally have them feel better and be more productive. As discussed in our article on health and wellness clinical trials have found that this works well, and can even help with conditions such as high blood pressure, sleep and psychological issues. If you don't work for an employer who provides these self massage is an excellent option.

Bonus: getting rid of cellulite

For years people would ask whether our vibration massagers helped get rid of cellulite and I'd reply I don't think so. It turns out I was wrong. Individual massages won't help, but apparently cellulite is caused by poor circulation in the tissues. Regular massages over time can improve circulation and cause the body to gradually use up the excess fat stores. For more information please see our article Massage and vibration massage for cellulite.

Recommendations: your best self massage options

Get some professional advice

As mentioned, professionals have the skill, knowledge and training to effectively apply massage therapy. They also know when and when not to massage, and may be able to help with other advice to manage your problem. Because of this we recommend that to get the best results and stay safe you get some professional advice. The way this worked in our Chiropractic practice was that patients would be properly assessed and their conditions professionaly managed. Some care needs to be done by a professional, while with the proper advice and proper equipment patients could supplement this with extra care at home.

Choosing an effective home massage

We've discussed the effectiveness of each of the common types of self massage above, so we give a brief summary here of where each could be useful.

Self massage by hand

This is a perfectly good therapy that can easily be applied anywhere you can comfortably reach. An excellent example would be massaging your forearm muscles in the case of tennis elbow.

Using tools to apply pressure

Because of the potential dangers and lack of effectiventess we do not recommend balls and foam rollers. However, using tools to apply moderate pressure as shown above is an excellent therapy.

Chairs and cushions

These would not be as effective as a professional therapist, but are extremely easy to use and allow practically unlimited therapy. Because of this we would not recommend them for specific therapy, but they would be excellent for a general massage such as for example to relax muscles and increase blood circulation after a hard day's work.

Vibration massagers (most effective)

These are by far your most effective option. Professionals such as Chiropractors, Osteopaths, Physiotherapists and massage therapists use these in their clinics, and as long as you place them in the same spots they will provide the same therapy for you at home. The key issues are to get proper advice so you know where to place them, and to get an appropriate massager. A lot of machines sold to the public are not very effective, and massage guns are an ineffective dangerous gimmick.

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.