So can you REALLY massage the pain away? It all depends on the gadget

Q) So can you REALLY massage the pain away? A) It all depends if the gadget’s any good – or just a gimmick

  • Since Roman times massage has been used as an effective way to relieve pain 
  • While nothing can replicate a hands-on massage, gadgets offer an alternative
  • But which ones are any good? Here, we review and rate some popular products

The electric foot ‘spa’ has become a Christmas present staple for those struggling for inspiration. But if chosen carefully, a massage device can make a real difference to muscular pain — and stress.

‘Since Roman times, massage has been used as an effective way to relieve the pain associated with muscle tension and injury,’ says Lucy Macdonald, a physiotherapist at Octopus Clinics in London. 

‘Now research has backed up some of its benefits scientifically.’

For instance, a review in 2015 by Erasmus University Medical Centre in the Netherlands found that massage therapy can reduce pain and improve mobility in people with muscular problems including back and neck pain.

Did you know? A study by the University of Miami in 2014 found massage boosts levels of brain chemicals that control our emotions, triggering feel-good hormones

Meanwhile a study by the University of Miami in 2014 found massage boosts levels of brain chemicals that control our emotions. It is thought that touch activates certain nerves which trigger the release of feelgood hormones.

In particular, it encourages the release of dopamine, a calming hormone that triggers feelings of pleasure, and oxytocin — which relaxes us and can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

However, despite these proven benefits, a regular professional massage may be out of reach cost-wise. And while nothing can quite replicate the feel of a hands-on massage, gadgets offer a useful alternative.

But which ones are any good? We asked Dr Steven Allder, a consultant neurologist and headache expert at, and Lucy Macdonald to review some of the latest products. We then rated them.


Effective? This £35.99 plastic helmet is based on so-called ‘holographic brain therapy’

ZJchao electric head massager, £35.99,

CLAIM: This looks like a space-age plastic helmet and is based on what the manufacturer calls ‘holographic brain therapy’ which works on the principle that different points on the head are connected to different organs. The device apparently targets 30 key points with a medium vibrating pressure, conferring benefits including boosting metabolism, promoting blood circulation, helping insomnia, relieving pain and enhancing memory and learning efficiency.

EXPERT VERDICT: ‘Some research suggests the brain — especially memory — may function on holographic principles, as the nervous system and whole body are all interconnected,’ says Dr Allder.

‘However, it’s an exaggeration to suggest we know exactly how this works — and that a gadget can harness this science by using vibration to stimulate certain parts of the brain.

‘There is some evidence that massage can help sleep by reducing stress. Cortisol levels are often elevated in people with insomnia — some studies have found massage can reduce these by an average of 30 per cent. So there’s a possibility it could help with relaxation and sleep but there’s no evidence it could ease pain or boost memory. But there’s no harm giving it a try.’5/10

Guilty Gadgets head massager, £5.25,

No frills: The maker says this stimulates nerve endings to increase blood circulation and relax stressed muscles

CLAIM: This spider-shaped device has long metal legs attached to a wooden handle. You push the ‘legs’ (tipped with little balls) slowly down into your head then raise it, creating a stroking effect. The maker says that this stimulates nerve endings on the scalp to increase blood circulation, relax stressed muscles and ease headaches.

EXPERT VERDICT: ‘A review of massage therapy for headaches published in The BMJ in 2017 found that patients reported around a 30 per cent improvement in pain symptoms after massage compared to having no treatment,’ says Dr Allder.

‘This is probably due to it relaxing tension in the muscles of the head, neck and shoulders. However, the light touch this gadget offers won’t provide the therapeutic benefits of a firmer hands-on head massage. This is the kind of gimmicky stocking present taht gets shoved away in a cupboard after a few uses3/10


But does it work? This battery-powered eye mask contains 16 foam pads that vibrate on Chinese acupressure points, apparently

Relaxing eye massage mask, £11.99,

CLAIM: A plastic, battery-powered eye mask containing 16 foam pads that vibrate on Chinese acupressure points offering, the maker says, drug-free relief from headaches, facial tension and eye bags.

EXPERT VERDICT: ‘Acupressure simply means applying fingertip pressure to the same “acupoints” used in acupuncture, says Dr Allder. ‘This is thought to stimulate the body’s healing response, possibly by triggering the release of pain-relieving endorphins.

‘A growing body of evidence suggests that acupuncture [using needles] may improve pain for some people — in particular, those with tension headaches and migraines. But there isn’t much research on whether acupressure would have the same benefits.

‘Before trying gadgets like this, the first step for anyone with recurring headaches (that have been checked by a doctor) is to identify the trigger. A headache diary can help. It might be worth a try if other headache remedies have failed.’5/10


Target: This horseshoe-shaped plastic tool applies direct pressure via two rolling balls

Healifty self massage tool, £10.99,

CLAIM: The manufacturer claims this horseshoe-shaped plastic tool will apply direct pressure — via two rolling balls — to massage the trigger points (in key muscles that hold a lot of tension) in your neck and shoulders.

EXPERT VERDICT: ‘Self-massage can have some of the benefits of one given by a qualified therapist,’ says Lucy Macdonald, ‘but only if the pressure applied is strong enough to increase circulation in the area. This in turn enables oxygen, as well as healing cells, to reach muscle tissue, and for carbon dioxide and waste products to be removed more readily.

‘It also creates a warming effect — both these actions can give temporary pain relief. However, this device is an awkward shape and I don’t think it can apply the amount of pressure needed.’ 3/10


Take a seat: Gel-filled nodules create a kneading massage that may ease back pain 

HoMedics gel shiatsu back massager, £199,

CLAIM: An electric massager in the form of a seat pad and upright back cushion that can be placed on a work chair or sofa. Gel-filled nodules create a kneading massage that may ease back pain and tension.

EXPERT VERDICT: ‘Most massages employ sweeping strokes, but Shiatsu uses “press then release” firm pressure to specific areas,’ says Lucy Macdonald. ‘It’s based on the same principles as acupuncture to trigger the body’s own healing response.

‘But Shiatsu has no proven benefits over other massages. I’d also prefer it wasn’t designed to go on a chair, because people can spend too much time seated anyway. This device is unlikely to ease your back pain and is costly.

‘A heated pad or hot water bottle would be just as soothing, while standing and moving around every 20 minutes is a better way to ease pain and stiffness.’4/10


The maker says this roller will ‘aggressively pinpoint and break up sore, knotted muscles’

GoFit Extreme men’s massage roller, £31.47,

CLAIM: A hard foam roller — with an ‘egg carton’ style surface — that you place under the target area of your body. The maker says the roller will ‘aggressively pinpoint and break up sore, knotted muscles or trigger points’.

EXPERT VERDICT: ‘This is targeted at men. There’s no technical difference between how men and women should be massaged, but men have a higher percentage of muscle and I find those with larger muscles prefer stronger massage’ says Lucy McDonald. ‘It’s also more beneficial as it reaches deeper into the muscles. Whatever your sex, if a massage is too aggressive then the muscles go into spasm which can lead to injury.

‘Nevertheless, foam rollers create similar effects to a sports massage (deep tissue massage of specific muscle groups) which has been shown to be effective in improving pain, recovery and fatigue. Used gently, it’s well worth trying.’8/10


Expensive: Priced at £149.99, this is said to reduce muscle tension and soothe tired feet

Naipo shiatsu feet massager, £149.99,

CLAIM: An electric foot massager with two pockets for your feet, and rollers that tap, roll and knead the soles which, the maker says, reduces muscle tension and soothes tired feet. It’s also said to ease the foot condition plantar fasciitis.

EXPERT VERDICT: ‘Some people find a foot massage relaxing, others can’t bear it,’ says Lucy Macdonald. 

‘If you are one of the former, you may benefit from this. Massage was previously considered helpful for plantar fasciitis, which occurs when the band of tissue along the sole becomes inflamed.

‘However, research, including a study published in 2014 in The BMJ, shows load-bearing exercises (where muscles carry increasing amounts of weight, for example by slowly standing on tiptoe) are more effective. Cheaper ways of targeting sore foot muscles include a foot roller (e.g. Foot Massage Roller, £9.99,’ 4/10


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