16 Apr Considering buying a massage gun? Read this first!
Intro to massage ‘guns’:
There has been no shortage of adverts and social media campaigns over the last few years spruiking “massage guns” or “hand-held massagers” touted as the latest and greatest at curing all aches and pains for everyone, from grandparents to athletes. So as they increase in popularity I thought I would write a blog covering: The science behind it, whether it is worth having one and what are some considerations when purchasing you own… And full disclosure, I regularly use such device during my practice over the last three years so I feel I’ve had enough anecdotal evidence to speak on the topic. Lastly, this blog post is not sponsored by any such company. Let’s begin!
What is a “massage gun” and how does it work? What is the science behind it?
These are defined as a hand-held percussive device that sends repeated pulses and pressure on to the applied tissue area (such as back, shoulder and legs). As an osteopath, I use the Hypervolt by Hyperice during my consults and I can cover most of the areas I’m treating within 5-10minutes before performing other techniques.
While research in the efficacy of hand-held percussive device are still limited, some studies have shown such devices have a similar benefits to convention hands-on massage, vibration therapy and foam rolling1.
An Austrian studied published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine in 2020 examined the acute effects of using the Hypervolt on the calf’s range of motion (ROM) and performance (Maximum Voluntary Contraction (MVC)) of 16 healthy male recreational athletes around 27years of age.
The study showed an increase in ROM by 5.4°, however no significant change in the MVC were demonstrated. It suggested the possible mechanism behind the increase in ROM similar to conventional hands-on massage relates to:
- Biomechanical changes: Reduction in muscle compliance
- Physiological changes: increase blood flow
- Psychological changes: increase relaxation
Citation within this study also suggested the mechanism for the benefits are similar to foam rolling, ie: the pressure and friction applied on muscle, skin and fascia can impact fluid viscosity leading to less resistance to movement.
Furthermore, the increase in ROM could be attributed to a decrease in the perception of pain akin to other studies using local vibration (LV) intervention. (It should be noted that the mechanism of therapy of a whole body vibration (WBV) (such as standing on a vibrating plate) is different to that of a LV (such as directed at a specific muscle group)).
What are the things I should consider before buying a massage gun?
With the science out of the way, here are some thing for you to consider before purchase. Since I’ve only used the Hypervolt over the last three years, I will mainly focus on my experience with this brand of device specifically.
The Hypervolt retails for A$600 (https://hyperice.com.au/). At that price point it is on the higher end of what’s available on the market. The Theragun Pro and Theragun Elite are both north of $600, while there are percussive massagers as low as $85 on Amazon some of which looks like blatant knock off of the more reputable brands.
With such a varying price point, it is worth comparing the quality and function of each device before purchase. Ideally, if you can get a hands-on try that would be best, barring that, perhaps look at some VIDEO review on YouTube.
I specifically say video reviews because it demonstrates one of the main reasons why I went with the Hypervolt. and that is the quietness of the device. The Hypervolt has 3 speed (Repetition Per minute (RPM)) options. At the low and middle speeds it is akin to a low hum and I can very much have a speaking-voice conversation with someone while I’m treating. Similarly, it would not affect TV watching during home use. I’ve yet to come across a device less sonically invasive as the Hypervolt.
Secondly, most reviews will often mention the “stall point” of a device, that is, the amount of pressure it takes to stop the motor from oscillating/pumping. Clinically, I have yet to apply so much pressure that would reach the stall point. If anything, I believe the stall point mechanism is there to protect the longevity of the device. Percussive devices are designed to be use effortlessly on application; it is not designed to be jammed into someone as hard as possible.
On the note of application, brands love to promote the device’s high RPM and Amplitude. Once again, clinically, that has never been something I worry about. If the device is percussive, it is doing the job.
Last consideration in choosing your device would be, the battery life. The battery life of the Hypervolt is good, more then enough to work on multiple body parts in a single session easily. And even though Hypervolt is only part of my treatment (5-10min), often I would not need to charge until after several clients. I have seen that some of the Theragun models come with a spare, easily interchangeable battery, should you not be able to charge via electrical outlet. I thought this was a good option.
With the tech considerations covered above and the science that percussive massagers are at least as good as conventional hands-on massage, here are some Pros and Cons in purchasing our own percussive device:
Portability – the device is easily portable and battery life should easily cover a pre and post sport/match use – especially given the acute improvements in ROM previously discussed. I think this makes an ideal tool as part of the pre-game warm up routine.
Convenience – device can be used almost anywhere, anytime by yourself with no assistance required. No need to check availability from conventional hands-on massage clinic.
Be mindful some areas of the body will be difficult to work on, no matter the make or model of the device. The percussive device is great for lower limbs and chest but self care on low back and even shoulders can be somewhat tricky.
Overall, I would say if you if participate in any sports/activity for 1-2 seasons and/or have a household to share, a percussive device would be a good investment.
Conclusion on massage guns:
Further research still needs to be conducted in the efficacy of percussive devices. There are no negative correlations to performance or rehabilitation and all current literature suggests it shows similar benefits as other forms of treatment such as conventional hands-on massage, foam rolling and vibration therapy. Current studies do show an increase in ROM however it does not demonstrate an increase in strength and endurance. Health and well being aside, convenience and financial considerations should be taken before purchase.
- Konrad A., Glashüttner C., Reiner M. M., Bernsteiner D., Tilp M. (2020). The Acute Effects of a Percussive Massage Treatment with a Hypervolt Device on Plantar Flexor Muscles’ Range of Motion and Performance. J. Sports Sci. Med. 19 690–694.