If you’ve had a particularly stressful week and feel like things are all getting a bit much, falling back into a massage chair might sound like a heavenly option. Whether you’ve invested in one for your home, or prefer getting your fix for a few pounds in the local shopping centre, it’s undeniable that they’re incredibly relaxing. But when it comes to your health, are massage chairs good for you?
Whilst some experts are sceptical and see them simply as a gimmick, there is some research to suggest they may have health benefits. In fact, one study published in the journal Medicine (opens in new tab) suggested that massage chairs could be a cost-effective way of reducing pain and improving quality of life - although the benefits of physiotherapy were still superior.
To cut through the confusion, T3 spoke with osteopath Paige Kern (opens in new tab), to break down the pros and cons of using the best massage chair, as well as the long term benefits compared to regular massage.
How do massage chairs work?
There are many different kinds of massage chairs on the market, and they all work in slightly different ways. However, the technology behind them is rather standard, and often more simple than you'd think.
Most massage chairs work by using a variety of vibration motors. Put simply, these motors along with gears, rollers and vibrating mechanisms, work together to provide the massage. Weighted wheels or gears work by unbalancing the wheel while the electric motor rotates it, which causes a rotation.
Although individual massage chairs vary in their exact design and the body parts they can target, the general base of the tech is more or less the same. The massage from the chair tries to act in a similar way to that of a massage given by hand, but often a little more intensely. Some massage chairs look to just target trigger points on the back and neck, while others have more complex mechanisms that move to other places across the body. Some chairs can also move side to side, as well as up and down.
Most massage chairs will allow users to adjust the intensity of the massage or the speed of the mechanisms. Some chairs even offer heat therapy, and will have heated pads and rollers that deliver warm massages, similar to a hot stone massage.
Massage chairs: the benefits
Kern sees lots of benefits to using a massage chair - one being that they are great for post-workout recovery. Because the chairs help to shift our parasympathetic nervous system post-workout to a calmer, more relaxed state, they can help us to calm down from a high adrenaline boost, whilst relaxing our muscles at the same time. In comparison to the best massage gun, chairs are better for muscle swelling, and so more ideal for post-workout recovery. (Although it’s worth noting that massage guns are more useful for stimulating blood flow and can be used both before and after a workout).
“The strategically placed nodes are also great for helping to relieve areas of pain and tension,” says Kern. However, it’s important to remember that they can only target set areas of tension, and the chair is unable to be tailored to your specific needs in the same way that human hands can apply pressure. Generally, however, target areas of a massage chair are often those that need regular attention and soothing anyway.
But not everything has to be about treating a medical ache of pain. Sometimes all we need is a feeling of relaxation or relief, and if you’ve come home after a long day, you might just want to chill out and lower your heart rate. Kern says that massage chairs can be great for simply that - treating you to some down time, whilst benefiting your muscles in the process.
“There is something great about the fact that you can get a massage treatment whenever you want, and from the comfort of your own home,” she says.
Massage chairs vs regular massage: which is best?
Although there are clear benefits of massage chairs, Kern says that a specifically targeted, personalised massage would be hard to beat.
Massage chairs are great at helping to release stress, as well as aiding blood and lymphatic flow to keep muscles supple, but in-person treatments will always be high quality and specific. “You cannot beat the knowledge and expertise of treatment or massage provided by a medical professional,” says Kern. “They can alter the treatment based on your feedback whereas a massage chair only has a few settings.”
Plus, while a massage chair may seem like it pays for itself in the long-term, it may need maintenance, which could be costly. Kern says that “regular maintenance sessions with an osteopath, and not just seeing a practitioner when you have an injury, helps to keep costs low, making it a more effective modality.”