Article reviewed and approved by Dr. Ibtissama Boukas, physician specializing in family medicine
A very popular tool, the massage gun uses vibrating percussion to relieve muscle pain and promote sports recovery.
In which cases is the massage gun indicated? Are there cheaper alternatives? What are the pros and cons of this tool?
In this article, I share my opinion as a health professional (physiotherapist) on this therapeutic option, emphasizing simple and scientifically proven notions allowing you to better understand its mechanism of action. For those who want to get some, I make some practical recommendations and suggestions.
Massage gun, what is it?
No, this is not a power drill, although the sound and appearance of massage guns can be mistaken for these DIY tools!
Massage guns are portable devices, often equipped with a rechargeable battery, and equipped with interchangeable massage accessories.
When the device is turned on and placed on your muscles, its attachments vibrate and “impact” the skin at a high frequency. The objectives (and praised by the designers of massage guns) are the following:
- Relax tight muscles
- Reduce body aches
- Speed up recovery
- Improve overall performance
- Activate traffic
- Releases toxins
- Break down muscle adhesions
What about these accessories if you suffer from back pain or chronic pain? Are the expected results commensurate with the benefits conveyed?
Let's start by exposing the positive points of massage guns in the light of my clinical experience, and the many testimonials that exist on the internet concerning these tools.
As much to tell you, massage guns are adored by many. Some athletes swear by these accessories to relieve muscle tension and improve their athletic performance.
I am myself physiotherapist, and I can tell you that I use these guns quite regularly (for specific reasons that will be covered in a later section).
Admittedly, the stimulation caused by these accessories is unique, which is ideal when other types of treatment modalities have not provided the expected benefits. Add to that the fact that the guns can be applied as a self-treatment.
This last point is important. Indeed, no therapist or masseur can guess exactly what you are feeling. Because we are in control when using a massage gun, we can easily adapt the intensity of the treatment, or even spend more time on specific areas that we consider important and difficult to release.
Finally, the ease of access allows the massage gun to be used at any time. This is ideal for active people who need regular care, and who have a limited budget (for the record, some professional athletes have a dedicated masseur they can call on at any time!).
Summary of the positive points of the massage gun
- Appreciated by patients
- Single stimulation
- Can be applied by the patient at home
- May slightly increase blood circulation
- Could improve flexibility (often in the short term)
- Ideal for active people who need regular care
- We are in control (ability to adapt the intensity of the treatment, the duration of the treatment, and the areas to be treated)
No, massage guns will not treat the cause of your lower back pain, chronic pain or other joint problem. Moreover, no tool or accessory will be able to correct such complex problems.
Massage guns come with some drawbacks. On the one hand, their mechanism of action is not based on solid scientific evidence. Thus, when we say that the vibrations will loosen adhesions or stimulate blood circulation in a local way, it is more on a theoretical basis than a practical one.
Well, this does not detract from their therapeutic effect and the feeling of well-being they provide. But the most rigorous among us will prefer to rely on scientifically proven explanations. And to date, the most plausible explanation would be the desensitization of the nervous system by the vibratory stimulation of the device.
In simpler terms, the unique stimulation the massage gun provides sends a message to the brain, telling it to relax tight muscles and modulate the perceived pain sensation in the area being treated.
Back on topic. Although the massage gun is effective when applied by a professional, it should be understood that many people prefer to buy and use it alone. With this in mind, it is sometimes difficult to create a relaxing environment (because you have to do the work yourself). It is also difficult to reach certain areas such as the back or the muscles around the shoulder blade.
Finally, you have to know how to use the massage gun, otherwise you could aggravate your pain. The "Practical application" section educates you on the optimal use of this tool to maximize its effectiveness, and prevent sometimes serious setbacks!
Summary of the negative points of the massage gun
- Does not break adhesions (as conveyed by many therapists)
- Very limited effect on blood circulation
- Self-treatment difficult to apply to the lumbar level, the neck or the middle of the back
- Short term effect (must be used regularly)
- Difficult to establish a relaxing environment during self-treatment sessions
- May be contraindicated in certain populations (see “Practical Application” section)
Massage Gun Alternatives
The massage gun is based on 2 principles to provide the patient with therapeutic effects. These are therapeutic massage and vibration therapy.
Although the massage gun is unique, there are other tools on the market that provide relatively similar therapeutic and relaxation effects. Let's take a look at the most commonly cited accessories and resources:
Miniature massage gun
Some will say that the conventional massage gun is too heavy, or even too noisy. With this in mind, it may be relevant to use the same device, but in miniature format.
In addition to being quieter and much more malleable, these mini massage guns allow easier access to certain areas such as the lower back. They also have a longer lifespan before needing to be recharged. On the other hand, you should know that they will not be able to generate as much power, which is not ideal when you want to benefit from a deep massage (at the level of the quadriceps for example).
Massage roller (foam roller)
The massage roller is used to achieve myofascial release. This technique is based on soft and deep techniques aimed at relaxing the fascias.
Thus, purists of this approach will argue that the massage gun does not confer the same therapeutic effects due to the rapid, low amplitude percussion caused.
The massage gun, because of their small attachment, covers much more precise areas than the massage roller. It is therefore more effective if you want to release trigger points, or specific areas of tension.
Obviously, a specialized therapist such as a masseur or a physiotherapist will be able to relax your muscles in a more effective and appropriate way.
Because we're lying down and the therapist is “doing the work” for us, this approach promotes a relaxing environment that's impossible to replicate with a massage gun. And benefiting from the expertise of a health professional is priceless.
In fact, yes, it has a price. And it is sometimes expensive when our budget is limited. This is why this expensive alternative is not necessarily suitable for everyone...
There are several massage tools available in the market. Different formats, textures and materials are offered to achieve essentially the same result: muscle relaxation.
These devices are certainly cheaper, but they require active and repeated work on the part of the user. I have already seen patients complain of wrist pain when trying to self-treat with a massage tool!
It should also be noted that these tools cannot reach areas as deep as massage guns, especially if you want to maintain continuous pressure and stimulate the area dynamically.
If you are interested in these tools (for example for their very affordable price), here are some that will meet your expectations.
My physio opinion
I hope that you are now more educated on massage guns, and that their beneficial effects and disadvantages no longer hold any secrets for you! Indeed, my primary objective is to inform you – without bias – so that you can get an idea of these products yourself.
Personally, I analyze any instrument according to 2 criteria: scientific studies on the subject, and my experience as a clinician (this includes feedback from my patients).
On the one hand, it must be said that scientific evidence is limited to encourage the use of the massage gun. This is due in particular to the fact that this tool is quite recent, and that studies demonstrating its effectiveness are difficult to carry out from a methodological point of view. On the other hand, some encouraging studies suggest that they could be effective. under certain conditions.
The other aspect that I take into consideration to get an idea of a treatment modality is the reaction of my patients. And I can tell you that those who have benefited from the massage gun are generally pleasantly surprised. Admittedly, this device takes time to get used to, but the unique relaxation and stimulation it provides make it an interesting instrument.
In short, I recommend using the massage gun in addition to other approaches that have already been scientifically demonstrated. Indeed, nothing will replace a proactive approach focused on exercise, stress management, and sleep optimization. The massage tools will allow you to suffer less on a daily basis, and will thus improve your well-being. But they will not correct the cause of your problem.
Now, in what context should the massage gun be used? How (and when) to apply it while maximizing its effectiveness and minimizing the risks? The next section offers practical applications related to this tool.
If you're ever thinking of getting a massage gun, using it the right way is crucial. This will allow you to derive the maximum benefit, in addition to avoiding any injury or aggravation of your pain.
Here are the main elements to consider when using these massage instruments:
Indications for treatment
Here is a list of conditions and situations where the massage gun can be used.
- Cervicalgia: to be used on the trapezius muscles and avoid the cervical region
- Back pain: use on muscles that are connected to the lumbar region (quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings)
- Chronic pain: to temporarily relieve symptoms
- Muscle spasms
- Before exercise to stimulate the body and prepare it for effort
- After exercise to achieve relaxation effect and treat body aches
How to use this tool? Use the following tips to guide your approach.
- Initially, use a towel as an intermediate surface so as not to irritate the skin and muscles. The towel can be removed when the pressure is more comfortable
- Choose the right massage accessory according to the area to be relaxed
- Start with superficial pressure on the area to be treated (whether it is a particular muscle or a larger area). Apply the gun for about 1-2 minutes, then gradually increase the time.
- Then apply continuous pressure to the stiffer areas (about 15 seconds per area).
- Act superficially on areas at risk (such as the groin area, the psoas, near the neck, etc.).
- Seek help from someone if needed (for example to treat your back).
- Ideally, take your massage gun to the physio so they can show you how to apply it safely.
The massage gun cannot be used at all times. Take precautions in the following situations:
- Avoid pressing too deep and/or too long at all times. Your skin color or swelling should guide you on the intensity and duration of application.
- Avoid bony surfaces, nerves and blood vessels (for example, the appearance of numbness or tingling is a sign to discontinue application).
- Avoid the cranial and cervical region (except the trapezius).
- Discontinue use if dizziness occurs.
- For the following conditions, seek authorization from your doctor or treating professional: fibromyalgia, osteoporosis, osteopenia, near fresh scars (after surgery for example), deep vein thrombosis, neuropathic pain, pregnancy, pacemaker, allodynia, hyperalgesia.
- Avoid the gun during acute periods, or in the presence of inflammation (e.g. stress fracture, carpal tunnel syndrome, etc.)
- Remember that overstimulation of the muscle can cause damage, bruising and, in severe cases, a Rhabdomyolysis (acute breakdown of muscle tissue).
Which massage gun to choose?
Let's be honest, the price of massage guns is not cheap. As some high-end devices can cost several hundred dollars, it is crucial to carefully evaluate your purchase and make an informed decision.
Here are the elements that you must look for at all costs in case you want to get a massage gun:
- Comfortable handle
- Long handle to be able to reach the back
- Several accessories available
- Different levels of resistance (at least 2, aim for 3 ideally)
- Minimal noise
- Should be able to fit in your bag (if not, opt for a mini massage gun)
Here are the two best massage guns to choose from depending on your budget.
So much for the massage gun. I hope that my honest, complete and exhaustive presentation has allowed you to get a complete and representative idea about these very fashionable tools.
Although they are not perfect, they are an interesting complement to an active approach if you suffer from back pain, neck pain, muscle pain, etc. These instruments are also interesting for athletes who want to relax their muscles after a session, or on the contrary stimulate them before exercise.
If you want to know the opinion of health professionals on other products focused on back pain:
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