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A massage gun sounds like a contradiction in terms and tbh looks like a threat. To me, at least. The soothing possibilities and relaxation promised by a massage can hardly apply to something which is literally called a 'gun' and sounds like an out-of-control washing machine, right?
Massage guns look like power tools but, crucially, they do not have a drill bit at their head – in its place is a rounded dampener which beats and vibrates against a target area. Depending on what model you get into, you can control how fast and how deep the massaging motion goes; some models come with various attachments promising better targeting or relief. There are now several massage guns on the market from brands like Therabody, TimTam, Addsfit and Recovapro, to name a few.
At first glance, a massage gun seemed like a piece of equipment whose promises of pain relief and faster recovery were too good to be true, and far too intimidating for a wuss like me. To my mind, it fell into the same category as Huel and biohacking: Silicon Valley inventions trying to hack the body through aggressive and rigorous machinery and manipulation instead of flowing with the body's ups and downs. It felt like a product for people far more dedicated than me to fitness, athleticism and #gains.
Despite never feeling buff enough to consider myself part of the massage gun's target market, I understand the appeal, especially after a particularly intense workout. I exercise regularly enough to feel the need for sore muscle relief – I’ve gone through phases of doing HIIT five times a week or (for the full middle-class white woman experience) mixed barre and spinning three to four times a week. Currently, I’m working through Yoga Camp by Yoga with Adriene and going for long runs when I can. Both of these are exhausting my legs in a way I love but which often leaves me too stiff to move.
The resulting aches, plus the inevitable pain induced by working from home at a makeshift desk (or in twisted postures on my sofa), have made me think of the massage gun a little differently. I’m not alone here. Massage guns became increasingly popular in the year we spent inside (as shown by this wild Google Trends chart) and I’ve found the question coming up more and more frequently: do these things really work? Given the pervasive marketing and often high price point you’d certainly hope so, but this is a thing you can only judge when you try it. And so try it I did.
What is a massage gun?
Originally massage guns were pitched as pieces of fitness equipment which can alleviate tight, sore and aching muscles after a hard workout. They do this by jackhammering your target areas with vibration therapy or, increasingly, percussive therapy (both of which will be explained below). In essence, a massage gun is a handheld and sometimes deeper reaching version of a foam roller or a sports massage therapist and aims to relieve stiffness and soreness brought on by athletes' and fitness fanatics' training. The Theragun by the recently rebranded Therabody is one of the most popular on the market and has developed a celebrity following. According to a recent press release, Rihanna, Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake, Marcus Rashford, Kevin Hart and Shawn Mendes have recently invested in the company, and everyone from Kate Hudson to Shakira to Dwayne Johnson is a confirmed fan.
More recently, the massage gun has been targeted at a wider market as a 'wellness tool', a message which has taken hold in the last year. The combination of many people working from home, moving less and not having access to the gym or massage therapy has led to an increase in daily aches and pains just as traditional sources of alleviating that pain have been limited. Deep tissue massages cannot be given at the safe distance of two metres so up stepped the handheld massage gun – and people are flocking to it.
How is it meant to work?
The science behind massage guns like the one I trialled, the Theragun Prime, is a combination of vibration therapy and percussive therapy. Vibration therapy, unsurprisingly, is the application of vibration to the whole or part of the body. "Vibration therapy stimulates the muscles causing them to contract and relax involuntarily," explains the Therabody website. "Vibration therapy can soothe the body from some pain and be a generally pleasant experience while providing some massage-like benefits to the user."
Percussive therapy is similar but goes deeper (literally). Instead of stimulating the skin’s surface through vibrations, it rapidly presses deeper into the tissue you are focusing on. "Percussive therapy reaches 60% deeper into the muscle than consumer-grade vibration massagers, which produces deeper massage-like benefits," says the Therabody website.
This deeper penetration results in more or less the same thing as massage or self-myofascial release (foam rolling): it increases blood flow to the treated areas, raises skin temperature, reduces muscle inflammation, releases muscle tension and breaks up muscle knots. It’s important to note that the aim is not to get rid of pain entirely, which is sadly impossible. A few studies suggest vibration therapy may reduce or even prevent muscle soreness; others suggest regular massage and stretching yield the same results. But by reaching deeper into the skin, Therabody claims to be able to better release tension in the muscles, while the speed of the device (40 percussion per second) overrides the pain signals to your brain, allegedly making the experience "more comfortable than manual muscle therapy".
How does it actually work?
There is currently limited evidence that vibration or percussive therapy delivered through the medium of a massage gun works in the same way it does in clinical studies to deliver improved recovery. Speaking to Mic, Michael Fredericson, a sports medicine physician at Stanford Health Care, highlighted this lack of research: "Many brands advertise their massage guns as tools that accelerate recovery, but as far as Fredericson knows, there haven’t been any controlled scientific studies that look specifically at these devices that can back up these claims. While he thinks they offer benefits, whether they help recovery remains unclear." However, Theragun have recently run a pilot study that found that "five minutes post a standard two minute treatment, blood flow was increased by in excess of 500% as compared to baseline, and an increase in excess of 10% was also observed relative to muscle oxygen saturation". They rightfully point to the links being found between increased blood flow and improved recovery in studies.
While research is still ongoing, the benefit of soft tissue work as done with a massage gun is that it focuses your attention on the area where you are experiencing tightness. Performance coach and physical therapist Dr John Rusin told Muscle and Fitness that this makes it a neural mechanism: "Mostly you’re affecting your brain’s ability to sense tightness or laxity in soft tissue, whether it’s a muscle, tendon, or fascia." The massage gun (or the therapist’s hands, or the roller) focuses your attention on the tight muscle, allowing your brain to zero in on the tension and let it go.
Another way of putting it is that the experience of using a massage gun distracts from one form of muscle pain by producing another, more alien sensation in the same spot, allowing that muscle tension to release. This makes the experience of using a massage gun hard to describe.
On the one hand it feels bizarre and quite novel. Every Theragun model (with the exception of the latest release, the 'Mini') comes with bluetooth connectivity and an app to download alongside it. On the app there is a series of guided courses for using the Theragun for everything from warming up for a run to yoga cool-downs to aiding sleep or alleviating 'tech neck'. After a day of sitting curled in on myself like an uncooked prawn, I work through a standard working from home course which targets the forearms, trapezius along your upper back and shoulders, your lower back and calves. The four-minute course feels strange and invigorating at first; the sensation of my arms and upper back being tenderised literally takes my breath away and in some ways feels very enjoyable.
On the other hand, the relief is far from pain-free. I began doing yoga pretty much daily in the new year with a view to improving my posture and flexibility as well as feeling a bit smug. It has helped with these things but it has also brought out aches and pains in certain muscles I had never really felt – muscles across my lower back in particular. When I reached the exercise targeting my lower back muscles, the pain was surreal. I felt like I could feel the full outline of the muscles as they vibrated in shock against the massaging power drill. After I stopped I felt drunk but not in the fun, tipsy, beginning-of-the-night way. It was more like the one-too-many, lost-your-friends-in-the-club way. The feeling lingered long after I stopped the course.
I tried the gun on other parts of my body and in other scenarios – on painful quad muscles the day after a relatively long run, when the tissue felt like it was made of sparks, and under my shoulder blades where I hold a lot of tension. That one felt good at first but quickly became too much and afterwards I felt like one of those inflatable balloon men outside car washes. After every experiment I felt a kind of relief; I honestly couldn’t tell you whether it was because the massage gun had worked its magic or because I was glad it was over.
Is it worth it?
If you are someone who works out or trains in such a way that your muscles are frequently tight and sore and you would seek a sports massage under non-pandemic circumstances, I wouldn’t argue against using a massage gun. There is evidence that percussive therapy can have benefits and, if nothing else, it distracts from the pain and can help alleviate it in that way.
If you are not that kind of person, I would suggest really weighing up the pros and cons. For the price – the Theragun Prime costs $479 – and the fact that a foam roller or stretching can achieve similar results, there are far more accessible (and less jaw-juddering) ways to alleviate certain forms of tension. You could argue that you get a lot for your money (the Prime comes with four attachments for different kinds of targeting, plus the app guides you through several types of relief) but there is no guarantee that you’ll actually enjoy the sensation. Some people do, some people don’t: my colleague ended up with a bruised back when her over-enthusiastic boyfriend tried to get her to use it. Some people, like me, change their mind each time they use it. When it felt good I totally got the hype. But when the pain in my quads felt the same during use and no better later in the day, it didn’t feel worth it at all. The rest of the time, it felt like riding a bike down cobbled streets – an endurance test before you reach the smooth tarmac of the other side.