Are you relying on muscle relaxers to ease pain? A study from University of Pennsylvania found that prescriptions for these drugs—often handed out along with opioids—have skyrocketed in recent years…even though their benefits are largely unproven and their use has been linked to falls, accidents and addiction.
Self-massage is a safe, soothing and convenient nondrug alternative to relieve muscle pain and return range of motion. It also is effective at dissolving trigger points, those localized nodules of tight muscle that develop as a result of trauma, stress, overuse, fatigue or simply from failing to warm up properly before exercise. Applying pressure relaxes the compressed muscles and increases blood flow to the area, bringing relief.
Your hands alone can’t always penetrate muscle fibers as deeply as you’d like, and it’s hard to reach certain areas, such as the center of your back. That’s where self-massage tools come in. In fact, it’s great to have a toolbox of these aids for the large muscles of your legs and trunk as well as your neck, hands, feet, head and even your fingers.
Vibrating Foam Rollers
Foam rollers usually are used for larger areas of tightness, such as the thighs, hips and calves. A new generation of these massage tools—with built-in vibration—has elevated the results you can get. The vibration allows you to go deeper without the added discomfort that actual deep-tissue massage can cause.
To use: Lie over the roller so that your own body weight creates pressure on the area you want to work. Roll back and forth in a slow, controlled way.
Product pick: The cordless and rechargeable Vyper 2.0 from Hyperice ($199*) is especially compact and can easily fit in a gym bag or suitcase.
These batonlike massagers are much shorter, thinner and firmer than foam rollers and are made of very dense foam and rubber, usually with a line of nubby segments or beads that roll. They’re often about 18 inches long, so they’re very portable, but they do require more elbow grease than a foam roller because the pressure is coming from the exertion of your hands and arms rather than the weight of your body. One benefit over a foam roller is that you can more easily vary the amount of pressure you exert. Massage sticks can be used on the neck, thighs, calves and shins.
To use: Position the center of the stick on the area you want to ease, and use both hands to slowly roll the stick back and forth. For comfort, look for a massage stick that has contoured grips at the ends.
Product pick: The Stick muscle massager ($42).
Percussive Therapy Devices
These very popular handheld products, which look like an electric drill, are a favorite in professional sports locker rooms. They deliver short-duration pulses (about 40 per second) deep into soft tissue to relieve pain. One theory is that trigger points can stem from a lack of circulation, so increasing blood flow to these areas through the percussive action can help with recovery. On their own, percussive devices can reach deeper into the muscle than vibration devices, plus you can further increase the depth of penetration by exerting additional pressure with your hand. Speed and intensity are adjustable on the device, which has different heads for different parts of the body. The open-handle design lets you work just about anywhere on the body, although it will be more relaxing—and more fun—if you can snag a friend to help you with harder-to-reach spots such as your back or hamstrings.
To use: Apply the device head directly to a tight spot, and hold it in place for 30 or so seconds before moving to another area or resting and then repeating on the same spot. You also can use a circular motion over a wider area for a massagelike effect. Just beware of applying too much pressure, which could damage capillaries and cause bruising. Do not use on your face, neck or throat. Also avoid using percussive therapy devices if you are on blood thinners, at risk for blood clots or have a condition that affects the blood vessels such as peripheral artery disease.
Product pick: Theragun ($299 and up).
These handy hard rubber balls come in many designs—smooth, nubby (great for feet!) and even with built-in vibration. Some deliver heat, while others, such as T Spheres ($30 and up), offer the addition of aromatherapy, which can be relaxing when you’re stressed and in a state of chronic pain. Massage balls can provide more specific direct pressure similar to that of a percussive therapy device but not as expensive.
To use: A massage ball can apply pressure by rolling it with your hands on your neck, arms and legs. You also can lean onto the massage ball against the wall for your shoulders and back. You can roll on the ball on the floor for your lower back, thighs and feet.
These mats and pillows have raised areas with hundreds to thousands of small plastic points in a set pattern. The acupressure points create pressure on trigger points and all over your body, stimulating circulation.
To use: Using one is as easy as lying down on the mat and putting the pillow under your neck or placing the mat over a chair and sitting on it for a few minutes at a time. The instruction booklet typically shows different positions to target different spots on the body.
Product pick: ProsourceFit has a variety of acupressure mat and pillow sets that have a cotton or linen base ($21.99 and up).
These inexpensive tools can be part of your full-body arsenal to relax and feel better faster.
For the back: The Thera Cane Massager ($29.95) looks like a coat hook with six treatment balls placed along its length. It’s great for hard-to-reach areas of the back.
For the head: A head/scalp massager, widely available with 12 or 20 metal “fingers,” or spindles, is a tool for relaxation, and some people find it also brings headache relief. Choose a model with a tiny rubber bead at the end of each spindle for smoother action and less hair tangling. Simply move it up and down over your skull for three or four minutes at a time (various manufacturers, about $8 and up).
For the fingers: For a fun way to relax, try acupressure rings (various manufacturers, about $7 for 12). Each finger has acupressure points that connect to different points on the body, which the rings stimulate when you twist them on your fingers.
How to Relief Muscular Pain Points
No matter what self-massage tool you use, the general principles for releasing trigger points are the same. Apply pressure directly to areas of pain—the trigger points—one at a time. This pressure will feel painful at first, but when you take off the pressure, the pain will start to subside.
How long you maintain the pressure is unique to you. It can be a matter of seconds or up to a few minutes. Sometimes, it’s simply the amount of time you can tolerate. You can rest and then reapply the pressure. Just keep in mind that a total of 10 to 15 minutes per spot per session is the limit, just as it is when applying ice or heat. You won’t achieve more relief by doing it for any longer.
*All prices in this article reflect recent prices from major online sellers.