Massage Chair Versus Human Massage: The Ultimate Comparison
I was recently speaking to a lady at the store and she asked me what I do for work. When I told her I was a massage therapist, she told me this story.
She went to schedule her weekly massage and her therapist told her he was booked for the next 3 weeks. Her husband suggested they invest in a massage chair to alleviate this inconvenience in the future.
As a therapist who believes there is no substitute for human touch and is not well versed in the pros/cons of using an electronic massage chair, I decided to do some research and see how they stack up to the real deal. This is what I found. Warning: these results may contain traces of bias. J
Which is better, massage chair or human massage?
If your primary concerns are consistency, convenience, control, and long-term cost, the massage chair wins, hands down. If you are more interested in a personally customized plan based on scientific and medical knowledge, coupled with a social touch, no doubt human massage is the winner.
Not very definitive, I know. This is a question that is wholly dependent on what is most important to the individual. We each have our preferences and opinions, so I’ll just lay out the data and let you decide which you are… chair or human?
Massage Chair Benefits
The new era massage chairs are masterpieces of engineering. Able to perform “full-body” massage, with multiple strengths, heat, vibration, and customizable programming, they are even recognized by the American Chiropractic Association as being useful as a supplement to chiropractic therapy and/or regular massage therapy. In fact, many have FDA approval as a medical device.
Each chair is different, with different perks, strengths, weaknesses, and options. As you would expect, the more bells and whistles, the higher the cost. However, all massage chairs have certain things in common that they do well, or in some cases . . . not so well.
Just like massage chairs, not all massage therapists are created equal. Some are better than others. Some go deep, while others are more superficial in their touch. There are other factors to be considered. level of training, experience – is the massage therapist engage, disinterested, tired, or bored? A massage chair will always be dependable in its execution. When reviving human touch, many additional factors come into play.
We aren’t going to compare specific pieces of equipment or individuals, but the overall concept of a chair vs human touch.
Unlike a massage provided by a therapist, there is a convenience factor involved with having a massage chair right in your home, whenever you want it. It’s never booked, on vacation, or in a less than satisfactory mood. If you’re a night owl, that chair will give you a nice imitation shiatsu at 3 am, while you enjoy an evening beverage of choice.
Also, maybe you prefer to not drive, or you live in a rural area, where massage providers are not readily available, or perhaps you’re homebound for a completely unrelated reason. A massage chair at home eliminates those issues, making it more convenient.
One of the benefits of this level of convenience is your increased ability to obtain a massage. Rather than going weekly or monthly, it is not unreasonable to get a 20-minute massage daily, for example. This makes for a more regular part of your daily regimen and allows for a fuller impact of the benefits of massage on your body and mind.
A chair is a machine, not a human. It never gets tired or changes its routine. You program the depth, type of massage wanted, areas, heat and what have you and that machine gives you exactly what you told it to . . . with steadfast consistency. The chair offers you the ultimate control over your massage experience.
This is an extremely important consideration if you know what you want or need. You can experiment with the settings, trying to find the best fit for you and your body.
The newer chairs offer massage points, rollers, spot and area heat, vibration, and, in some cases, even zero gravity options. Each option has levels of pressure that you choose, as well as duration choices.
People other than you can use your chair (assuming you share nicely), with no additional cost involved. Your human massage provider probably doesn’t offer that as an option.
This is a benefit that shouldn’t be overlooked. If you have a family of 4, even if only 2 of you use the chair regularly, your massage expenses are cut in half or the chair pays for itself in half the time, however, you prefer to look at it.
If your chair is to be shared, be sure it is cleaned in between users or use a towel to reduce the risk of sharing any unwanted germs or pathogens.
If you’re self-conscious about disrobing and having a relative stranger touching your exposed body, well the chair massage is a great way to avoid that discomfort. You can either (a) remain clothed or (b) be undressed in the privacy of your own home.
The privacy afforded also offers you the option of what type of music, if any, you want to listen to. You can choose your own lighting or aromatherapy, as well. Since you’re at home, you can have whatever ambiance you choose. Want to jam to some Led Zeppelin? No one is going to stop you.
Massage Chair Drawbacks
As wonderful as the massage chair sounds so far, you know there must be some drawbacks, right? Otherwise, everyone would have one and the massage therapists would be out of work. Here are a few I’ve identified.
Just as the chair offers you consistency, it also lacks the ability to adapt to your body with specificity. If there is a “spot” that needs additional attention, your pre-identified programming will not be able to immediately address it. You’ll need to modify your program and hope you can find that spot again.
Equally, if that “spot” happens to be in an inconvenient location that the chair can’t reach, it doesn’t matter how you program it. There are simply some areas a chair is incapable of managing.
Because a human therapist is more familiar with the muscle groups and overall anatomy and physiology of the body, they have a better knowledge of “where” to look to find that hidden spot, as well as techniques to effectively address them. The chair just runs rollers up and down the area assigned.
Some people find the chair to be uncomfortably rigid or not quite right for their body type. Though some adjustable features are provided, it is still a chair and subject to areas of discomfort.
Most chairs are covered with some form of water-resistant material. This material may cause you to sweat or become itchy. A massage therapist will come with appropriate materials to drape the table, ensuring optimum comfort.
Chairs state they are “full-body”, but that isn’t completely accurate. I defy you to find a good foot, hand, or scalp massage by one of these “technological miracles.” Additionally, due to the structure of the chair, any part of the front of your body that needs attention is out of luck. The chair is really good for back or neck issues, but not much else.
As a massage therapist, one of my favorite places to get a focused massage is my forearms and hands. There is no way a chair can perform any effective massage in these areas, it is simply not built for it.
It’s just you and the chair. For some people, this is a positive statement. Others like the interaction provided between two living, breathing individuals. And while my dog sitting in my lap while on the massage chair, he doesn’t communicate as effectively as my massage therapist.
Sometimes you might want a couple’s massage or enjoy the camaraderie of receiving massage with a friend,, where you are together in the same area while the massages are ongoing. Unless you have space (and finances ) for 2 chairs, that isn’t going to happen. However, couples massage with two massage therapists is quite common.
Additionally, when you see a therapist regularly, you tend to develop rapport, which can become a valued part of your inner circle.
Size and weight
Massage chairs tend to be large and bulky, weighing between 200-400 pounds. And frankly, they don’t always fit very well with most home décor.
While we’re talking size and weight, most chairs are rated for a person not exceeding 285 lbs. Height recommendations are 155-195 cm (about 5’ to 6’4” for those metrically challenged friends of mine).
Though the chair might accommodate larger individuals, the massage mechanisms may not hit the desired areas with precision. Also, exceeding the weight limitation could void the warranty.
Human Massage Benefits
Just like the chair, a human massage has its advantages and drawbacks. Some are obvious and some, not so much. Again, this is a general focus, not specific to any individual.
One of the biggest benefits of a human massage is the provider’s ability to adapt their technique on the fly to match your unique situation. Have a sore spot? The human provider can pinpoint that area, making certain to address the underlying problem.
A massage therapist is trained to know exactly how much pressure to apply to each area to maximize the massage results without damage to the underlying tissues or pain/discomfort to the client. No chair can match this level of knowledge or experience.
Your human massage provider is trained in Anatomy, Physiology, Neurology, Kinesiology, in addition to other techniques such as Reflexology, Myofascial Release, and Lymphatic Drainage.
The application of this knowledge allows the therapist to address the underlying factors behind a multitude of musculoskeletal conditions. They know exactly where the muscle attaches and can trace back, through the fascia, tendons, and ligaments, to identify the root cause of the issue, address it and refer you to an appropriate professional when necessary.
Furthermore, they can access areas that the chair simply cannot access. Under the scapula, in between the calves, under the feet, arms and hands, and even the face and scalp. These areas have been proven very beneficial when treating a multitude of conditions.
You may not even know what kind of massage is best for your situation. Swedish, Shiatsu, Thai, deep tissue, or hot stone? This is where the human leaves the chair in the dust.
That human has years of training and experience and specializes in different massage methods, each of which focuses on techniques that address different problems within the body. A good therapist will incorporate a variety of techniques when conducting a comprehensive treatment.
Your massage therapist probably offers an entire office of ambiance! Soft lights, unobtrusive music, aromatherapy support, all of these lend to a reduction in overall stress and an openness to the massage experience.
You may be able to simulate something comparable at home with the use of scented oils or candles, but that is an additional expense to consider, and can require effort to set up . . . not so relaxing, right?
This is the biggie. Human to human touch, skin to skin, actually releases endorphins in the brain, causing a feeling of “enhanced attentiveness, alleviation of depression symptoms, pain reduction, stress hormone reduction, and increased immune function”, according to the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine.
It also increases levels of dopamine and serotonin. These are neurotransmitters that help reduce stress and anxiety. Dopamine also helps regulate the pleasure center of the brain.
Human touch, by itself, has been shown to reduce blood pressure, reduce stress, calm anxiety, reduce fear, improve immune response, soothe the mind, and relax the soul.
Now you know scientifically why you feel so good leaving the massage therapists’ office!
For some people, a large part of the massage experience is the social aspect. The ability to share your stressors and talk with an adult that you don’t ordinarily speak with. Perhaps you have a friendly acquaintance type of relationship with your massage therapist, where you casually update one another on your family or friends. Do not undervalue this. In a world of technology and algorithms, this unforced organic style of old-school communication can often be just as stress-reducing as the massage you came in for.
An intangible part of the massage is what I like to call the “pamper” effect. You know what I mean. You are taking an hour (or whatever) to focus solely on you and your needs. Having human hands spoiling you, rubbing your aching muscles with scented lotion or oil, while the music plays is not a feeling you can easily replace by mechanical rollers in your living room.
Your therapist can provide very targeted, soft tissue massage to needed areas of the body. The benefit of this specific type of massage include:
● Muscle repair, such as shoulder muscles after exercise or injury
● Reduction in scar tissue
● Improvement in scar appearance
● Reduced pain and improved strength in people with carpal tunnel syndrome
● When focused on the stomach/abdomen, it can reduce or eliminate chronic constipation
● In some studies, it can increase hair growth, by stimulating hair follicles
● Improve hand and shoulder use in stroke patients
Human Massage Drawbacks
As previously noted, sometimes your massage therapist is busy or on vacation. You can reduce this issue by pre-scheduling your appointments. Of course, if your therapist is sick, there is nothing you can do except reschedule or consider seeing a different provider, if available.
Regardless of how good your therapist is, there is no way every massage will be the same every time you visit.
Your therapist may be suffering from momentary physical fatigue, have sore muscles themselves, or may temporarily be distracted by another situation that can affect the quality of treatment in the short-term. No matter how hard a person tries, at the end of the day they are not a machine.
.Moreover, their treatment style may not necessarily be a match for your needs or expectations. Unlike chairs, massage therapists are human, with differing levels of skill and quality.
Even with a first-rate therapist, one massage to another will inevitably vary in technique, depth and overall level of relaxation. This may be just fine with you, but it can be a drawback if you expect unwavering consistency.
There is no doubt that having to get in your car, drive to your appointment, wait until it’s your turn, then drive back home afterward is much less convenient than having a massage chair right there in your home. That said, if you’re also going to the market, picking up the dry cleaning or getting your massage while you wait for your husband to finish his doctor’s appointment, maybe the convenience is irrelevant
Most therapists prefer you to disrobe to your comfort level before your massage. It makes accessing the muscles so much easier. However, some people feel uncomfortable being undressed during a massage and would prefer a chair massage, fully dressed.
Most therapists will tell you to disrobe as far as you are comfortable. Then, they leave you alone while you do so and knock before returning to the room. They will also cover you with a sheet, pulling back the sheet only as far as necessary to access the muscle group they are working on and then recovering the area.
They are professionals, so therapeutic treatment of exposed parts of the body is commonplace. However, if it is an issue for you, this could be the deal-breaker.
A good massage chair will run $3,000 to $5,000 or more. For easy math, let’s use the higher end of $5,000.
Human massage also varies greatly in cost. Let’s take an easy number of $100 for a massage, including tip. Further, let’s assume you get a massage monthly.
For your monthly massage with a live therapist, you are spending $1,200 per year. You would break even on the chair purchase in 4 years, 2 months.
If your massage is weekly, the break-even point is less than a year. That is a fairly short amount of time to offset the vastly increased convenience the chair offers.
If you’re more of a visual person, the following table lists the benefits and drawbacks of each mode of massage.
Whether you choose a chair or human massage, there are benefits and drawbacks, as well as times when massage is simply not recommended. You should be aware of these before even considering getting a massage, much less which form works best for you.
Benefits of Massage
A quality Google search will show there is a lot of information about the overall benefit of massage. We’re going to discuss just a few.
Improved venous & lymphatic flow
Just a fancy way of saying it improves your blood flow and circulation, which can help reduce swelling in the body. This improved circulation helps with the absorption of nutrients and improved lymphatic flow helps eliminate toxins from the body.
Massage has been shown to improve circulation and lymphatic drainage in individuals with diabetes, congestive heart failure, and other chronic health issues. If this is your goal, please be certain to speak with your massage therapist regarding the goal. They have specialized techniques to address health concerns.
The kneading motion involved in human or chair massage helps tight and/or strained muscles, thereby decreasing the tension. This is the primary reason most of us get a massage in the first place.
The kneading and stretching of the muscle tissue and associated ligaments and tendons also improve blood circulation to the area, which goes back to improved venous and lymphatic flow already discussed.
Looser muscles have more flexibility. Additionally, many human massage therapists can also address the attached tendons and ligaments, which increases flexibility and can help reduce the risk of injury in the future.
One of the most common headaches we suffer from is called a tension headache. As you can probably guess, it is caused by tension in the muscles. Most of us carry our tension or stress in our neck or upper shoulder muscles. These muscles can become tenser and tenser as we navigate the stressors surrounding our daily lives.
Massage applied to these areas can help reduce the stiffness and tension in these areas, which can directly result in a reduction in the recurrence of tension headaches.
In fact, a study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience found that migraine patients receiving two (2) 30-minute massages per week for 5 weeks had fewer distress symptoms, less pain, fewer sleep disturbances, and higher serotonin levels and individuals not receiving the therapy.
Improved immune system
Though research is ongoing, there are indications that regular massage may boost the immune system by increasing activity of the white blood cells, which are the cells primarily responsible to the immune system response. Additionally, there is some evidence to suggest that massage reduces excess cortisol levels in the body, which has been linked to decreased immune function.
Contraindications to massage
Some people may be surprised to learn there are times when a massage should be avoided.
Infectious Skin Disease or rash
Seriously, if you have some form of infectious skin disease or rash, don’t go get a massage. No one wants to share it with you. Even if you have a massage chair, you probably don’t want to use it right now. Wait until you clear up. If you insist on using your chair, be sure to clean it thoroughly between uses with a bleach-containing cleaner.
Also, the massage could potentially spread the disease or rash to uninfected portions of your skin. You don’t want that.
Aside from the obvious yuck factor, if the wound involves broken skin,, there is a decent chance the wound could be reopened during the massage. Even if it’s covered, you’re still better off waiting for the healing to finish before indulging in your massage session.
Use of blood thinners
If you are on blood thinners like warfarin or if you have a tendency to form clots, massage is not your friend. The potential risk of massage causing a clot to break loose and spread through the blood system is simply too high. A loose clot could ultimately result in a heart attack or stroke, neither of which is worth it.
Chemotherapy or radiation
Due to the damage chemotherapy and/or radiation can cause to the body overall, you want to avoid having massage therapy immediately afterward. This is an area to discuss with your doctor as different medications have different recommended wait times. I know this is a time the pampering is really appropriate, but buy a nice pair of shoes until the doc says it’s safe for massage treatment. And make sure to find a massage therapist who specializes in oncology massage.
This is one where a doctor’s recommendation is strongly encouraged. There is some concern that improved circulation and returning blood flow could put additional strain on the heart.
This is primarily a limitation specific to the area, not an overall limitation. Varicose veins are very fragile. Massage to this area could cause pieces of the vein itself to break loose and move through the body like a clot. It could also cause already present clots to break loose.
Massage rocks, right?. For me, that is the ultimate bottom line. Why do you think I went into this line of work?
A weekly massage will have your body and mind humming together in harmony. Your outlook on life will improve and some studies show it can also enhance your relationships with others. You’ll be more flexible, relaxed and productive in your work and personal life.
Strictly by looking at the numbers, the massage chair may be the best choice in the long term. Its convenience and consistency are unmatched by the human. It is also a clear winner in the cost comparison analysis. It is available 24/7/365 for you, whenever you might need it. Completely private and 100% under your control.
However, massage is so much more than just pressing and rolling over the muscles.. It is an overall experience. It is taking time out of your schedule to focus solely on you and your needs. It is aromatherapy and hot towels, it is soft lighting and eye pillows. It is total care tailored specifically for you.
I don’t care how good a chair is….it can’t give you the same pampering feeling associated with a human massage.
For me, it’s human massage all the way.
Richard A. Lehman, LMT, CSCS
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