Handheld Massagers

What do Percussive massagers do?

If you are a runner or a member of a workout class somewhere, you've probably seen their adds on instagram.  The TheraGun, The Hypervolt, the TimTam, or the Kraft percussion devices. Percussion Devices feel great, and they are safe with few side effects, but are they really doing what they claim?

Clicking around their websites, we find several claims.  Improving range of motion, Decreasing pain, increasing mobility or stability, strengthening, breaking up scar tissue, etc. 

But what is hard to come by? Any sort of clinical studies really exploring these claims.  There's no doubt that they feel good and people find relief with them - Heck, we use one in the office for patients!  But do they really do everything they claim?

Let's start with what we think they CAN do.  One, they have major effects on the nervous system.  They provide high amounts of stimulation to our afferent (AKA sensory) nerves.  But what does that actually mean?

1. They "Gate" pain. Nerves can only send one signal at a time.  And the fastest signal wins the right to be heard - or the right to go through the gate.  Vibration sensation is carried on our Dorsal Column/Medial Lemniscus pathway, which is highly myelenated.  Myelenation speeds up nerve transmition.  This means vibration is carried to the brain much faster to the brain than dull, achy, soreness types of pains.  Therefore, this treatment makes it harder to feel certain types of pains. 

2. They probably don't "activate" or "Strengthen" muscles, only direct nerve signals and Specific adaptation to imposed demand would do that.  But, there's a conept in neurology that more information into the nervous system may lead to more information coming out.  In this sense they may remind your brain that a muscle is available to be used. 

But we also need to talk about what they probably don't do

1. Break up scar tissue.  Let's put it this way - I have scar tissue from a deep cut on my finger I suffered when I was 18.  I had stitches. The wound scarred over and is now healed.  If I put a percussive massager over that tissue for 3 hours, it won't break up that scar and open it back up.  It just won't.  It may have a relaxing effect on muscles through neurological effects, but it's not breaking up tissue. We wouldn't want it to

2. Improving Range of motion.  Again, maybe you can move a little better for a few minutes due to neurology effects.  But if you have someone use one of these massagers on someones hamstrings for 20 minutes everyday, they won't be able to touch their toes any more easily after a year. Put it this way: You're not making a long term range of motion change by passively laying on a table and having someone or something do something to your muscles.  Mobility improvement is an active process. 

3. Increasing mobility or stability?  First off, how could one thing do both?  Secondly, if someone is incredibly mobile or incredibly stiff - percussion isn't going to change that.  It is more a function of the makeup of their connective tissue, and secondly the tension of their muscles as set by their brain and spinal cord.  These massagers don't have the power to change those factors in the long term. 

So, maybe they don't do all they claim.  That doesn't mean they don't feel awesome and can be helpful. If you'd like to hear more about which one we use and why, check out this blog post HERE

Let's just use one of the favorite quotes I learned at a chiropractic conference back when I was in school: Keep an open mind, but don't let your brain fall out.  

Author
Dr. Todd Peterson, DC, Cert MDT. Dr. Todd Peterson Dr. Todd Peterson is a chiropractor and certified provider for Mechanical Diagnosis & Therapy (MDT, aka the McKenzie Method). Dr. Peterson played football at the University of Nebraska, where he was a 4 year letter winner and Academic All American. He briefly played professional football in 2009 before returning to Chiropractic School in 2010. He earned his doctor of chiropractic (DC) degree from National University of Health Sciences in 2013, graduating with Magna Cum Laude honors.

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