Give Yourself a Massage

Relieve sore muscles at home with a few handy tools

person laying on floor using a tennis ball to massage their back Photo: Andrey Popov/Adobe Stock

Massage is an evidence-backed method for relieving everyday aches, pain, and stiffness. But it’s not always realistic or practical to see a professional. Fortunately, you can reap the therapeutic benefits of massage in the comfort of your own home. All you need is a little time and the right tools.

Kneading sore muscles with your fingers works in a pinch, but the tools mentioned here can achieve faster and better results. Keep two safety tips in mind: Never massage bones, joints, or any injured area, and have your doctor evaluate any persistent soreness.

Tennis Balls

You may have one of the safest, most effective massage tools at home already: a tennis ball. Simply place it between your body and a wall or floor, then roll up and down on the area that hurts.

More on Pain Relief

Tennis-ball massage can be effective for relieving discomfort in the upper and lower back as well as the IT bands, the muscles that run along the outside of your legs from the hip to shin, says Caitlane Gangstad, PT, DPT, an outpatient rehab supervisor and physical therapist at the University of Washington Medical Center–Montlake in Seattle.

You can also use a tennis ball (or a Thera Cane massage tool) to create sustained pressure on a single focal point, a treatment known as acupressure. This can increase circulation and help relieve pain. Just don’t press so hard that it’s difficult to tolerate. Start slowly and gently, for 20 to 30 seconds at a time, suggests Julie Sherry, PT, DPT, MS, a physical therapist with UW Health in Verona, Wis.

If a tennis ball is too soft to relieve your muscle pain, Sherry recommends using a lacrosse ball, which is firmer. It can also work better for areas that might cause a tennis ball to compress or collapse, such as the hips, according to Michael Fredericson, MD, a professor of orthopedic surgery at Stanford University and a physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor with Stanford Health Care.

Foam Rollers

If you’re recovering from a workout or feeling muscle tightness, consider a foam roller, which Fredericson says provides a focused massage that can loosen up tight connective tissue that can restrict movement. “The foam roller is really good at that, and could help with mobility,” he says.

Shashank Davé, DO, a physiatrist and associate professor of clinical physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Indiana University School of Medicine, says that foam rollers can help prevent the delayed onset of muscle soreness when used after workouts. A meta-analysis from 2019 suggests that foam rolling after exercise can improve recovery and future performance.

Simply lie on the foam roller and roll back and forth against tight or painful muscles. You can use it on any muscle group, but Davé says people often find it helpful on the trapezius, the group of muscles between the neck and shoulders. Start with gentle pressure as you roll, then gradually increase. If it feels painful at any point, stop. Too much pressure may not be helpful, Fredericson says.

Massage Guns

Self-massagers, including massage guns, can provide relief because they vibrate faster and sometimes penetrate deeper into the muscles than other tools. Choose one with multiple speed and intensity settings, Gangstad advises, so that you can be as gentle as you need to be. To use an electric massager, gently run it over the sore muscle area. Five or 6 minutes should be enough to relieve pain.

Can Heat or Ice Help?

Julie Sherry, a physical therapist, says that as a rule of thumb, apply heat to sore, tight, or spasming muscles and use ice for acute injuries. Apply a heating pad for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, she advises. Then remove it and wait 30 to 40 minutes before using it again. Allowing the tissue to cool down is important; don’t leave a heating pad in place for a long time. For icing, try using a bag of frozen vegetables.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article also appeared in the November 2021 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.


Ashley-Abramson

Ashley Abramson

Ashley Abramson is a freelance writer focused on health and psychology. In addition to Consumer Reports, she's written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian. She lives in Milwaukee with her husband, two young sons, and their pair of pups. When she's not writing, she enjoys good food, movies, and the Lake Michigan views down the street.