Read This Before You Buy a Massage Gun

Curious about percussive massagers? Here's expert advice on how they work, how to use them safely, and what features to look out for.

person using massage gun on thigh while sitting on yoga mat Photo: Andrey Popov/Getty Images

Whether you’re sore from your last workout or stiff from sitting in an office chair all day, getting a massage can be a reliable way to relieve the pain. But if regular massages are too costly or you want to knead out the tension between appointments, you may be searching for a way to achieve similar results at home.

Massage guns are one increasingly popular do-it-yourself option. The devices are often shaped a bit like a gun, with a pulsating tip that repeatedly digs into your muscles.

Chiropractor Jason Wersland developed one after a motorcycle accident and later founded Theragun, which introduced its first mass-market model in 2016. Competitors soon jumped into the market as a wide range of people from pro athletes to casual runners started turning to the devices in a bid to go beyond foam rollers for DIY athletic recovery. While some experts say massage guns can be an effective way to relieve muscle pain, it’s important to understand their benefits, limitations, and key features before you buy one.

Consumer Reports is in the process of testing a variety of massage guns, with results expected later this year. In the meantime, here’s what you need to know if you’re considering one.

What Is a Massage Gun?

There are a number of handheld massagers on the market. Typical vibration massagers aren’t usually powerful enough to massage deeply. Massage guns—also called percussive massagers—have more powerful motors and reach deeper into muscle tissue, which can relieve pain, release tension, and even improve range of motion.

More on Pain Relief

“What’s unique about these guns is that they go much deeper than the handheld massagers used to go, so you really feel it,” says Michael Fredericson, MD, a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Stanford University. When lighter techniques like stretching and gentle massage don’t improve symptoms, a more vigorous approach might be necessary. 

Vibration from massage guns increases blood flow to the painful area, according to Julie Sherry, PT, DPT, a physical therapist with UW Health in Verona, Wisc. This increase in blood flow can flush out metabolites like lactic acid and calcium, which cause muscle contractions and pain after exercise, says Shashank Davé, DO, a physiatrist at Indiana University Health and associate professor of clinical physical medicine and rehabilitation at IU School of Medicine. So percussive massage, including massage guns, could help sore muscles recover faster. 

A small 2020 study in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine found that 16 male volunteers reported increased range of motion after a 5-minute treatment with a massage gun on their calf muscles. Research on the efficacy of massage guns is still limited, however; in this study, for example, participants did not use the percussive massagers on themselves—someone else performed the treatment. 

One more thing to keep in mind: The percussive technique isn’t unique to massage guns. Some massage therapists use a similar tapping method, explains Caitlane Gangstad, PT, DPT, outpatient rehab supervisor and physical therapist at the University of Washington Medical Center-Montlake. Massage guns, however, are more intense. “A person won’t tap this quickly or for this long of a time,” she says.

Massage guns are also unique because you’re in charge—once you pinpoint the tense area, self-massage with a gun may allow you to apply more precise pressure than a pro massage therapist. “You’re able to sense how much pressure you’re putting into your body and modulate it accordingly, whereas a massage therapist is a separate entity trying to get that sense,” Gangstad says.

That said, a massage therapist may be able to better identify trigger points, says Fredericson, and it may be difficult for you to fully relax your muscles when you’re giving yourself a massage. “For athletes who regularly get myofascial release therapy or deep tissue massage, massage guns can be a way to supplement so you maybe don’t have to go as often,” he says. 

Key Massage Gun Features

Massage guns range in price from below $100 to several hundred dollars. Higher-end, more customizable models, Davé says, typically cost more. While Sherry says cheaper or knock-off brands likely won’t do you any harm, they may not match the intensity of other models.

Here are some key features experts recommend looking for when you’re shopping for a massage gun:

  • Speed settings: Not all muscle groups can withstand the same pressure. That’s one reason that adjustable power settings are an important feature, according to Gangstad. For example, you may want to use a lower setting on more sensitive spots, like the calf, and higher pressure on large muscles like the hamstring.  
  • Ergonomics: Look for a gun that easily allows you to reach the areas you want to massage, Gangstad suggests, so you don’t have to contort your body. To make sure you actually like using the gun, Davé recommends venturing to a brick-and-mortar store where you can hold the massager in your own hands.
  • Stroke depth: Sherry suggests considering the stroke depth or “amplitude” of the massager. “A cheaper massager you can buy at the grocery store might plunge at 1/60th of the depth [of a high-end massager],” Sherry says.
  • Ease of use: While some consumers are drawn to percussive guns with bells and whistles such as flashy screens and companion apps, Davé says it’s important to pick a model you understand how to use. “If it’s not easy to use, it discourages people from using it.”
  • Customizability: Picking a massage gun with multiple detachable heads is another way to ensure versatility, Davé says. For example, a “bullet” attachment might work well for a very focal trigger point, such as over the trapezius muscle (shoulder area). A “fork” attachment is better for a muscle region, such as the calf or hamstring muscle group. Rounded heads sometimes come in different sizes—Davé says gluteal muscles might fare better with a medium or larger option. Softer heads are appropriate for sensitive areas.
  • Portability: Massage guns, Davé says, can range in weight from just over a pound to several pounds. If you plan to travel with your massage gun, you may want to opt for a lighter-weight option. 

How to Use a Massage Gun Safely

First, identify the specific muscle area you want to target. Turn the massage gun on, and move it slowly and gently across the area in back and forth motions, applying more pressure as needed.

Typically, Davé says, anywhere between 6 to 10 minutes is enough. “In general, start low and go slow,” he adds. “Listen to your body and stop immediately if you feel any pain.” Overstimulating the muscle can cause damage, bruising, and in severe cases, rhabdomyolysis (acute breakdown of muscle tissue).

Always do your best to vibrate the massager over muscles only. Avoid joints and bones, especially if you have any type of arthritis. It’s never a good idea to use a massage gun directly over any part of the spine, Fredericson adds, including the neck. If that area is sore, Gangstad recommends using the gun on the upper trapezius, the big chunk of muscle above your shoulders. 

People with chronic pain also need to be extra careful with percussive massage; Fredericson says deep pressure could cause pain to flare, especially in those with fibromyalgia. And if a muscle is particularly sore, whether from a workout or stress-related tension, don’t overdo the pressure. “That muscle will only tense up more if it’s in a lot of pain,” Gangstad says.

Certain medical conditions may also make massage guns unsafe to use in particular areas. For example, Sherry says people with low bone density should proceed with caution. Davé adds that it’s crucial to avoid using a massage gun near surgical wounds, in areas with deep vein thrombosis (often indicated by swelling, pain, and warmth), or near a pacemaker or any other type of implanted hardware. Pregnant women should also avoid using massage guns, advises Davé. And they should never be used to treat carpal tunnel syndrome, stress fractures, or acute inflammation.

If your massage gun is causing you pain or making things worse, Sherry suggests consulting with a medical professional, who can rule out any issues. 

And if you have concerns about whether a massage gun is right for you, talk to your medical provider before buying one. Should your doctor encourage percussive massage, you can get some extra help from a massage therapist or physical therapist. “Working with a trained professional to learn how to use them most effectively for your condition can be helpful and reduce the risk of hurting yourself,” Sherry says.


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.