Percussive Massage Devices For Active Recovery

December 1, 2020 | Tips and Training

Dev Mishra, M.D.

President, Sideline Sports Doc

Medical Director, Apeiron Life

Fellow, American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

Institute For Joint Restoration, Menlo Park, CA


December 1, 2020

Key Points:

  • Handheld massage devices and vibrating foam rollers are forms of “percussive massage”
  • These types of massage are believed to be effective in reducing post-activity muscle soreness, improving function, and speeding recovery
  • I recommend these devices to my patients, I use them myself, and believe most active individuals will feel better faster by using one

I’m a big believer in “active recovery”, typically involving movement, flexibility, and some form of massage. After a workout, especially if you’re doing something new, the active recovery can help ward off delayed onset muscle soreness. You’ll feel better faster.

Today I’ll offer some thoughts on two types of massage therapy called “vibration therapy”. The general principle is that a motorized device in the form of a vibrating roller, or handheld percussive device will deliver a stimulus to the muscle, tendon, and bone to reportedly improve blood flow and facilitate recovery. While there is only a small amount of published scientific literature about effectiveness, there is a huge amount of personal experience and testimonials to support their use. I recommend these devices to my patients and I believe all active individuals will benefit from their use.

What A Percussive Massage Device Does

The basic idea behind either a vibrating foam roller or a handheld device is to deliver a moderate intensity and high frequency massage to the muscles, which is believed to then improve pliability and blood flow. The principles of this type of massage have been around for centuries, as massage therapists have used their hands in a rapid chopping motion on sore backs and limbs.

The modern motorized devices allow the user to deliver the therapy to themselves. The vibrating foam roller produces a broader area of contact and requires the user to roll over the device. The handheld devices allow targeted use to specific muscle areas.

There are plenty of athlete and celebrity endorsers of each type. For example, Tom Brady has been a proponent of the vibrating foam roller for years and sells several types through his company. You’ll find plenty of endorsements for handheld devices such as Theragun, and Hyperice. I don’t have a financial stake in any of these companies but I use a vibrating foam roller from Hyperice, a handheld device from Theragun, and a targeted vibrating sphere from TB12 Sports. There are many devices available in a wide range of pricing.

Limited Science

There’s not a lot of published scientific literature about comparative effectiveness of the various motorized devices vs manual massage. A Google Scholar search yields very few peer reviewed studies.

This 2014 study showed that vibration therapy and skilled manual massage are equally effective at reducing delayed onset muscle soreness. Both are more effective than doing nothing after an unaccustomed exercise workout.

Several of the other studies in the Google Scholar link above will show subjective improvements in reducing delayed onset muscle soreness, and improvements in post-exercise performance in people using some type of percussive massage.

Feel Better Faster

While there is not a lot of objective data to prove effectiveness, there is a huge amount of subjective information available. I’ve found through personal use as well as through feedback from others that you’ll definitely feel better faster when using these devices after an intense workout. This is especially true if you’re doing something you’re not used to.

I’ve not heard of any significant downsides to using the motorized devices. For example, I haven’t seen anything suggesting your performance will worsen after use, or that your pain will increase.

Bottom line: there’s good upside potential, negligible downside and definitely worth trying.

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