by Paul Kleiman
A look at helpful self-care massage tools for preventing or alleviating pain and imbalances in the body. Finding time for a massage may sometimes be difficult. That’s why it’s helpful to use self-care massage tools for preventing or alleviating pain or imbalances in the body. While these tools don’t provide “massage” as such (and can’t replace a professional therapist), the best ones offer some of the same benefits.
Which are the optimum tools for you? There’s no simple answer to that. A product that one person finds too painful to use—or just cumbersome or ineffective—might be a lifesaver for someone else. Educating yourself on how different devices work will help you assess their effectiveness at providing the desired benefit to the targeted part of the body. Here, you’ll discover various kinds of tools and learn which options might work well for you.
Where to Shop, and Cost Considerations
In the internet age, many small, family-owned massage and physical therapy supply stores have shuttered, unable to keep up with the volume and pricing of large-box stores and online retailers. That said, it’s worth a search. The hands-down best way to find out what you like is to try it first, and these stores generally have samples of popular tools and employees to offer expert advice. Brookstone and Relax the Back also carry many tools, though they tend to be higher-end electronics. Still, feel free to stop in and try a $7,000 massage chair!
No massage supply store within reasonable distance? Look online for companies that cater to massage therapists and physical therapists, and see what they prefer (Massage Warehouse, ProTherapy Supplies, etc.). This can help narrow your search. Note: Some tools are not returnable, especially if they are in the “health” category on sites like Amazon.
Cost is important to wellness pros and clients alike, so the products we’ll talk about here are all affordable. Omitting quality electronic massagers that cost upward of $200, as well as those deluxe massage chairs, still leaves hundreds of products to consider.
Prices are the same pretty much everywhere because most manufacturers set a suggested retail price (MSRP) for each of their products. Some manufacturers even make prices mandatory so that their customers (i.e., retailers) don’t undercut one another. The reasoning is simple: If a product can be sold for $40 instead of $50 on Amazon because of higher volume, it would be impossible for smaller customers—such as chiropractors, massage therapists, and massage and physical therapy supply stores—to compete in the marketplace.
What Massagers Do
Through trying many massagers over the years—and inventing a few—I’ve found that the most effective tools replicate effleurage (long strokes in the direction of the muscle) and trigger point massage (direct pressure on specific hypertense nodes of muscle tissue).
Other techniques are not easily produced mechanically. Sure, a top-end massage chair can provide a decent petrissage (kneading) of the back, but most of us won’t (or can’t) lay out thousands of dollars for a chair. Cross-fiber work is highly effective at breaking up scar tissue and adhesions, but this technique can be aggressive and requires extensive training and expert touch. With cross-fiber machines, there is always some risk of injury.
Some devices provide their own pressure, usually through springs or bands that push rollers or wheels together to provide massage pressure on limbs and extremities (these rolling arm, hand, leg and foot massagers are gentler versions of the “antique clothes wringer” design). Other devices require users to provide pressure themselves, either by gripping or pushing with their hand(s) or by lying, sitting, stepping or otherwise using their weight to exert downward pressure with gravity. This latter category offers excellent value and durability.
Worth the Cost: Shiatsu Massagers
Low-cost self-massage products can often be very effective, making it unnecessary to spend more. However, one tool it’s worth paying more for is an electronic shiatsu massager that mimics the finger pressure of rotating thumbs. This type of device can be effective on specific areas, mostly the back and neck, and a decent one will run you $100–$200. Since shiatsu relies on knowledge of acupuncture points and the flow of qi (energy or life force), the result is not really shiatsu, but these machines do provide deep pressure (from your weight on the machine). The cost comes from motors and other hardware that have to withstand years of high tension and resistance.
The Ball Benefit
One of my favorite tools cost me nothing—it’s a baseball I caught at Dodger Stadium! I roll my foot on it to help with plantar tightness. People have used tennis balls, golf balls, superballs and pretty much any small, hard spherical object to compress and release trigger points for quite some time.
For information on massage balls, canes and other products, see “Self-Care Through Massage” in the online IDEA Library or in the March 2019 print edition of IDEA Fitness Journal.
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