An In-Depth Guide to Self-Massage Tools – Get Relief From Aches and Pains

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Written by Penny Cooper

I’m sure you can’t always get to the spa every week for the perfect rubdown. Luckily, today there is a range of machine and non-mechanical self-massage tools to fill the gap.

What Is Massage?

Massage is a technique of stretching and rubbing muscles to relieve pain from working out. It is also thought to help relieve pain from chronic injuries and medical conditions such as fibromyalgia (where the body’s nerves have difficulty processing pain, so they always send pain signals) and anxiety (where extreme worry can negatively affect the body’s systems).

It was only recently that the first handheld, mechanical massagers have become available to the public. Around the turn of the 20th century, vibrators became available for home use – for a regular massage that is. Massage therapists use them to enhance their techniques. You can do the same with personal self-massaging tools; we’ve looked at the best handheld massagers.

Types of Massage

Many massage practitioners now use combinations of ancient styles that have grown and changed into modern massage.

couples massage

These types can include:

  • Swedish massage.
  • Shiatsu.
  • Acupressure.
  • Sports massage (for injuries resulting from sports or time at the gym).
  • Hot stone massage.

There are varying intensities so that you can choose what’s right for you.

Low-Intensity Massage

This technique stimulates the blood flow in the top layers of the skin and helps to release tension. Massage techniques that use low intensity include Gua Sha, where a technician uses oils or lotions and scrapes a massage tool like a stone or metal implement over the body to stimulate ‘chi’ (the body’s natural energy). While it may or may not move the chi, it does stimulate blood flow to the outermost layers of the skin.

Medium-Intensity Massage

Kneading, rolling, and hand percussion massage are classic Swedish techniques. Created in coordination with gymnastic activities, this style uses long and gentle strokes that relieve tension in muscles.

If you’re like me, getting older can mean that a deep muscle massage might be too intense. Self-massage tools that can replicate Swedish massage at home include handheld vibrators and palm massagers.

High-Intensity Massage

Deep tissue massage rounds out our highest intensity. The style uses deep strokes, mechanical percussion, and pinpointed acupressure to reach the fascia.

Also known as the connective tissue system, fascia covers all the muscles of the body and keeps them in place. When we work out or perform strenuous activity, the muscles and fascia, in particular, are damaged.

Deep tissue massage

The tissues develop knots and often feel painful. Deep tissue and high-intensity massage can help to repair damage and relieve pain. The injury is referred to as DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). Repaired tissue becomes muscle growth.

Self-massage tools that can replicate the masseuse with deep tissue massage include the aggressively named, percussion massage gun. While deep tissue massage can be uncomfortable due to how deep it reaches, it should never be painful or cause bruising. Stop and consult a doctor if you experience pain while using a self-massage tool.

Apart from the percussion massager gun, there are several other tools, specifically for deep tissue massages.

Benefits of Massage

Massage has been extensively studied and adjusted for centuries. Techniques are always updated, and therapists are continuing to learn.

Most massage therapists take ongoing courses to supplement their existing knowledge, so they can continue to treat new ailments and keep up with academic reviews which are continuously getting updated.

Today, you can use self-massage tools to gain a lot of the advantages that we are already aware of.

Known conditions where massage helps

Massage has been thought to help various conditions such as:

In addition to muscle relief, massage can also stimulate the lymphatic system, which controls waste management throughout the body. When the body’s lymph nodes are blocked by cancer cells, inflammation, or waste buildup, the system can’t function properly.

By applying pressure to specific areas of the body, either by a professional masseuse or using self-massage, these pathways are helped to filter out waste and regain function.

It is easy to stimulate your own lymphatic system with a gentle massage using your own hands or something like a low-speed vibrator with a brush-like head.

Everyday aches and pains

When I recommend self-massage tools to my clients, I always ask about their tolerance levels and what kind of physical activities they do. Age and activity level can also dictate what kind of device is right for you.

As we age, there are unexplained aches and pains all the time (even if you’re not at the gym almost every day, like me). If you’re standing behind a cash register all day, you may want a Shiatsu Massage unit for your legs and arches that can recreate the kneading and rolling style.

If you’re sitting in an office chair for many hours, you might want to find a model that sits on your chair and helps lower back pressure. Most massage models are easy to transport, so you can bring them to and from the office.

Sitting around also has an effect on the neck and shoulders taking the full weight of that big old head. The spot is always out of reach. A good neck and shoulder massager can help to get at it if a strong pair of hands isn’t available or willing.

Some cautions when using massage tools

If you plan to use a massage tool regularly, make sure to take the time to learn how to use it correctly.

Always start the machine away from your body and apply only as much pressure as you can handle.

Start slow: remember, you can always get deeper. It is better to begin with less intensity and build up from there.

For a more intensive massage, you will need a massage aid even if the part you want to reach is easily accessible. This will either be a vibrating massage device or if you’re lucky enough, a friendly neighbor experienced in the technique of deep tissue massage.

Since deep tissue massage reaches, well, deep down in your muscles, you may not feel the relief right away. Give it a day to fully recover and then use your massage tool (or neighbor) to continue your therapy.

If you have any swelling, pain, or redness on your legs and feet, it may be a chronic condition known as DVT or deep vein thrombosis. Make sure to see a doctor before you try any self-massage tools on body parts you suspect have DVT.

Since acupressure and massage can stimulate blood flow, you will also want to talk with your doctor if you have high blood pressure. It seems to be a thing that comes with the over 50 turf; I feel like I’m always asking my doctor’s permission for something!

You also want to use caution when massaging areas with thinning skin and varicose veins. Never use a self-massage tool on bruised/broken skin, on a broken bone, sprained joint, or sunburn (ouch! – well you wouldn’t, would you?).

Origins of Massage

Massage has been around for ages as we’ll see although the subject is still in development in many ways and our understanding of the techniques and benefits continues to grow.

China, Egypt, and India

China’s first recorded dynasty began in 2700 BCE. It’s from these first emperors’ courts that we find the first written history of massage. “The Yellow Emperor’s Classic Book of Internal Medicine” details a complex map of the human body. Areas known as meridians (or areas where chi, or energy, flow through the body) are stimulated.

This became the basis for acupressure massage, a part of what modern society refers to as CAM, or Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Many states require a license from the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM) before a doctor can practice.

By utilizing acupoints, a practitioner can apply pressure to areas close to the surface of the skin. These points relate to areas of the body that release specific tensions.

Using TCM, or Traditional Chinese Medicine, a trained acupressure massage therapist can help relieve chronic pains. You can do it yourself or get help with modern massage machines, like the pinpoint head on a handheld massager.

Acupuncture points

A few thousand miles away and not long after, reflexology was blossoming in Egypt. These techniques are similar to the ancient Chinese massage, in that they’re performed on specific points of tension. By pressing certain points of the feet and hands, it is believed to relieve overall tension in the body.

To find this relaxation today, you can book an acupressure or foot reflexology massage, or at home using self-massage tools like a Body Back Buddy or a sleek acupressure mat to apply pressure on your own meridians.

Greece and Rome

Greco-Roman massage was born from their most famous physician, Hippocrates, who became the father of modern medicine. His recommendation was based on slow, soft massage. This helps to stimulate the lymphatic system, whether he knew it or not is up for debate, which helps to clear the body of waste and restore the balance of the systems.

Massage became so popular that it became a staple at the new fad: The Gymnasium! After sporting events, all the participants would relax with baths and massages.

Later on in history, the Romans would follow a ritual bath of bathing, exercise, sauna, and sports massage. The oil and dirt would be scraped off with a strigil: a metal or wooden curved stick.

Self-massage tools used today that will help you recreate a Roman bath include a stick massager and foam roller. Why not indulge in a long bath with your favorite smells, apply a luxurious body oil, and massage it just like the ancients?

Japan and Shiatsu

In time, when monks from Japan were exchanging knowledge with China, massage was transferred as an art form and medical necessity. It was believed that massage was essential to good health as it helped to clear pathways of bad energy, or chi, throughout the body.

Shiatsu can also have a movement-based portion, including stretches and assisted balance postures. By introducing an awareness of the body through breath and meditation, Shiatsu practitioners can help rebalance the body and fight depression, fatigue, and tension.

Since its massage portions use mostly repeating patterns and firm finger pressure, you can recreate it with your own hands or an automated self-massage tool unit. Look for Shiatsu chair pads or pillows that use kneading techniques.

Modern Massage Techniques

At the turn of the 19the century, those ancient techniques were ready for a comeback, or maybe they never left! The Swedish massage started almost like a gymnastics routine, which they called Swedish Movements, complete with stretching and rub-downs. A Swedish doctor, Per Henrik Ling and a Dutch doctor, Johann Georg Mezger, began refining the techniques from Greece and Rome and added their own spin.

Their approach includes:

  • Effleurage: Soft, long strokes to gently stretch the long length of the muscle.
  • Petrissage: Putting pressure along the cross-grain of the muscle.
  • Friction: Heated massage created by deep and circular motions.
  • Tapotement: Tapping, better known as those ‘karate chops’ you see in old TV shows.

Since it’s low to medium intensity, it’s great for relaxation. That also means it’s a safer version for those of us with higher blood pressure or age-related issues. (Deep tissue massage can sometimes simply be too intense for older muscles to handle.)

If you’re looking to recreate a Swedish massage at home, why not try a dual-head handheld model or a percussion gun? The heads will give you intensive relief while allowing you to control the pressure and intensity.

When I teach an intense cardio yoga class, I often use a long-handled massager afterward to keep my muscles warm and stretched. I feel very Swedish when I follow with a sauna afterward!

Handheld Massagers

For thousands of years, massage has been performed by trained practitioners, and masseurs, in their unique styles. It’s not always easy to organize a professional massage, and trying to get a partner or friend involved is usually even more difficult.

Luckily, today, from balls to guns, we have a range of self-massage tools to do the job of a masseuse.

Types of self-massage tools include:

  • Hand rollers and ball massagers.
  • Stick massagers.
  • Gua Sha (scraping tools).
  • Percussive guns with all kinds of attachments.
  • Vibrating machines.
  • Kneading pillows and seats.
  • Hand and palm massagers.
  • Foot and calf massagers.

Some are shaped like a gun, while some have long handles. This means you can reach all the areas of your body that need relief, from your feet to your back and everywhere in between.

Traditional Massage Tools

Just because you aren’t a massage professional doesn’t mean you can’t use their equipment. There is a wealth of massage devices available. While some use electricity to power up, these are propelled by your hands. This can be a huge benefit since you can control the pressure and speed exactly as you feel is right for your body.

Foam Rollers

Suddenly the must-have item, all of my friends showed up to the gym with their foam rollers. They had me try it after yoga class, and I was sold.

Woman in living room with foam roller massager for a self-massage tool workout

A semi-soft tube made of expanded foam sounds simple, but there are some amazing differences in products. They come fatter and thinner, longer and shorter. Some have ridges, and some are smooth. I like medium firmness, myself.

They are best used on the floor. Sit down on the ground and place the roller under your legs. Using your body weight, you’ll manipulate the roller so it…well…rolls! You’ll feel that massage deep in your muscles, the more weight you drop onto it.

Chirp Wheel

The Chirp Wheel is a form of yoga wheel that has some specific ergonomic designs that allow a simple and effective way of relaxing tight muscles especially those lying along the spine using your own body weight.

Woman in front room using a self-massage tool the Chirp Wheel with a diagromatic spinal overlay

The wheel ring is made from high tensile material with dense rubber with a furrow around the middle as a channel for the spine.

Stick Massagers

The ancients’ tool comes alive again in the modern area. They are both static and variable in movement. Some stick massagers are best operated with lotions or oil on the skin. They are wonderful for long, slow strokes on legs and arms.

The updated version has beads or tubes surrounding the center stick. These parts glide and roll as you stroke your body, achieving a deep massage. Often marketed to runners and athletes, this classic model is used to release pain deep in the fascia.

Gua Sha Stones and Rollers

Since Gua Sha is a technique that relies on tools, it’s simple to do it yourself. Larger stones are used on larger areas of the body, while smaller ones should be used on the face and other secondary areas. It should be noted that gentle techniques should be the only intensity used on delicate tissues like your face, wrists, and ankles.

Gua Sha stone & roller - self-massage tools

The Gua Sha techniques are great if your skin is delicate in areas if you’re working through an injury, or if your muscles are just not ready for deep tissue massage.

If you’re looking to try it out for yourself, try a Jade roller for your face (which claims to help with anti-aging and skin rejuvenation).

I have one made of pink quartz; it has two heads that vibrate to help me add lotions and potions to my facial skincare regime. The gentle vibrations also stimulate blood flow in those areas that need it most: under the eyes and nasolabial folds (what you might call smile lines).

Mechanical Handheld Massage Tools

Percussion guns

A percussive self-massage tool has a head that rapidly beats up to 3700 beats per minute (BPM). This helps you to reach down deep into the fascia and release muscles.

It can help mitigate scar tissue and heal the loss of muscle connectivity that causes cellulite. Most guns can withstand about 20 to 30 pounds of pressure before they automatically turn off. You’ll want to begin your massage with no pressure on the lowest setting. Adjust to your taste, and make sure to take breaks when using self-massage tools. We have reviewed some great options if you’re looking for the best percussion massage gun.


A vibrating head massager does not beat but moves very quickly back and forth. So fast, in fact, that it produces a hum. Many vibrators are long-handled to help you reach the areas that need relief the most.

They can be battery-operated or plugged into a wall and are generally portable and easy to care for. Vibration is more gentle than percussion, so these self-massage tools can be used more safely near delicate areas like the face, neck, and ribs.

Rotating or spinning heads

While percussive therapy can help reach deep, the bouncing pressure may be too much for our aging bodies. If you’re looking for a gentler model, try one that has rotating or spinning heads. While the shapes are similar, these self-massage tools are unique.

Used primarily with lotions or oils (you can even use a pain-relieving cream for extra relief), these heads attack the top layer of skin. It’s reminiscent of a gentle relaxation massage, where light pressure is applied to the skin. The skin is stimulated, and the muscles are activated.

Use caution around hairlines, loose skin, and clothing. You wouldn’t want anything to get caught in the heads. Most machines come with an automatic cut-off in case of an emergency.

Home Massagers

So, you’ve looked into a handheld massager. Maybe you’ve even found the right unit to help you reach those hard-to-hit areas! But what if you want to get a massage while you watch TV, answer emails or just get on with your life?

There are so many massage tools that you can use to relax your muscles without holding a device in your hands.

Kneading pillows

Used to simulate Shiatsu, many pillows have rollers and spinning heads that follow patterns. Some are heated to release muscle tension deep down. There are very large reclining chairs that are made specifically for massage, but you can find similar portable massage products. They can turn a normal chair into a spa experience.

I’ll to use mine when driving from the gym. It allows me to avoid the stress of highway driving while relaxing my body after exercise. Some models are even heated to increase your relaxation. It helps to release tension in my fascia and reminds me to sit straight as I drive. I bring it to my office at the gym. When I get back from a fitness class, I always have to go looking for it, since the other trainers and front desk staff tend to steal it when I’m not looking!

Massage Chairs

If the pillow doesn’t pack enough punch, there is a bigger and better option. Massage chairs are a full-body experience! These units look like your favorite old recliner, but with mechanical innards that give you an amazing massage. Surely a high in self-massage therapy.

You can find chairs that massage only your back, but even some models also massage the legs, arms, and neck. Newer units also have stands for your iPad so you can relax while you browse the net. You’ll need to stick close to an outlet, as these need to be plugged in. Adding a massage chair to your living room is a first-class way to relax in style.

Hand and Foot Units

If you want to get specific, you have to get smaller. There is a range of options made for you to focus on your neglected areas. Hands and foot massagers are specially made to fit your extremities. Some use air compression, where your joints are relieved by pressure. Some use rollers to stretch and elongate aching fingers and toes.

If you’re looking for a way to relieve chronic aches and pains like complications from carpal tunnel, if you suspect you are developing a condition like carpal tunnel or CTS (cubital tunnel syndrome, where the arm’s nerves are affected), using a model with heat can help you prevent symptoms by resting your extremities and relieving muscle tension.

Popular Body Parts—Where to Use Your Massager?

If you’ve just completed one of my cardio yoga classes, you may have aches all over your body! What massagers will keep you in tip-top shape so you can keep living your life? It’s all about the area of the body you want to treat. Let’s look at them, from head to toes.

Head, Neck, and Shoulders

Stress and tightness in the neck, shoulders, and facial areas can lead to headaches. There is conclusive evidence that by massaging the sinuses and supportive muscles of the spine, tension headaches can be relieved and prevented.

In traditional Indian head massage, a seated patient receives a massage of the neck, shoulders, face, and ears. They may also stimulate the higher chakras, ancient areas of energy throughout the body. The therapist may rub your lower throat, forehead, and top of your head to promote well-being and mindfulness.

You can achieve this relief at home with various head massagers. Electrical massage tools can also get at the eye area, lower neck, and top of the head for tension relief.

Arms and Hands

There are many documented points in the hands that relate to specific areas of the larger body. Just like the ancient Chinese, by using simple pressure points, you can find muscle and tension relief yourself by using a massage tool. Acupressure maps can show you where to press, or you can find easy-to-use clamps to place in prime areas.

Your hands can also be sore on their own, and it is important to take care of them.

You could use your own hands or an electrical model, which can come with heat. You can treat numb fingers, carpal tunnel, and even headaches by activating the pressure points in the hands. We have looked for the best massager for hands.


Since your back is composed mostly of your spine and large muscle groups meant to support your body, it can carry a lot of tension.

When our brains are stressed, they send out signals to pump adrenaline and other chemicals into the bloodstream. These chemicals are stopped from flowing once the stress has passed.

But what if you are one of the millions of Americans who suffer from stress or anxiety disorders? Your body may continue to release the kinds of chemicals that tense your muscles, so you are ready for an attack.

When your body is under this type of stress constantly, your muscles may become sore from the tension. A relaxing massage can help ease the pain.

Legs and Feet

The ancients knew the connections between the feet and the body. As we saw above, the Egyptians were famously advanced in their reflexology. It’s still practiced there today! By putting pressure on specific areas of the feet, you can affect the rest of the body.

Leg massage can also be particularly helpful for RLS, or restless leg syndrome. I’ve recently discovered how important the feet are – they really take a pounding during our active lives. A little self-massage session gets me relaxed and ready for sleep. Research shows a definite link between massage and vibration in easing RLS symptoms like stinging or pain.

By using acupressure with a pressure mat or a heated, kneading massage chamber, you can find your foot soreness dancing away. Since they’re the legs you stand, walk and run on, it’s important to take care of your lower half. If you want a relaxing solution, we did too and found some of the best calf and foot massagers.


When I like to feel relaxed, release tension in my muscles or even just a little special, I grab something from my ever-growing collection of personal massage tools. My other half is getting worried on a number of levels.

Massage therapy is based on healing; after all, it was one of the first medical practices. Forty-six percent of doctors today recommend massage for pain management, chiropractors, and physical therapists follow suit. As a personal trainer myself, it’s good to know that other medical professionals and I agree about the benefits of massage.

Today, self-massage tools are readily available from sports supply stores, internet retailers, and even the corner pharmacist!

Modern inventions have created a world where you can decompress in the comfort of your own home, gym, or office with your own masseuse device.

Some static models are simple to use and easy to afford, as well as motorized models to do most of the work for you.

I hope this guide was beneficial to you. I had a lot of fun learning more about the history of massage and ancient massage tools.

If you have friends who might benefit from massage, please share this list with them.

Since all bodies are different, you and your friends may need to test several choices until you find the right techniques for you. At least by the end of the day, you will be very relaxed and feel a whole lot better.

We have written more on helping with aches and pains over 50 here.

Photo of author
Penny is a Personal Trainer currently training as a wellness coach. She gained a BA in English at Edinburgh University. Redundancy from retail management hastened a move to helping people get fit and writing about all things fitness in middle age.

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