I get asked all the time by other therapists and my patients the same questions… massage guns, are they any good? Can I use one on myself at home? The answer to both these questions is yes, and of course, you can use one on yourself at home. However, there are some key pieces of information you should be aware of before buying one and attempting to use it on yourself at home. These key facts involve issues like, what they do, what they are good for, and more importantly, which one is best?
There is a bewildering choice of massage guns and home massagers out there, it is very easy to get lost and confused over which one might be best for you. To help provide some sort of guidance, I have written this blog to help you negotiate your way through the labyrinth of massage guns on the market. I have compiled this list of my top 5 based on my own experience of using them, so by no means is this list exhaustive or inclusive of all of them.
Firstly, a little disclaimer section. Do not use any of these devices if you are unsure how to use it fully. Do not push the device into yours or someone else’s body hard for the risk of causing increased injury, bruising, or tissue damage. Do not use it on your genitals, head, eyes, mouth, jaw, nose, cheeks (any part of your face), or particularly sensitive areas of the body (I don’t know why you would or that I should have to tell you this). These are not naughty toys for any naughty time, so just no. Do not use it on active bleeding sites, cuts, wounds, burns, bruises, or after surgery on the area of surgery, or site of the incision.
Massage guns and home massagers are devices that apply gentle vibrations over the skin ion an attempt to relieve muscular tension and encourage relaxation1. They do not help with tissue repair, reduce injury recovery time, or prevent an injury from occurring. Just like any massage, they can help relieve stress, encourage relaxation and help ease some pain symptoms caused by muscular tension/tightness but they do not improve injury healing or decrease recovery time from an injury (e.g. ligamentous or tendon rupture, muscle tears, burns, fractures or cut/wound healing). Before people start getting upset by this statement let me explain because I am referring to true tissue repair and remodeling from a trauma. No-one, including medications, can speed up tissue repair and healing in anyone. Reducing pain, muscle spasms, and even swelling after a trauma, such as a torn muscle, can be achieved through medications, massage, and applying ice to the injured site. But these treatment options are all symptom management, not healing and repair. The key thing I want everyone reading this to know and take-away with them is this simple fact: your body heals at whatever rate your body heals at. Some people heal very rapidly, others more slowly. Several factors such as diet, lifestyle, smoking/vaping/nicotine intake, alcohol, and obesity all influence how your body heals. We have already discussed in detail the effects of nicotine on healing and the phases of healing in our previous blog posts, so for more information about these, click on the links to read these posts.
I use two different types of massage guns in my practice. Which one I use is dependant upon where it is needed on the patient, as no single massager is appropriate to apply to all muscles, on all patients. I use these devices when there is clear spasm or tightness within the muscle(s) in question only. If the patient does not need it because there is no active muscle spasm, then a massage in that situation in my practice is a waste of time, so only do it to yourself IF you have active spasm or tension. These devices allow me to massage those tight, painful muscles with the patients fully clothed, so there is no need to remove clothes during appointments making people feel more comfortable. By using these devices, there is no drop in the quality of the massage when performed. The massage is reproducible and consistent, every time it is needed. So here are my top 5 massage instruments I recommend to both patients and fellow therapists:
At Number 5
The MaxKare Massage Pillow is a great bit of kit to have either at home or in the office. This isn’t exactly one I would recommend using on patients in your clinic, so this isn’t one for the therapists reading this post. I have added this device to the list because of the infra-red heating system and the fact that it is a simple pillow for you to rest your weary neck, shoulders or low back on at the end of a hard shift or your working day. This one is for a little bit of self-care for the therapists reading this, or for those patients who are suffering a lot of tension through the shoulders, neck or low back that results from sitting at your home desk all day. It is important to look after yourself, and this little beauty could make such a difference at the end of a hard day. The four little red balls rotate and push in for a deep massage. The application of the infra-red applies gentle heat to the area, helping your muscle relax as the pillow kneads your muscles like a baker with some dough.
This device can be plugged into the wall or can run off the cigarette lighter point in your car. So if you are trying to relax at home, or get stiff and sore when driving, you can use this handy little device on your back to help ease any discomfort.
At Number 4
The Thumper® massagers is a well-known and trusted brand to many manual therapy professionals. In fact, 3 of the 5 devices in this list are Thumper® devices, so I have nothing but good things to say about the brand. The order of this list has nothing to do with the quality of the devices, but it does hint at how capable the devices are for hard work. What I mean is, in professional clinical work, I need a workhorse that will keep working all day during busy shifts where I have a lot of patients with muscular tension or spasm. What I don’t need is something that will give up halfway through an appointment because the motor has overheated or something that will need replacing after 3 months hard graft. So with that in mind, I have put at number 4 the Thumper® Lithium 2 a fantastic device, perfect for home use on yourself. It is very light, weighing less than 2 Kg making it easy to move around your body. The two percussion heads vibrate at varying speeds depending on your tolerance for pain, or how tight/sore those muscles of yours feel.
This device has an internal lithium battery, so you do not have to worry about a cable knocking over the very delicate and priceless china tea-pot on your fireplace. For those of you who are looking for a high-quality home massager to use on yourself or your partner, you can’t go wrong with this device. The price tag reflects the quality of the motor and components, so whilst in comparison to some others on the market, this is a high-quality unit that should last the average person with regular use a good number of years. You must invest in yourself to take care of yourself, remember!
At Number 3
The Thumper® Mini Pro Percussive Massager device is a “step-up” from number 4 on this list because it has superior quality components that instills more confidence that a manual therapist needs when working. That is not to say that non-therapists can’t or shouldn’t use this unit. There is nothing to stop the home user who wishes to spend a little extra on this device from using it on yourself in your own home. The Thumber® Mini Pro will last the average person a very, very long time with regular use. The Thumper® Mini Pro, as with the Sport has 2 vibrating percussion heads, with a variable oscillation frequency setting. This device of fantastic for the smaller muscles of the body and I find it especially useful on tight calves and gluteal muscles. For those sporty patients coming into the clinic with calf tightness or those patients with chronic low back or hip issues, this device will calm those troublesome muscles down very quickly.
From a therapist’s perspective, the only negative I have to say about this device is that it struggles when applying downward pressure into it. For example, for those therapists who have experiences with patients with very tight, overworked, and fibrous muscles you want to break down, sometimes you need to apply a little more pressure to get positive changes in those tissues. When using mechanical massage instruments, this means you will sometimes need to apply more downward pressure onto the device to trigger positive changes within the patients’ muscles. This device does struggle with the application of pressure, it taxes the motor and causes it to get very hot very quickly. Once it reaches the upper limit of heat tolerance, the machine turns itself off. You must then wait for it to cool down before it will turn back on again. If you turn it back on too early, it will work for a few seconds or a minute or so before it switches itself off again. As you can imagine, this becomes incredibly frustrating when you are only just starting your second appointment of the day. However, if you do not need to apply downward pressure, the device is great and will last your whole shift. This is a trivial issue for a lot of therapists out there reading this, but I found it frustrating, which is why I no longer use this device in my practice.
At Number 2
The Massage Gun Pro is a great bit of kit for either home use or for therapists. The best thing about it I have found is the cordless design. It has a powerful battery-powered motor within the handle allowing up to 5 hours of operating time. So it is good to last you the majority of your busy shift when fully charged. The model below has 30-speed settings allowing for great versatility when working with a variety of patients and muscules. However, if you are planning to use this device on yourself at home, just remember that muscles will also get tight and sore after they have been pummeled by a device this like when on high settings. You don’t want to feel battered and bruised after your home massage (unless you enjoy that kind of thing, of course) then don’t go too high, usually mine is set at 12-15 and can last the whole shift with getting hot. This device also has 6 different applicators increasing the versatility further when working on your patients or on different body parts at home. Seriously though, in reality, you are most likely going to use either the flat head or the ball head at home on yourself.
The only drawback I have found with this device is the fact that you are limited to using it on smaller muscles only. Because of the size of the heads and the device itself, it is fantastic to use on the smaller muscles around the body, such as the shoulders, around the shoulder blades, calves, arms and the back of the neck (with the two-headed applicator). It isn’t great on the larger muscles due to the small contact surface area, it’s difficult to apply to the thighs or lower back and lacks the bulk required for these areas. Also, when using this device on the smaller framed people, it can bounce off the ribs, which can become very uncomfortable for patients. Keep that in mind when using this device. On the whole, whether using this on your patients, or on yourself at home, it is a great bit of kit and it comes highly recommended from me.
At Number 1
This particular model is the Thumper® Maxi Pro and it is a beast. This one is mainly for the therapists out there who want to have a workhorse that will just keep going and going. It is a large unit with 8 (4 large and 4 smaller) massage spheres on the contact plate. This machine is heavy weighing in at 3.2 kg, but it is also heavy-duty, so it is capable of working hard for prolonged periods. It has ventilation slits on both sides, so the machine also doesn’t get or feel hot when using it repetitively through a busy shift. It has vibration settings 1 through 5 so you can provide a more rigorous massage to those who need or enjoy it.
The only draw-backs with this machine are: it is wired with a wall plug, so remember that when transporting it around the clinic or different locations as you will need a spare plug socket for this one. Obviously, the plug can’t be too far from where you intend to use the device, but the cable has a good length. The cable can become a trip hazard so be mindful of where you place/store it in your treatment room/area.
As the Thumper® Maxi Pro is a large machine, it is great for large muscles or body areas, such as thighs, buttocks, and the paraspinal muscles, but it is not appropriate for smaller body parts, smaller muscles, or indeed smaller people. This is a great machine, which is why I have ranked it as my number one. It is robust, hard-working, and great for a lot of people, but it is not perfect for all people, in all situations, which is why I have both numbers 4 and 5 on this list in my practice.
Our most recent addition to the clinic that I use daily on my patient is the new Thumper® Lithium8 and it is a fantastic bit of kit and well worth the investment. The reason for this change from the Thumper® Maxi Pro to the Lithium8 is because I kept tripping over the cable from the Thumper® Maxi Pro, which doesn’t do me of the device any good it turns out. The lithium 8 is quiet, so great for not distracting you from the job at hand, having conversations with the patient on the table, or the TV program you are busy watching whilst massaging yourself at home. I would, however, recommend purchasing a second battery for the clinicians reading this post. The battery is removable from the device for charging, which is great because you don’t have to worry about placing the big thing on some charging station after use. But the better won’t last all day, so using it on a busy clinic day will make life harder without a second battery. A warning, however, when using this device on the hamstrings of patients, it can pinch the skin around the gluteal crease, which is very unpleasant for the patient. It doesn’t leave bruises or cause lasting pain for the patient, but it is important to keep in mind as it is unpleasant for the patient and embarrassing for you in the moment. The redesign from the Thumper® Maxi Pro appears to be the cause for this as the vibrating balls are set deeper into the device shield, creating a small gap between the plate and the shield for skin to get pinched in. The Thumper® Maxi Pro doesn’t have this issue, so it is worth keeping this in mind when purchasing the lithium 8.
There is nothing wrong with people using these devices at home on themselves or on their partners when needed. Like everything else in life, there is a time and place for when they are appropriate to use. Using them safely and in the appropriate situations, they can really help keep you going and reduce stress levels. They are not a replacement for qualified therapists or medical interventions. They are not a cure to anything, just helpful tools to keep you going during hard, stressful times, like much of 2020…
Dr Mark Spriggs DC, MChiro, MSc, FRCC
Doctor of Chiropractic
- McDonagh D, Wilson L, Haslam C, Weightman D. Good vibrations: Do electrical therapeutic massagers work? Ergonomics. 2005;48(6):680-691. doi:10.1080/00140130500070988