My Search for the Perfect Electric Massage Tool
I've been looking for over 20 years for an electric massage tool to help me work on the trigger points in my muscles. You'd think that with all the gadgets out there, there would be products specifically designed for this use. But most implements are not very powerful, as they're designed for relaxation or uses that are not, um, related to any kind of therapy. The tools that do exist are mostly manual, like my thumb protector. They help, but they still make me do a lot of the work.
What you need for automated trigger point massage is a pointy head that can target trigger points, as well as a powerful enough motor to penetrate several layers of muscle.
Finally, after many tries, I found not just one, but three. I review them here and share their specific uses. Check out each one; each is good for reaching some areas, but after using them for time periods ranging from nine months to five years, I've learned that, unfortunately, none alone can reach all areas.
Releasing Trigger Points Is Worth the Hard Work
You probably know that you can rub out knots in your muscles, but did you know that doing so releases trigger points, a process known in the healthcare arena as myofascial release? When I learned this fact many years ago, I changed the way I responded to pain. Instead of popping NSAIDs (in my case, aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen sodium), I started using trigger point therapy as a first line of defense to ease my pain.
What are trigger points? Trigger points are knots in the muscles. They are real, not an esoteric idea, and they can be palpated. Most importantly of all, they refer to pain elsewhere in the body. That means they cause people pain—much of the pain we feel daily is down to trigger points.
It sounds like a simple concept, but it's not quite that easy. You have to know where the trigger points causing your pain are located. This is tricky since the trigger points are usually located some distance from the painful area. You also have to know how to recognize them. Unfortunately, few massage therapists are well trained in myotherapy. For that reason, and because of the high cost of massage therapy, I deemed it wise to teach myself to work on my own trigger points.
I found that when I massage my trigger points daily, it becomes a serious chore. So I looked around for help and, after much trial and error, found it.
Comparison of Trigger Point Electric Massage Tools
|Thumper Mini Pro 2||Wahl Deep Tissue||Brookstone Mobile Sport|
Corded, Not Portable
Corded, Not Portable
Cordless & Portable
2 Broad Heads
Single Pointy Head
Single Broad Head
Low Shock to Operating Hand
Low Shock to Operating Hand
Low Shock to Operating Hand
Brookstone Mobile Sports Massager: For Medium to Large Muscle Massage
I have owned the Brookstone Mobile Sports Massager for almost a year. I got it because I was looking for something portable to take in the car and that gives strong percussive massage. This is not an easy combination to find, as portability limits the size, which in turn limits the power.
The big benefit of this gadget is that it focuses its energy on a single, fixed head that is large enough to penetrate deeply. The big test for me is that it has no trouble working through my gluteus maximus to my piriformis muscle, the tiny stabilizing muscle that's stretched between the sacrum and the greater trochanter. Although precision at that depth with a head this size is impossible, a few minutes with this tool makes this troublesome muscle itch nicely (a sign that its trigger points are releasing).
The tool is not quite as good at hitting finer profile trigger points. The head is too large. Due to its control wheel, I'm able to customize the power level from very light to very strong. In my experience, this tool is better than the Thumper Mini Pro at being effective at lower intensity levels, which I use primarily when I'm tackling trigger points too close to bone, such as those near the collarbone and the back of the arm above the wrist.
Wahl Deep Tissue Percussion Massager: For Smaller Muscles
I have mixed feelings about my Wahl. I've owned other Wahl tools and frankly was not impressed. This particular model I had to return once, because the first one I received was a dud whose motor died. The replacement works fine and has a two-year warranty. It's inexpensively priced.
Despite my lukewarm feelings, this tool has two major advantages both the other electric tools I use for myofascial release.
First, one of the four attachments included is pointy. While the intensity of the massage is mediocre at best, when you combine it with a very pointy head, you have, for all intents and purposes, the perfect electric massage tool to reach certain points—especially the deep, the small, and the close-to-bone trigger points.
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I use it for the muscles on either side of my spine, for the quadratus lumborum, and for hands and feet. I also use it when I need to find subtle, sharply defined trigger points on slender muscle tissue that the broader heads of the other two tools will miss.
Secondly, the tool is slender and lightweight, making it extremely maneuverable. It's kind to my carpal tunnel syndrome.
The location of the control wheel is annoying, because it's easy to bump the wheel and lower the intensity without realizing it while the machine is in use.
Thumper Mini Pro 2: For Medium to Large Muscles
I own two of these percussion massagers in order to always have a backup. I have used this model for nearly five years. This one's an investment—that's a nice way of saying it's pretty darn expensive. For what it's worth, it's also highly durable and built to be used not just by laypeople like me, but by massage professionals.
The Thumper Mini Pro 2 is intense. It's so strong, in fact, that I don't recommend using it at its lower settings. If that sounds odd, be assured I thought it was, too, when my mom-in-law, a massage therapist, clued me in. At lower intensity, the percussion actually seems to "shock" the muscle and bone underneath more. My experience backs that up. At the high settings, it provides a more even, gentler, but deeper and more intense massage.
Like the other two machines on this page, the vibration against the operating hand is minimal.
The biggest disadvantage to this machine is that the tool has two heads instead of one. It makes it hard to focus on trigger points. I often tilt the machine so only one head is in contact with the muscle. Although this is sometimes awkward, it gets the job done.
This tool effectively deals with my trigger points, but not in a find-and-release kind of way. It's more of a massage-the-heck-out-of-everything kind of deal. It is inadequate to deal with trigger points at more delicate locations, like the lower arm and hand and close to the Achilles tendon.
The machine has another weakness: After about twenty minutes, it needs a rest or it will overheat. If left plugged in, it can overheat. Overheating is not a disaster; both of mine have overheated numerous times, and they're still plugging away.
It also has no battery option. Like the Wahl, it isn't portable.
I recently learned Thumper does now make a single head massager called the VMTX that seems very similar to the Brookstone model I review above, except with an attachment strap. I haven't tried it yet. I would be interested in hearing reader opinions about this one.
Your Own, Built-in Trigger Point Tool: The Thumb
For those trigger points not accessible by electric tools or just better worked manually, I use my thumbs, my thumb protector, or other hard tools. I have a big basket of these.
What many people may not tell you is that if you use the right technique, your thumbs and fingers won't be hurt by working trigger points, even if you use no tools at all. The key to protecting them is:
- Keep your fingernails trimmed, so you don't have to bend the fingers at awkward angles to avoid digging into your skin.
- Don't just push with your one thumb. Use other fingers to support the thumb and add power, and manipulate it as though it were a tool.
- Instead of straightening the thumb during the pressure, bend it at the joint. That allows you to deliver greater pressure with less strain.
If you're still not sure what tool to start with, I suggest you try the Wahl. It's not the best there is, but it is effective for many trigger points, and it's the least expensive. Eventually, you can move up to the others, if you like.
Eventually, I hope to try out and review the mother-of-all trigger point aids, the GBM G5 Professional Grade Portable Massager. It's reputed to be extremely powerful and versatile. It's also several hundred dollars, which explains the delay.
In the meantime, I use the Thumper daily and the other two electric tools a bit less frequently. Without any one of them, there would be a gap in my pain management.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
nathalie on October 18, 2016:
thank you so much for this article !
but can you please tell me where can i find a thumb protector?