Massage guns have become widely popular and easy to obtain. Many swear by these small handheld devices, which operate differently than the old vibrating massage guns. The new wave of massage guns, such as the Theragun percussion gun, pulse in and out, percussing the tissue (and stimulating deeper). These recovery tools are used by physical therapists, athletes and individuals who work out to relieve pain and improve circulation.
What is the therapeutic mechanism with these guns? How do they help?
Benefits of percussion massage guns
Some of the physical benefits of massage and using a percussion massage gun include:
- Reduced muscle tension
- Improved circulation
- Stimulation of the lymphatic system
- Decreases soreness after workouts
- Improved sports performance and muscle mass
- Improved rehabilitation from injuries
- Provides pain relief
- Stimulates the nervous system
- Facilitates lactic acid release
- Increased mobility, flexibility, and pliability
- Injury prevention
- Breaks up scar tissue (potentially)
Let’s discuss these benefits, and provide insight into some of the science behind them:
Reduced Muscle Tension
Primarily, the nerve pathways travel from our brain into our spinal cords, exiting the spinal cord through nerve roots and ultimately reaching a “target organ.” A target organ can be muscles, blood vessels, digestive and hormone producing organs. This is called the efferent pathway with a primary function of directly facilitating or inhibiting skeletal muscles or smooth muscles in target organs. The sensory pathway travels from the target organs back through the nerve roots into the spinal cord and usually all the way up to the brain. This is called the afferent pathway.
Massage guns reduce muscle tension by bombarding the afferent or sensory pathway with a high intensity stimulus. The effect is similar to when one bumps one’s elbow and instinctively rubs it.
There are many forms of therapeutic high intensity afferent stimulus. Moist heat, Ice, tape, massage, jacuzzi, foam rollers, joint manipulation and percussion massagers essentially work the same way. They bombard the nervous system with high intensity afferent (sensory) stimulus thus causing a reflexive inhibition of the muscle tension.
An equally important advantage of massage gun therapy is the improvement of circulation. Better blood circulation means better nutrients and oxygen supply within the body. The nutrients and oxygen are needed for tissue repair and efficient body function.
Massage guns, when used correctly, have demonstrated the ability to improve the blood flow within a section of your body. A full body massage with these devices may lead to better circulation throughout the body.
One mechanism is a reflexive relation of the smooth muscles in the arterial blood system as well as a relaxation of the muscles allowing for decreased resistance to circulation. Poor blood circulation has adverse effects on your overall health.
Stimulation of the Lymphatic System
Lymphatic stimulation may also improve from using a massage gun. The lymphatics is the third leg of your circulatory system. Arteries bring oxygen rich blood to the tissue, veins bring deoxygenated blood back to the heart and lungs to pick up oxygen, and the lymphatics circulate interstitial fluid back to the heart to be reabsorbed into the blood.
Massage gun therapy has the potential to stimulate lymph nodes which in turn may help circulate the lymphatic fluids to areas of the body where they are needed.
Your lymphatic system includes several lymph nodes that are placed throughout various areas of the human body. Lymph nodes are tucked away deep within the body or sometimes underneath the skin. The primary weapons these lymph nodes carry is known as lymphocyte. These nodes act as collection areas to store white blood cells (Lymphocytes) to fight potential infections within the body.
Decreased Soreness After Workouts
Anyone who works out or lifts weights knows that if you want to increase muscle strength and mass you must focus on increasing the stress systematically over time. The most common way to achieve this is to lift heavier weights or add volume over time. As we get more advanced, pushing the envelope means increased recovery needs over time. This sometimes can mean painful aches within the muscles known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS. DOMS can last up to three days after a heavy workout.
Massage gun therapy can greatly reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This study from 2014 showed vibration therapy is an effective treatment for prevention and management of DOMS. Also, the evidence that vibration therapy improves muscular endurance and increases power may reduce DOMS overall by improving muscular adaptations over time.
Both compression and vibration therapies use the same mechanism for muscle recovery. However, percussive therapy works directly over muscle tissue and has the potential to provide much stronger, specific results. The current research on vibration therapy is a good indicator that percussive therapy may be a much more effective treatment option. If you are experiencing real-time muscle pain, percussive therapy can help by breaking up the pain signals sent by your brain to your body.
Improved Sports Performance and Muscle Mass
Many professional athletes (Tom Brady being a prime example) endorse and use percussion guns for the benefits we have discussed earlier.
Both whole body and localized massage gun therapy have been shown to improve muscle mass and strength in older adults. Massage guns can greatly improve muscle endurance, increase power, and improve kinesthetic awareness.
The effects include decreased pain, improved muscle tone, range of motion, and circulation. Because massage guns are so effective, it is easier to recover more quickly, train more consistently and consequently perform better on the field, court, and pitch.
Efficient blood circulation and soft tissue mobility enhancements offered by percussive therapy may help the body perform at a higher level. Any athlete who is a top performer will tell you just how important it is to have a relaxed body before a big competition.
Rehabilitation – Post Injury Care
Percussion massagers are recommended for rehabilitation treatment. As physical rehabilitation specialists, we’ve seen this firsthand over many years:
Massage gun therapy is highly recommended for rehabilitation treatment because it not only hastens recovery but can also prevent re-injury. Massage gun use during rehabilitation is supplementary to the standard methods of rehabilitation therapy. This is achieved via improved healing and recuperation of atrophied or damaged muscles caused by trauma or illness.
Because percussion therapy facilitates efficient circulation within those areas (fascial tissues and muscles), flexibility is enhanced and the healing process is hastened.
The following are examples of conditions which are being treated more commonly using massage gun therapy:
- Muscle soreness
- Muscle cramps and spasms
- TMJ syndrome
- Nonspecific low back pack
- Shin Splints
- Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
The percussion gun can also help in acute injuries where muscles are guarding an injured area as well as with chronic pain syndromes. This technique is a natural way to decrease use of pain medication, injections, and other more invasive treatments. Always see a health care professional if you have any questions or concerns about an injury and the use of a percussion massage gun on an injured area.
Nervous System Stimulation
Nerve function is crucial if you want to lead a long and healthy life. Massage gun therapy can stimulate the nervous system and potentially improve certain essential functions.
One potential effect of percussive therapy is simulating production or release of the feel-good hormones such as serotonin and dopamine. Optimal levels of these chemicals mean sharper focus and a generally elevated mood.
Facilitates Lactic Acid Release
Every athlete or gym enthusiast will tell you how frustrating it can be when you are working out and suddenly you feel tired, nauseated, and cramped. This intra- or post-workout unpleasantness occurs when there isn’t enough oxygen in the body’s muscles, which is essential to convert newly formed lactate into energy. As a result, lactic acid build-up happens faster than the body can burn it up.
A massage gun can help dispel the extra lactic acid into the circulatory system and get you going again. This also has the potential to reduce DOMS that may happen later.
Improved mobility of muscles / pliability of tissue
Deep tissue massage provided by massage guns can help push out waste, improve blood circulation and release tension. This in turn helps improve tissue metabolism. This healthy exchange aids in preventing injuries and hastens tissue repair.
Improved tissue health will support more regular exercise, which will typically leads to improved flexibility. Massage guns are also frequently used while stretching to help improve the depth of stretch, potentially leading to improved muscle and joint flexibility.
Massage guns can be used to prevent injury by increasing muscle temperature which increases pliability and flexibility. This accelerates warm-up and recovery, and contributes to reduced injury risk.
They can be used before a workout to wake up the muscles as a warm up. Massage gun therapy as a warm-up ensures that your muscles are supplied with enough oxygen and activation before starting exercise.
Potentially Breaks up Scar Tissue
There are accounts, though not backed up by scientific research, that massage gun therapy can be effective in reducing scar tissue. More importantly, percussive therapy has been reported to ease the pain around these tissues. Additionally, by improving the pliability of tissue around a scar, it can be made less painful.
As a result, massage gun therapy is not only recommended for sports injuries, but for post-surgery scar tissue treatment as well.
Practical Percussion Therapy Benefits
Apart from the health benefits of massage gun therapy, there are practical reasons why you may want to own one of these devices.
Some of them are:
- You can use a massage gun at home for self-care. Sometimes leaving home for a massage can be a hassle especially when you are not feeling like it or are simply tired. Just rev on your massage gun and get to work on your muscles.
- You can use them on your family or loved one.
- Have a massage on the go. You can carry a massage gun with you anywhere.
- You get direct feedback when massaging yourself. You get to learn about your body as your self-massage. This is highly recommended if you want to achieve a healthy life.
What are the potential cons of massage gun therapy?
OK, so we just discussed some key massage gun benefits, but what about the cons of massage gun therapy?
There are downsides to massage guns, including the risk of aggravating injuries or other chronic injuries. This risk is increased if the individual is using the massage gun incorrectly. These risks can be remedied through training on the proper use of massage guns.
Here are some cons of massage guns you should be aware of:
You’ll notice that we have insisted on knowing what you are doing with a massage gun. A massage gun is a tool, and that means it’s only as good as the user. You run the risk of injuring yourself or not getting the desired results. We will discuss proper usage later. Also, don’t forget to read the instructional manual on how to use the device. Always stay on areas of soft tissue. When the head of the gun start to bounce across the surface of your body, it is likely on a bony prominence.
The risk of aggravating injury or other chronic conditions
Apart from the injuries we have listed above, it’s not recommended to use a percussion massager on injuries like sprains, broken bones, or large areas of swelling or bruising. Chronic pain conditions like hypertension, varicose veins, rheumatoid arthritis, and others could become worse if you use a massage gun. Find out from a doctor or therapist about your condition before using a massage gun.
Massage guns can be heavy and bulky
Some massage guns can be rather bulky and make using them a tough task. However, there are some that are compact and light. You also have the option of mini guns should the full-sized ones prove too heavy for you.
High initial price point
This was a problem when these devices had just hit the market, and some of them are still quite expensive. However, we can confirm that with many devices now flooding the market, the prices have gone down quite significantly. We will discuss comparisons in a future article.
General Precautions / Things to Keep in Mind
- Massage guns can cause pain. New onset of pain usually means you are applying too much pressure, or the speed is too high. Check that you are applying just the right pressure based on what area of the body you are massaging.
- Avoid touching nerves. When you feel an electric shock-like pain, stop immediately.
- Do not use a massage gun directly on bony areas, the spine, neck, fractures or wounds.
- Only use them on muscles for complete assured safety. Otherwise consult an expert.
- Do not use a massage gun on an area that has impaired sensation. If you feel you’re not getting precise sensorial feedback, don’t continue massaging that area. Chances are you are doing more damage than repair.
- Do not use massage guns if you are on blood thinners (example: heparin and warfarin) prescription.
- Seek medical advice first before using a massage gun if you have:
- An inflammatory disorder
- Warfarin and heparin prescription
- Muscle strain, varicose veins, ligament sprain, high blood pressure, and conditions affecting blood vessels like thrombosis.
Why You Should Get the Right Massage Gun
Just like with any other home therapy equipment choice, it goes without saying that different people have different needs. That’s why getting the right gun makes a huge difference, not just in addressing your pain points, but also avoiding injury in the process.
There are a few things that you should know when you go out to buy a massage gun
Battery life: As with any electronic device, battery life is always a concern. This can be circumvented by getting a unit that plugs into a wall, but we’ve found that most home users prefer portable units
Stall force: This is the amount of pressure it takes to stall the motor of a particular gun. The higher the number, the deeper the massage gun can hit. This usually combines with the amplitude.
Amplitude: This is the distance that the massage gun head travels back and forth as it hits the skin in what we call percussions per minute.
The combination of the stall force and the amplitude will often clue you into what the gun can do.
If you have big muscles, then a gun with a higher stall force and longer amplitude will serve you well.
There are other things to look out for such as the percussion range, the number of speed levels, the number of attachments and others that we will discuss at length in future guides.
The Bottom Line
As you can see, the number of massage gun benefits vastly outnumber concerns or disadvantages. For us, however, one of the greatest benefits of percussion massagers is that you get to perform deep tissue therapy on yourself.
Sometimes you just don’t have the time to visit a physical therapist, but you need relief immediately. In that case, individualized therapy is your friend. You can combine passive and active recovery methods (the active recovery being you massaging yourself) to get efficient healing of your muscles and relief from pain.
We all get stressed from daily life activities. However, failure to manage this stress properly could hurt your health over time. A massage gun could be a hack to successfully managing stress within the shortest possible time and in the most convenient way while getting the many other benefits attached to it.