The truth about massage guns: Do these really work? Can they replace your therapist?
Automated massagers for muscle soreness are popular these days – even Adam Levine uses one. But are they really effective? What’s the difference between a S$900 model and a S$20 one?
You might have seen this power drill-like gadget being passed around in the gym, especially after a workout. And if you haven’t had the chance to try it, you might be wondering: What’s the deal?
It’s called a massage gun and it’s one of the “it” workout gadgets these days. The design can vary wildly from brand to brand but massage guns typically have a handle and a head that delivers a rapid pummelling or oscillating action to provide what is known as percussive or vibration therapy.If you have caught the slow-motion videos, you’d have seen the muscle-rippling effect (hence, the “vibration” moniker) the head creates as it hits the body with rapid-fire bursts of pressure.
Other than foam rollers and trigger balls, massage guns are appearing in gyms. Your personal trainer might even use one on you to supposedly minimise post-exercise muscle soreness. On social media, you might have seen posts of these gadgets being used to alleviate daily muscle aches such as a sore neck from a poor night's sleep.
Core Concepts’ physiotherapist Elizabeth Boey estimated that these auto massagers are likely to have been in the Singapore market for the last five years. But they’ve only recently gained popularity, she said, thanks to the fitness scene picking up in Singapore. It also helps that international athletes and even non-sports celebrities such as Adam Levine and Ashley Graham have caught on the trend.
SHOULD YOU TRY IT?
According to Changi General Hospital's senior exercise physiologist Dr Raymond Teoh, there is evidence that suggests specific massage techniques may reduce muscle soreness and stiffness for well-trained athletes.
But can the same benefits come from a massage gun?
"Thus far, there has been little research on the efficacy and safety associated with the use of massage guns. As such, they are not used in our practice," said Dr Teoh. In fact, he cautioned that "massage guns are high-powered, self-administered devices, and users must be careful and mindful of potential harm when using them".
This is particularly so if you have muscle strains or ligament sprains. He also cautioned against using the gadget if you have inflammatory-related injuries such as osteoporosis, tendonitis or bursitis; autoimmune conditions; or conditions that affect blood flow such as deep vein thrombosis or artheriosclerosis.
The massage guns also do nothing for the pain caused by acute injuries – and can even cause more damage to the area and impede healing.
“For example, never use a massage gun over broken bones that are healing,” said Boey, who also recommended avoiding the joints, bony areas, and vulnerable areas such as the front of the neck, elbow and knee creases, and groin.
Furthermore, Boey said that massage guns “will never replace hands-on therapy such as sports massage”. “Massage therapists trained in human anatomy are able to locate regions of tightness so as to target deep tissue releases accordingly.”
HOW DOES IT COMPARE TO FOAM ROLLERS?
Nevertheless, there are proponents of these automated gizmos, who like that they can access areas that are hard to reach.
“For example, the massage gun can be used to easily target areas such as the upper trapezius (shoulders). It can be less tiring to use as it’s automated compared to foam rollers and golf balls. The intensity and speed can also be adjusted,” said Boey.
But if you’re massaging a large area such as your buttocks, thigh or back, a foam roller can cover it better than a massage gun. The rolling effect is also gentler than a massage gun, which tends to veer towards a focused, deep massage. And, of course, a roller is a lot cheaper (more on that in a while). Some individuals have even incorporated these tubes into their workouts.
Speaking of versatility, the massage gun can also be used to warm up your muscles before your workout, said Boey. But she cautioned against becoming too reliant on it. “While massage guns can be used pre- and post-workout to warm up or relax the muscles, they are not substitutes for proper warm-up and cool-down exercises during a workout session.”
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU'RE USING IT RIGHT?
The massage gun can look like a toy in some instances but hey, even a Super Soaker has instructions to maximise your water-shooting experience. So read the instructions before switching it on.
As a guide, always start with a slow speed setting, said Boey, to “allow your body to adjust to the pressure”. Starting at a high speed may cause your muscles to tense up and “will not allow for the massage to reach the deeper tissues”, she said. “As you get more comfortable or used to the pressure, you can then gradually increase the speed.”
Also, it matters where you place the head of the massage gun. If in doubt, position the head just at the skin surface or slightly away from it, said Boey. “As a general rule, start with one to two minutes at one spot before moving on to the next area.”
Dr Teoh emphasised that "the massage gun is meant to be used on muscles only". You should feel localised pressure when using a massage gun, he said.
"There may be some slight discomfort initially but as a general rule, there should be no pain or lasting discomfort."
Boey added that “there might be a feeling of deep ache and relief that gets more intense as the pressure increases”. You should feel tension easing in the affected muscle – and the tighter the muscle, the longer the period needed.
“However, if you notice worsening pain or swelling, you may be using it wrongly. Stop and consult with a health professional before continuing," she said.
HOW IS A HIGH-END MODEL DIFFERENT FROM A CHEAPER ONE?
You’ve got to admit, these gizmos cost a pretty penny. The latest models from popular brands such as Theragun can cost almost S$900, with attachments going for more than S$34 each. Even the more affordable brands sell theirs for a few hundred dollars per device. There are also the online knock-offs that go for lower than S$20.
There are considerations to think about between high-end models and entry-level models, said Lou Wei Xin, a sports massage therapist from Core Concepts.
For starters, the pricier ones typically generate pulses that are “more focused and go deeper into the tissue, which is better for massages”, he said. They also come with more attachments and a wider range of speed to vary the pulse consistency.
The more expensive models may also be lighter, quieter and more ergonomic to hold – all good to have when you’re already sore to begin with.
Basic models or even cheaper ones can be the opposite. “Their pulses feel more like surface vibrations, which can be uncomfortable for some, and can cause headaches if used on the shoulder or neck,” said Lou. They may also be heavier and have thicker handles (they tend to use larger batteries), making them uncomfortable to hold for a long period of time, said Lou.