You don’t have to wait (or pay) for a massage appointment to get relief from aches and pains. Self-massage is simple, and it may be exactly what you need to recover after a workout, ease a tension headache, or soothe tight muscles.
With numerous massage tools on the market — from foam rollers to massage guns — sometimes the most challenging part of self-massage is figuring out which device works best for you. Below, we’ll highlight the extensive benefits of self-massage, as well as the best tools for obtaining those perks.
The Benefits of Massage
Per the National Institutes of Health (NIH), massage — or the manipulation of the body’s soft tissues — is one of humanity’s earliest pain relievers. Both Eastern and Western cultures have practiced massage for centuries. The ancient Greeks and Romans even used massage to promote relaxation and overall well-being.
And while more research is needed, the NIH now claims that massage can:
- Ease neck and/or shoulder pain, at least in the short-term
- Relieve headaches, including tension headaches and migraines
- Soothe knee pain brought on by osteoarthritis
- Ease lower back pain (although research on this point is mixed)
- Soothe pain and anxiety brought on by cancer diagnosis and treatment
- Improve pain, anxiety, and depression caused by fibromyalgia (when massage is sustained regularly for at least five weeks)
- Improve anxiety, depression, and quality of life for people with HIV/AIDS
Other research suggests massage could:
- Increase flexibility and range of motion
- Improve balance
- Ease stress and anxiety
- Relieve musculoskeletal pain in the abdomen, glutes, and hips
The Best Tools for Self-Massage
Self-massage tools are based on the same principles as acupressure — using applied pressure to provoke a relaxation response in the muscles. Different massage tools go about this in different ways. For instance, some tools are meant for very targeted massage, while others create more general stimulation.
No matter your intended purpose, here are some of the best massage tools around.
The rise of foam rollers, driven by athletes, has helped popularize the concept of “self-myofascial release,” which is a fancy term for self-massage. The idea is that by manipulating the body’s fascia (the connective tissue that surrounds every muscle, bone, and organ), users can relieve muscle tightness and soreness and improve flexibility. Depending on the type, size, texture, and shape of a foam roller, users can enjoy targeted and/or general relief by rolling their bodies across the tool. Foam rollers are usually wallet-friendly; you can even make a DIY version for less than $10.
Grid Foam Rollers
Grid foam rollers operate on the same premise as foam rollers: They help users massage their body’s facia. But they also go one step further. The grid construction creates textured ridges and valleys, which allow users to obtain more targeted relief. Additionally, the grids have a bit more “give” than an untextured foam roller, which can make using the roller a bit less intense (or at least more bearable) for folks with extra-tight or sore muscles.
As the name implies, massage balls are ball-shaped massage tools. They’re typically the size of a tennis ball or smaller, which makes them very portable, and they allow users to obtain highly targeted relief. While a foam roller will cover a larger surface, it’s easy to work massage balls into a body’s nooks and crannies (without the contortions sometimes required by a foam roller). Some people use golf or lacrosse balls in lieu of dedicated massage balls, but their unforgiving texture means they aren’t for the faint of heart.
Acupressure mats come in various sizes, but they all have one thing in common: These mats feature hundreds of small points on one side. When users stand, sit, or lie down on the mats, these points press into the fascia and apply pressure that gradually relaxes the muscles. There’s not much research into acupressure mats, but studies suggest acupressure could help relieve headaches and other aches and pains.
Acupressure pillows work in the same way as acupressure mats. But while acupressure mats are designed for general relief, acupressure pillows target the upper back and neck. This makes them especially helpful for easing neck and shoulder pain. Users can also lie down with the mat under the back of their heads to help relieve tension headaches.
A massage hook (sometimes called a “trigger point wand”) is a thin, curved hook or S-shape that allows users to access hard-to-reach areas of the body, such as the neck or back. In addition to helping users extend their reach, trigger point wands and/or massage hooks tend to be slender and lightweight, which makes them quite portable.
Sometimes called “percussive massage treatment” or “vibration therapy,” massage guns are handheld, portable massage tools. Typically, they have a soft “head” that vibrates rapidly within a small range of movement, creating a “drumming” effect on sore muscles. Preliminary studies claim these tools may be especially helpful for pre-workout warmups. Some athletes also use them for post-workout soreness. Another perk? There’s less effort involved in using a massage gun compared to many of the tools on this list. Simply sit down, turn on the massager, and let it do the work for you.
Foot Massage Rollers
As the name implies, foot massage rollers provide relief for a very specific body part: the feet. These tools consist of several free-rolling rods held together by a small frame. Each rod has a textured surface that’s supposed to create variable pressure. Users roll their feet over the rods to apply targeted pressure to the bottoms of the feet. Research suggests foot massage, or foot reflexology, may help relieve depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbances.
Massage Roller Sticks
Massage roller sticks, also known as massage sticks, are thin, wand-like massage tools. They often have a free-rolling center rod with a textured surface. Their small size makes them highly portable and allows easy access to body parts that are too small to target effectively with a larger massage tool (such as the forearms). They also allow users to apply targeted pressure to specific points on larger body parts like calves, quadriceps, and hamstrings.
For those with ailing muscles, self-massage offers several benefits, including easing musculoskeletal pain, relieving headaches, and improving flexibility. Of course, massage should never be a stand-in for medical care. If you’re unsure whether self-massage is a sound choice for your needs, consult a medical professional.
While self-massage may not cure everything that ails you, the right tools can help you loosen up, recover faster, improve circulation, and enjoy relief from everyday aches and pains.