How Do Massage Guns Work?
The short answer: it’s not entirely clear how these devices work on the body. They may help relax sore muscles by stimulating the GTO (Golgi tendon organ), a structure within a muscle that inhibits contraction. Massage guns may also override the sensation of pain within a sore muscle in the same way you might if you rub your forehead after smacking it on a door jamb (this is what’s known as the “Gate Control Theory of Pain.”)
But the most likely mechanism of soft tissue work—whether it’s a foam roller, a massage gun, or the trained hands of a massage therapist—is neural, says performance coach and physical therapist, Dr. John Rusin. “Mostly you’re affecting your brain’s ability to sense tightness or laxity in soft tissue, whether it’s a muscle, tendon, or fascia.” The therapist’s hands (or the roller, or the massage gun) focuses your attention on the tight muscle allowing your brain to zero in on the tension and let it go.
Vibration vs. Percussion
If you’ve ever used a vibrating foam roller or platform, you’re familiar with vibration therapy: you mount the unit, push a button, and let the device shake your fillings out. The back-and-forth oscillation is small, creating a pleasant, miniature muscle-quake inside the target tissues.
Early massage guns worked in a similar manner, vibrating the muscle to help it relax and stimulate blood flow. More recent models go beyond vibration, penetrating an inch or more into the target muscle: “It’s like a muscle jackhammer,” says Los Angeles-based massage therapist Art San. That’s percussion: a deeper, more intense stimulation of the muscle.
Effects of Massage Guns
Early research suggests that, when performed before exercise, vibration therapy is as effective at preventing soreness as traditional massage in untrained women. Does that mean it’s “effective” at preventing or relieving soreness, period? It’s not clear.
Massage guns increase blood flow, which shuttles nutrients into the muscle while also removing blood that may have pooled in the muscles—a common occurrence, often following long periods of inactivity, that can result in swelling in the extremities. If you use the gun directly after a workout, it may facilitate the removal of metabolites—waste products—associated with exercise, which can cause burning in the muscles.
“It’s an out-with-the-bad, in-with-the-good effect,” says Rusin, similar to what you can achieve with foam rolling, yoga, and light exercise.
Best Ways to Use the Massage Gun
“You don’t want to over-stimulate the muscle,” he explains. Excessive use drives fluid into the muscle without allowing it to flow out again. “It’s a powerful tool, so keep it on a low setting.” Higher settings are reserved for truly massive folks, he explains—NFL linemen and other heavyweights.
Rusin suggests that novelty is part of the tool’s effectiveness and that the effects may diminish with frequent use. So instead of using the massager every day, rotate your approach: foam roll one day, use contrast baths on another, the massage gun on a third day, and so on.
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