Are Percussion Massagers Safe and Effective?
Are you a weekend warrior, someone who gets exceptionally stiff and sore muscles frequently? Maybe your friends have told you about percussive massage therapy to help manage your sore muscles, to reduce the time spent seeing a regular therapist, or to help reduce the cost associated with buying your own massage chair. Sounds good so far, right! Let’s take some time and explore some more.
Are Percussion massagers safe and effective? Yes, percussion massagers are safe and effective, if used as recommended. Research shows that percussive massagers or “guns,” particularly in the hands of a trained individual, are a safe and effective method for obtaining relief for sore or stiff muscles.
That’s a pretty good start. However, there is a lot more to the answer than just “yes.” How safe is it? Are there any limitations or contraindications? How are they best utilized? Do scientific studies support their claims? How effective are they? How much do they cost? Time to delve deeper into the mystery that is the percussive massage.
What is Percussive Massage?
Percussive massage is a technique that applies rapid, continuous, soft compressions or vibrations to the muscle or muscle group. This technique penetrates deep into the soft tissues to help promote relaxation, reduce pain relief, and enhance tissue repair. The focus is to increase blood circulation to the area, reduce muscle tightness, and elongate muscle fibers.
The history of using vibration as a part of a massage to help to improve muscular performance goes back to the ancient Egyptian civilization.
Modern percussive therapy is thought to have been derived from five different Swedish massage strokes, which involve Effleurage (long, gliding strokes), Petrissage (kneading of the muscles), Friction (firm, circular rubbing motions), Tapotement (tapping or percussive movements), and Vibration (S=shaking particular muscles).
Some studies have shown that percussive massage therapy repairs muscle fibers 30 times more effectively than other massage techniques.
There are different methods to obtain a percussive massage; here are the most common.
Percussive Massage by Hand
Yes, percussive massage can be delivered by hand, it is a technique called tapotement. Comedy films and TV shows love to show this technique, the massage therapist does karate-chops on a person’s back. Let’s just say a real licensed massage therapist does it with much more finesse and artistry.
Tapotement refers to an entire category of massage, which includes cupping, tapping, hacking, beating, and slapping. These types of movements differ in depth, frequency, and the portion of the hand utilized by the practitioner.
Utilizing the fingers, knuckles, cupped hand, or side of a fisted or open hand, a series of quick, relatively soft blows are continually applied to the desired muscle or muscle groups. You should start soft and increase intensity as the muscle or muscle group begin to loosen. It should not be painful.
If you are interested in obtaining more detailed information on hand massage techniques, or the tapotement or percussion massage specifically, there is great information online.
Percussive Massage Gun
Fairly new to the market, percussive massage guns or percussive massagers are all the rage in hand-held massage units.
The massage guns look something like a jigsaw, with a rapid-fire reciprocating shaft and interchangeable head to address the various muscles or muscle groups.
One of the most popular models on the market currently is the TheraGun. It has a 2,000hp motor and the reciprocating shaft moves at 30-40 times per second.
The head strikes the muscles in a regular and repeated fashion, with various strengths or amplitudes that may be adjusted for comfort. This repeated striking allows for deeper tissue penetration that is merely utilizing the hands of the untrained practitioner.
It is important to note that you do not “push” the gun into the skin. You simply “float” it along the area to the treated and allow the reciprocating head and the programmed speed and strength to do the actual work.
You want to work alongside, above, and below the target area to maximize the effect of the percussive massage on the target areas.
Due to its availability, convenience, adaptability and consistency, percussive massagers or “guns” are the medium of choice for most proponents of the percussive massage.
Another form of the percussive massager is a vibrational type of unit. This type sends deep waves of vibration into the muscle or muscle group, rather than the direct pulsating effect. Though it does not penetrate deeply, it can hit wider areas at a time.
There are also hybrid or combination guns that offer both directly percussive as well as more broadly vibrational therapies.
How do I use a Percussive Massager?
You will get the best results from your percussive massage gun if you use it correctly. First, let’s get basic.
Step 1. Turn on the massager without it touching your body. The initial contact could be jarring if you don’t realize how much pressure you’re applying.
Step 2. Rest the massager on your body. You don’t need to push or apply pressure, that’s the massager’s job.
Step 3. Glide the massager along the muscle, moving slowly. Your goal is about an inch per second or less.
Step 4. If you hit a knot or a “spot” that feels like it needs extra attention, go ahead. Let the massager rest there for a little longer. Be sure to work the area around that spot as well, to make sure you’re getting the whole problem.
Ok. It couldn’t be much easier. So, when should you use this marvel of technology?
Before workouts. It is suggested that utilizing your percussive massager prior to your workout can help loosen the muscle and elongate the fibers. This may help reduce the risk of strain or sprain and injury.
Target the muscle groups your workout will be focusing on. For example, if you are bench pressing that day, use your massager on your pecs. If pulldowns and rows are on your agenda, give your lats some TLC.
Spend about 30 seconds on the “meatiest” portion of the muscle. This is a warm-up only, not a full-on massage session. Keep it light and easy.
During your workout. Between sets, hit those muscles that feel a bit tight or stretched for about 15 seconds, just enough to keep them loose and relaxed. This may improve your overall results.
After your workout. This is the best! Hit those muscles again with your massager. You’ll want to spend a minute or two on each muscle group. If you are new to using a percussive massager, start easy, as you may be sore the next day if you are too aggressive. If you are a percussive pro – let that pounding really dig in, but not so much that it hurts.
This will allow for increased blood flow, which will stimulate the muscle to repair and reduce the aches and pains. It will feel GREAT!
Are you not using the massager as part of your workout regimen? That’s fine. You can use this bad boy any time you want. There are other recommended uses.
Tech Neck. Do you sit at a computer or desk all day? You likely know that tension that runs through your shoulder and up the sides of your neck. It actually has a name, and folks call it “tech neck.” Catchy, isn’t it?
Your percussive massager can work on that, as well. Be sure you stay ONLY on the back area of the neck. Do not use the massager near your carotid arteries, which are located either side of your windpipe. You also need to avoid the bones in the back of the neck and upper spine.
Finally, for this situation, it is best to keep the stroke depth or strength very light. This is not a good area to pummel into submission.
Scar tissue reduction. Under the advice of your healthcare provider, percussive therapy has been shown to help reduce the development of scar tissue after injury or surgery. This must be done under a doctor’s guidance. Too soon and you could damage the very tissues you’re trying to heal.
Are Percussive Massagers Safe?
Like any other tool, the safety of the percussive massager is directly dependent upon the user. If you use it correctly, it is very safe. If you don’t, you can do a significant injury to yourself.
I can not stress strongly enough….DO NOT APPLY ADDITIONAL PRESSURE. I know I sound like a broken record, but you do not need to push. Pushing the gun into the muscles will result in pain and possibly damaged tissue.
We all know those folks that think if a little of something is good, then a lot of it is better. That does not apply in this instance. Even with hand percussion, the strike strength is moderated.
There are also times when the use of a percussion gun is contraindicated. Here are a few.
- Muscle strain. In the event of a muscle strain or “pulled” muscle, you don’t want to use your percussive massager on the area. The intensity of the hammering motion could inflict additional injury on the damaged tissue. Not to mention, the personal discomfort would be unbearable.
Instead, remember PRICE…that is Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. This simple mnemonic is the best possible treatment for a strained muscle.
Additionally, there is some support that vibrational massage to the area can help reduce the discomfort of a pulled muscle and decrease recovery time. I would recommend speaking with your doctor or physical therapist before proceeding.
- Sprains. Unlike a strained muscle, a sprain directly refers to the ligament associated with that muscle or muscle group. A sprain is a stretched or torn ligament. It is generally caused by overextending the area. You may even feel or hear a small “pop.” Use the PRICE method again.
Unlike a strain, you can sometimes resume the use of your percussive massager while still in the healing stages. Again, this is a time to discuss with your doctor or physical therapist to plan an appropriate plan.
- Inflammation. The nature of massage, meaning the stimulation of the area, conflicts when the problem is inflammation. Inflammation is overstimulation of the area. Massage will simply increase the problem. Inflammation concerns include:
- Inflammation of the fascia, or connective tissue. Most commonly found in the feet, where it’s known as plantar fasciitis.
- Inflammation of any tendon.
- Inflammation of the periosteum, which is a layer of connective tissue surrounding bone.
- Inflammation of the bursae, which are fluid-filled sacks that fit between bone and ligament or bone.
A diagnosis of an inflammatory issue should cause you to avoid massage in that area. If you have bursitis in your elbow, feel free to massage other areas, like your legs, but avoid the area of inflammation.
- Varicose veins. Varicose veins are highly fragile. The repeated hammering motion could damage the weak structure and cause them to tear or form a clot. If a clot is already present, the percussive nature of your gun could cause the clot to break free.
A loose clot can lead to heart attack, stroke, or other blockages. You also want to consult with your doctor if you are on blood thinners like Coumadin or Warfarin before using your percussive massage gun.
- Fever or elevated body temperature. Massage can increase body temperature. Average body temperature runs around 98-99° F (or approximately 37° C). There are fluctuations, and “normal” is an individualized number. However, an increase of more than 1° from your personal norm is enough for you to reconsider that massage.
- Edema. Edema is excess fluid in the tissues. Though some forms of massage can reduce lymphedema, this is best managed by a professional massage therapist. There are specific techniques involved, which do NOT include percussive massage.
Edema may be caused by underlying chronic issues like heart failure, diabetes, liver and/or kidney disease, and pregnancy.
There are additional times the use of a percussive massage gun is not in your interest. Look online for other contraindications.
Are Percussive Massagers Effective?
How is the word “effective” defined? Will it make your muscles bigger? No. Will it make you stronger? No. Percussion massage guns are useful in some, but not all situations. That said, some of the areas benefited by the percussive gun are:
Increases blood circulation. Recent studies showed an hour of percussive massage increased blood flow in a thermographic sample.
Increased blood circulation is beneficial because it helps reduce stress, improves vitamin and nutrient transport throughout the body, and helps eliminate toxic wastes.
It helps with workout recovery. As previously discussed, the percussive massager targets those areas that have received the benefit of your workout. It increases blood flow to the area, stimulates the muscle into relaxation, and may stretch the muscle fibers, loosening them up.
This increased blood flow to the muscles also increases oxygen delivery, which is a great way to reduce the risk of cramping.
Relieves “knots.” The massager is fantastic at relieving muscle “knots,” particularly in the shoulders, arms, and legs. With the help of a friend, you can also focus on those knots in the upper and lower back. Just be sure to avoid the bony areas. You do not want to use the percussive massage gun over bone.
Lymphatic drainage. Lymph is critical in the removal of waste products and toxins from the body. The lymph system uses the muscle system to travel. Improved lymphatic drainage helps move those nasty waste products and toxins through the body and get them properly eliminated. This, in turn, may help improve overall immune function and help boost metabolism.
Maintenance of the lymphatic system is vital for good health. However, if the system is overtaxed or blocked and edema is present, speak with your doctor or health professional first.
Reduces stress. All those loose muscles, combined with the endorphins released during your workout, will help reduce overall stress levels. Some studies have even found a link between massage and reduced cortisol levels in the body.
Increases flexibility. As the muscle fibers are gently stretched, this increases muscle and tendon flexibility. It isn’t yoga, but it will increase the flexibility a bit.
Increased flexibility directly relates to a decreased risk of injury, including tears, sprains, and strains. Always a good thing!
It may also lead to improved posture and decreased stress, a more positive life outlook, and a happier you.
Relaxes connective tissues. Connective tissue, also known as “fascia,” surrounds everything…muscles, bones, tendons and helps keep everything in its place. Over time and with exercise, this tissue can thicken, becoming less pliable. This “thickening” can also lead to pain and discomfort.
Connective tissue is also involved directly in injury repair and the formation of scar tissue. Obviously, this is important stuff to care for and maintain!
Breaks down adhesions and scar tissue. On that topic, percussive massagers may help break down the normal development of adhesions and scar tissue in the body.
Adhesions are fibrous tissues that form between soft tissues, including muscles and organs, as a result of injury, surgery, or ongoing exercise. They can thicken and cause the tissues to “stick” together, causing a reduction in the range of motion and increased pain.
Cellulite reduction? There are some indications that the percussive nature of the massager may help break up the formation of fat cells lying just under the skin. We call these lovely dimples, “cellulite.” If, in fact, the massager can break up or disburse the fat cells, visible cellulite would be reduced, and the result would be smoother looking skin.
Activates the nervous system. For every activity involving the muscles, the nervous system is activated. Massage guns help stimulate the sympathetic nervous system receptors, increasing blood flow, reducing tension, and assisting muscles to relax.
Improves sleep. Massage, in any form, has been shown to improve overall sleep quality and quantity. By relaxing those muscles, it, in turn, relaxes the body and mind, reducing stress and anxiety and leading to improved sleep. This improvement may also help reduce depression in some individuals.
There have been few scientific studies on the use of percussion massage or oscillating vibrational massage. I include the oscillating massage because some of the percussive massagers available commercially have an oscillating massage component.
One study, published in 2013, found that deep oscillation therapy, penetrating as deep as 8cm into the tissue, helped people with fibromyalgia reduce symptoms of pain and fatigue and improved reported quality of life.
Another study utilized thermographic imaging to show how blood flow, shown as warmer areas in the body, increased exponentially after 3 minutes of massage using a percussive massager gun.
Published in 2016, another study found utilizing percussive therapy in the Achilles region of individuals with reduced ankle mobility improved flexibility and range of motion by increasing tissue sliding and reducing tissue friction.
Top 5 Percussive Massager Guns and Their Cost
There are different ways of looking at the “top” guns. Most popular? Most effective? Cost? We’re going to look at the most popular, compare their features and price. Then you can decide which might e the best fit for you and your lifestyle.
Research “top percussive massager guns” on Google and prepare to be surprised. Almost without fail, the same names surface. They are the TheraGun, HyperVolt, TimTam, Kraftgun, and the LifePro Sonic.
TheraGun. Hands down the most common gun mentioned throughout all the sites I scanned. The TheraGun is cutting edge technology at its finest.
The new G3 model offers 2400rpm, two speeds which provide the option of 25 or 40 percussions per second. It has a 16mm stroke length. The G3 comes in 2 colors, offers four antimicrobial attachments, and boasts an ergonomic handle.
Unfortunately, it tends towards being a little loud and only offers 1 hour of battery life.
The cost is in the $399 range at Amazon.com.
HyperVolt. The Hyperice Hypervolt offers a combination of power, performance, and variability. It has a vibrational element, rather than being primarily vertically percussive, affording a different type of experience.
The Hypervolt offers three different settings, delivering up to 3200 percussions per minute or four interchangeable head attachments, QuietGlide technology, and a lithium battery life of 3 hours.
The cost is $375 at Amazon.com.
TimTam. TimTam Power Massager or Power Massager Pro seems to combine functionality with cost point, and they offer really nice bundle deals.
The Power Massager boasts 2500 rpm or strokes per minute, 90-degree articulating head, interchangeable tips for varied pressure and focus, and a 1-touch trigger and antimicrobial plastics.
Cost for the Power Massager at the time of this post is $299.99 at Timtam.tech or bundle with their pulse massager, polish light, metal tips bundle, and hot & cold tips bundle and pay the same $299.99. Get the freebies and save $349.
The Power Massager Pro boosts performance to the next level, adding a heated tip option, 175-degree articulating head with a 30mm stroke length, and 2800 stroke per minute performance.
Cost for the Power Massager is $499 at Timtam.tech or bundle with their pulse massager, polish light and metal tips bundle and pay the same $499, saving yourself a bundle! 🙂
Kraftgun. Newer to the marketplace, Kraft has focused on 2 of the primary shortcomings of its competitors, noise and battery life.
The Kraftgun specs show it offers a moderate 1800-2400 rpm or percussions per minute, with a 16mm stroke length. It includes three modes of adjustable arms and four adjustable attachments for targeted muscle use.
The most significant differences are the sound, with the Kraftgun producing a mere 65db of noise and the battery performance, which is 3-4 hours.
Cost is $369 at getkraft.co, and there is a 6-9 week ship time.
LifePro Sonic. This powerhouse kills it with five speeds, offering 3400 rpm with a weaker 12mm stroke length. It includes a whopping nine attachments for targeted use.
Sound is a very respectable 60-75db, rivaling that of the Kraftgun. Battery life is 3 hours, depending on speed.
This is a very respectable unit, with the cost point being the biggest difference.
The current cost is $148.72 at Amazon.com.
Percussion massagers or percussion guns are the hottest new hand-held massaging device on the market today.
You can scarcely open a social media channel without seeing advertising, usually involving some gorgeous man or woman, looking like they are going to prom in their workout clothes, smiling and enjoying their percussion device.
Yes, I sound snarky. A little fitness envy here. However, even if you work out in sweats and a tank, with sweat dripping down your nose and looking like you went six rounds with a grizzly bear….these little suckers can still work well for you.
As we’ve discussed throughout, they are safe, if used correctly and as directed. The massagers are adequate for what they do. They are, however, limited. Without a friend, you aren’t going to get into those back muscles very well.
From a machine standpoint, they are far less expensive than a massage chair, for example, and certainly more portable.
From an overall massage perspective, they are more convenient than a professional massage therapist. However, do not provide the specificity and educated touch that comes from a session with a licensed massage therapist.
For a professional athlete or someone SERIOUS about their workout, they are certainly worth investigating farther and probably worth your investment.
For the average weekend warrior? I don’t think so. I think the hot tub, a one-on-one massage, followed by a nice glass of wine may be the way to go.
Richard A, Lehman, LMT, CSCS
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