One definition of self-care reads, “The practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness, especially during times of stress.” If that doesn’t describe what people in the world need right now, then I don’t know what does.
One great tool to have in your self-care toolbox is a percussive device, also often referred to as a massage gun. This isn’t likely one of the self-care strategies you’ve often heard suggested before, but let me explain. Just think about some of the things many of us have experienced over the past year:
- Increased stress
- Added screen time
- Decreased exercise and movement
- Lower quality sleep
These lifestyle changes can lead to a variety of undesired symptoms, including inflammation, poor posture, muscular tightness and imbalances, general pain, elevated cortisol, and even bodily injury if left unchecked.
For relief, many look to a massage therapist or chiropractor. While those are great and helpful resources, unfortunately the respite you feel after your session only lasts as long as you consistently go, which isn’t always convenient for our busy schedules or financially possible.
This is where percussive therapy devices can come in to help. Dr. Jason Wersland, the founder of Theragun, the original creator of these devices, has said he developed the tool to help his patients keep pain and discomfort away in between appointments such as those.
I spoke with Wersland, as well as Lissa Bankston, Theragun director of human performance, and Tim Roberts, Theragun director of science and innovation, to learn more about the device and how we can best use it to find relief — and even aid our performance.
How does a percussive device work?
One unique feature of the Theragun in particular is that it’s both percussive and vibratory. This dual action is beneficial because it creates the depth, speed, and force needed for greater deep muscle tissue response. It’s estimated that it can reach 60 percent deeper into the muscle than consumer-grade vibration massagers.
According to research Wersland has done, vibration is able to travel from the brain to the skin at 268 mph, while pain can travel at 55 mph. If you can stimulate the nervous system in a way that gets that vibration message to the brain faster than the pain (which the device can do), then the vibration can override and lessen the pain.
Here’s how the therapy can benefit some of the other ailments I mentioned above:
- Increased stress and lower quality sleep: High stress elevates the sympathetic (fight or flight) side of your nervous system. The device works to increase your parasympathetic (rest and digest) side, which, in turn, lowers the sympathetic.
- Added screen time: With a phone, you may experience tightness in your hands or forearms. With a computer, you may notice poorer posture, such as with a forward head or rounded shoulders, which can shorten and tighten your front-body muscles, and lengthen and weaken your back-body ones. You can work to reverse that using the device, as well as loosen any tight muscles.
- Decreased exercise and movement: This can lead to more muscular imbalances as well as a lack of blood flow, which the device can help increase circulation of.
Using the device for just five to 10 minutes a day can help provide positive effects.
What can I use percussive therapy for?
These are the three most common areas I recommend clients consider using a percussive device to help with.
1. Muscular dysfunction or trigger points
Muscular dysfunction can occur from increased stress, a lack of movement or exercise, poor posture, or non-optimal desk ergonomics. Over time, this can lead to overcompensation and injury. When dysfunction occurs, it’s possible for trigger points to develop in your muscle tissue. These feel like knots or bumps.
Some trigger points are very sensitive, especially if you press on them. However, many trigger points don’t cause pain their specific area at all, but rather referred pain in other areas of the body. The good news is, these referred locations typically show in consistent places person-to-person, so you can use resources to identify where they might be. I’d recommend the book Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual, or you could simply search for “trigger point referred pain chart.”
When using a percussive device on an area with a trigger point, the tool will typically bounce off the skin differently than places where the tissue is normal.
For trigger points, Wersland suggests using a Theragun this way:
- Put pressure on the specific trigger point for 10 to 15 seconds
- Circle pressure around the trigger point for 10 to 15 seconds
- Put pressure directly back on the trigger point for another 10 to 15 seconds
2. Warm up and recovery
When used pre-workout, percussive devices can help reduce the risk of delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, following exercise. They can also help increase your blood flow, body temperature, and active and passive control of range of motion to the areas you use it on.
Similar to pre-workout, when used post-workout for recovery, the device can also increase blood flow. This is beneficial as during a workout you can get tight and see a lack of oxygen and buildup of lactate, and if you can circulate blood faster, it helps supply your muscle tissue with the nutrients it needs to recover faster.
For warming up, Wersland suggests using a Theragun this way:
- For shorter durations: 10 seconds per location, limiting to 30 seconds total
- At higher speeds: 2,000+ setting
- With moderate-to-high pressure at each attachment site and the middle of the muscle
For recovery, Wersland suggests using a Theragun this way:
- For longer durations: 60 to 120 seconds per body part
- At lower speeds: 1,700 setting
- With light pressure as you slowly float the device over muscles
3. Rest and sleep
Because of the positive impact to the parasympathetic nervous system, percussive devices can be a great tool to help with improved rest and sleep, which can also lead to increased mental and muscular recovery.
For rest and sleep, Wersland suggests using a Theragun this way:
- For five to 10 minutes 30 minutes prior to going to bed
- With a softer attachment at slower speeds, floating the device over muscles
- On the lower back side of your neck, as well as your lower back, forearms, legs, and feet
Taking advantage of tools to help decrease your stress, benefit your sleep, and increase your muscle function is an easy and accessible way to improve the day-to-day quality of your life.
If you’d like more information on the science and proper use of percussive devices, you can check out the interviews I did with Wersland, Bankston, and Roberts on episodes 14, 15, and 16 of the Life Time Training Podcast or Life Time Training Vodcast. You can also pose any questions you have in our Life Time Training Facebook Group.