When shiatsu gets real, it's Thai-m to reach for the best massage chairs and massage pads. That's our motto. Yes, a certain amount of pseudo-scientific nonsense is spouted about the health benefits of massage chairs and pads, but when the one actual, proven benefit of massage is that it makes you feel better, why should that be a problem?
Whether it's some intangible science or a placebo effect or the aforementioned feel-good factor, many of us get pain reduction from having our backs, shoulders or legs manipulated, and for those who don't, the sensation of a massage is deeply pleasurable and relaxing. It can also be expensive, but there is a happy ending to this intro: massage chairs and pads let you have massage on tap, whenever you want, and they won't look at your bits.
Looking for something more portable? Head to our general best massager article. If not, read on for our pick of the best massage chairs to buy now.
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How to buy the best massage chair or massage pad
First, terminology: massage chairs are actual chairs with massaging built in; pads attach to chairs or car seats or beds or whatever, that you already have.
Some use rollers to pinch and push – if you’ve used the chairs in airports you’ll know what we mean – while others just vibrate; have inflatable pads, and some also heat up in a manner that can vary between delicious and terrifying.
Some soothe; some pummel. Some do both.
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One of the interesting things about massage chairs when shopping online is that you’ll see the same photos crop up again and again. Often, supposedly British companies banging on about innovation and design are simply sticking a badge on products clearly sourced from Alibaba.com and charging massive markups.
At the low end of the market that means eerily similar chairs from all kinds of different firms; at the high end it means firms adding hundreds or even thousands of points to the price of cheap imports.
Ironically for something that’s supposed to reduce stress, I discovered that it’s quite stressful finding what you want at the right price – as is searching for 'electrical massager' on a work PC. Ahem.
If you aren’t buying solely on price, look for reputable brands such as Homedics, companies with showrooms and listings that don’t have suspiciously consistent user reviews.
T3's favourite massage chairs, in order
In a world of no-name cheapies it’s rare to see a brand emerge from the herd, but HoMedics is a deservedly popular choice. Its previous Shiatsu massage pad was a big seller, no doubt helped by its regular appearances in flash sales on sites such as Amazon.
The thing was, HoMedics massagers of that period were sometimes rather vigorous – in a bracingly healthy kind of way, sure. We had one that on its top setting was a bit like being prodded with half bricks.
This has been toned down a bit, and remains a good, solid massage pad with rollers rather than just vibrating pads, so you do actually get a massage rather than a faint vibration. You can adjust the rollers’ positions to target specific bits of your back and switch between programmes as you fancy.
This chair is everywhere on the likes of Amazon and eBay from a dizzying range of supposedly manufacturers and suppliers who share remarkably similar photos.
It’s an armchair/footstool combo that looks like an Eames chair, made by a school woodwork class, and is made of bonded – ie: fake – leather. But while it’s cheap for furniture it’s actually surprisingly comfortable if you aren't obsessed with quality fabrics.
The chair makes for a nice recliner and we can testify to its comfort for a quick afternoon nap, but be aware that it comes flatpacked, and you’ll have to put it together yourself. Okay, that isn’t desperately hard, but sometimes the screw holes aren’t quite where they should be.
The massage element is an eight-point unit that can jiggle around under your upper and lower back, thighs and legs. There are five different modes and two intensity settings.
No, you’re not going to get amazing style or quality for this money, but the Generic Leather-style Massage Chair is both cheap and pretty cheerful.
If you’re perfectly happy with your existing chairs but fancy a bit of a massage at the office or behind the wheel, this might do the trick. It’s cheaper than most massage chairs, but like the Homedics, you can use it in your car seat, computer chair or favourite armchair.
It’s not remotely pretty but there’s a pretty good range of features including heated massages, neck and/or back massage, a remote control to operate it and an auto-shutoff so you don’t end up resembling those spontaneous human combustion photos of the 1980s.
It’s almost suspiciously like the HoMedics pad, but with the addition of a car charger. As with any massage chair this isn’t recommended for pregnant women, children or anybody with serious back problems: it’s a relaxer, not a medical aid. We’re not convinced it’s a great idea to use it on the move either, just in case an errant massage ball surprises you on the motorway.
However, if you fancy getting your back and shoulders gently pummelled without having to make room for new furniture it’s not a bad option.
We’d love to tell you that for around £25 you can get a massage pad that replicates the deft hands of a professional masseur or masseuse. Obviously, we’d be lying.
What you can get for 25 quid or thereabouts is a massage pad that replicates what it's like to lie on a giant flat vibrator, underneath an electric blanket. And who hasn't wanted that?
For mild aches it's probably even mildly beneficial. Heat’s good for muscular discomfort and a mild buzz can be relaxing.
Cost aside, the sexily-named PM6001 is a fairly typical chair pad, with an elasticated strap to stick it to a car seat or computer chair. Plug it into the mains and the remote then gives you five massage modes with three levels of intensity on your upper back, lower back, hips and thighs. Don’t expect the kind of “YOW!!!!” you get from a Homedics or actual person; it’s just a heated seat cover with vibrating bits.
Here are the lengths I go to for you, readers: this chair can be found everywhere: Tesco, Amazon, Wayfair, eBay… and also on all kinds of mysteriously professional-looking retailers you may well never have heard of.
However, there are also very similar chairs on manufacturing showroom Alibaba. Now I'm not saying it's the exact same chair, but let's say it is for the sake of argument. If you buy it on Alibaba – obviously you will have to wait a bit, as you're then importing it from China, just like all those retailers are – you may feel that some of the UK online prices are a bit steep, especially given that it’s 'PU leather', which is the leather you get from plastic cows.
If you can find it for under a grand, however, and leaving aside it’s the size of a small car, and that you’ll look like one of the big-boned humans from Wall-E when using it, it might be a decent purchase.
There are many, many little airbags to squeeze and prod every part of you, it offers 'zero-gravity reclining', numerous massage programmes and it can also vibrate like a massive, comfy sex toy.
If you actually are like the humans in Wall-E, you'll be glad to know that it can handle users of up to 23 stone.