Gentle, purposeful kneading of the muscles by a trained massage therapist can help to ease aches, increase blood flow, and lull you into a euphoric state of relaxation.
Alas, it’s not realistic to book a massage appointment every day, so can massage guns serve a similar purpose?
Portable and simple to use, a muscle massage gun is more convenient and less costly than a trip to a massage therapist.
But how do the benefits stack up? Do massage guns work to diminish soreness, improve range of motion, and aid in recovery?
Here’s what you need to know.
What Is a Massage Gun?
A massage gun — a.k.a. vibration therapy or percussive therapy device — is a handheld tool that delivers pulsing, rapid, vibrating pressure to your muscle fibers and fascia.
Most massage guns are lightweight, portable, and cordless. (They come with rechargeable batteries.)
They typically have two or more speeds or intensities and may come with a variety of massage head attachments that can be used to target different areas of the body.
How Do Massage Guns Work?
Massage guns use rapid bursts of pressure to stimulate sensory cells on the skin, which may help lessen the perception of pain or soreness after a workout.
Think of your instinct to rub your elbow after you bash it on the corner of a wall — the manual manipulation eases the pain signaling.
Percussive therapy also provides anabolic mechanical signals to your muscles and tendons. This can help to increase blood flow to the area and soothe it for the short term.
“Heat creates a better movement of fluid through the collagen matrix — that’s the fascia that supports our muscle fibers and collections of fibers that form fascicles in bundles,” says Jonathan Pierce, CMP, ART, founder and therapist at Kinetik Performance in San Diego, CA.
“You can move fluid better through warm tissue than cold tissue,” he adds.
Benefits of Massage Guns
Massage guns aren’t just for serious athletes. Anyone can use a massage gun to help improve range of motion, ease muscle soreness, and increase blood flow to tight or tense areas.
There are a few key reasons you may want to consider adding a muscle massage gun to your warm-up or cooldown routine.
Research suggests vibration therapy may be as effective as massage in preventing delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Massage guns can increase blood flow to your muscles, tendons, and fascia, which may help them feel less tense and more relaxed. Some say this feeling can assist the post-workout recovery process.
Just keep in mind it’s not a miraculous tool to undo the wear and tear — and sometimes injurious nature — of repetitive high-impact sports like running or strenuous bursts of power-lifting exercises.
Improve range of motion
A review of 39 studies on handheld percussive massage devices found them preferable to foam rollers or other self-myofascial protocols for increasing lower limb range of motion.
The review recommended the use of massage guns as part of a warm-up routine to increase range of motion, as well as after a workout to help minimize DOMS.
Pierce affirms that the increased blood flow can feel good in the immediate aftermath of a tough workout.
However, he notes that most of the research done so far has used small sample sizes, and percussive therapy may only create a short-term change in muscle length or range of motion.
If you have tight quads, for example, using a massage gun is “not going to make your quad instantly loose,” Pierce says. “You’ll need to fix your mechanics and work on other things as to why your quad is so tight.”
But massage guns “may warm up your tissue so you can stretch your quad a little better,” Pierce adds. “Make sure to move adjacent limbs near where you’re working with the massage gun.”
Manage scar tissue
“Depending on which tool you’re using, high-velocity, low-amplitude vibration can be more helpful for scars,” Pierce says.
If you have scar tissue from a recent surgery, such as an Achilles surgery, vibration therapy may help with managing how the scar tissue adheres to the skin, Pierce adds.
But check with your doctor first to make sure you’ve healed enough first.
How to Use a Massage Gun
Pierce, a former elite runner, suggests using a massage gun as part of a dynamic warm-up protocol to help increase range of motion and prepare muscles for training.
If you’ve been sitting at your desk all day and want to go for a run, use a massage gun to help heat up the muscles in your quads, hamstrings, and calves.
Try moving the joints around the muscles you’re vibrating with the massage gun to increase mobility.
As the massage gun warms up your muscles, focus on increasing your range of motion rather than increasing the intensity of the gun.
Keep the pressure light; don’t jack it up to the highest level because you think more might be better.
You can also use a massage gun during your cool-down.
This may involve applying vibration via the gun while also moving the joints closest to the site.
Are massage guns safe to use?
Massage guns are generally safe and easy to use, but improper use can lead to localized pain or aggravation.
Don’t use a massage gun on potentially injured fascia, tendons, or muscles. It may also be painful to rub the massage gun over bones, nerves, and bursae, Pierce cautions.
Bursae are fluid-filled sacs that protect tendons and bony surfaces from other tissue.
Certain areas — including around the knee and between the spine and shoulder blade — have sensitive bursae that may be irritated by a massage gun.
In short: If you feel any pain, move away from that area.
Which Massage Guns Are Best?
According to one review of 71 scientific research articles, the best effects are achieved with massage guns that deliver low-intensity stimuli at high frequencies.
Here are a few other factors to consider when shopping for a massage gun:
Depth of percussion (more vibratory vs. percussive feel)
Multiple speeds and intensities
Variety of massage heads
Low noise level
Lightweight, ergonomic design (comfy to hold)
Among massage therapists and health media, the Theragun appears to be the champion of massage guns. With four models and prices available, you can pick a super-portable minigun or a professional-grade model.
Other popular options include:
So are massage guns worth the investment? Ultimately, that’s up to you.
A massage gun can’t replace the knowledge, expertise, and training of a licensed massage therapist, physical therapist, certified active release therapist, or sports massage specialist.
If you’re experiencing pain or decreased range of motion because of a suspected injury, consult a doctor or physical therapist for evaluation.
But if you want a convenient, easy-to-use tool to help you warm up, improve range of motion, and ease muscle soreness, you can find a massage gun to suit your budget and needs.