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Buying a massage chair? Experts say, consider this

It's no cure-all for chronic aches and pains

Man touching back in pain while working at his desk with a laptop Credit: Getty Images / fizkes

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There are so many public establishments I can’t wait to once again enjoy when the pandemic ends and we return to “normalcy”—restaurants, gyms, malls. For me, one of the places I yearn for is the nail salon, for a pampering experience filled with hand and foot massages and fresh nails that leave me feeling good for weeks.

The cherry on top? The electrical massage chairs you get to sit in while your feet soak and your nails get painted. Within minutes, it’s hard for me to keep my eyes open as I blissfully receive a fully mechanical body massage.

In the meantime, as the pandemic continues to prevail, many feel inclined to look towards at-home solutions to recreate these sort of relaxing moments. Especially in the popularized work-from-home lifestyle, tense muscles and achy body parts are par for the course.

You could create an at-home spa in your spare bathroom, with a soaking tub and soaker shower head. Or, you can try something else. Something more nail spa-inspired.

Massage chairs can help to ease WFH and pandemic tension—but won’t be your be-all and end-all solution to curing your aches and pains. If you’re in the market for a massage chair, here’s what you should know before buying one.

Who can benefit from a massage chair?

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Credit: Getty Images / mustafagull

While massage chairs can help you to relax after a long day, it may not be the best option for addressing pain—in fact, experts say the use of massage chairs could make pain problems worse.

If you’re looking to buy a massage chair, you may have already experienced the pleasures they can offer during a visit to the airport, the mall, or, of course, the nail salon. Massage chairs are part of a booming industry and are becoming increasingly popular for the home.

There is no doubt that massage chairs can provide a calming experience, especially to those who are feeling stressed and fatigued after a long week. Mostly anyone can experience these simple benefits from a massage chair with alternating kneading and pounding massage motions and/or heating to relax the body.

This being said, experts in the massage therapy field warn against using a massage chair for anything beyond recreation. If you are living with chronic pain or symptoms caused by chronic diseases, massage chairs shouldn’t be a solution.

Butch Phelps, licensed massage therapist at The Muscle Repair Shop, says, “If you’re looking at it truly just for comfort and as a novel thing, it works fine for that—but if your expectation is that it can solve, [for example], back pain, you’ll be hugely disappointed.”

While massage therapy performed by a licensed expert is used to manage health conditions and improve wellness, the same shouldn’t be applied to electrical massage chairs that function autonomously.

Tony Moses, a licensed massage therapist and NASM certified personal trainer at Moxie, says, “You’re never going to fix your problem with a mechanical or electric massage chair. It may help you to feel good for a few moments, but if you have a chronic issue, your issue will continue to be chronic.”

What kind of massage chairs are out there?

When it comes to massage chairs for the home, there are plenty of options to choose from. Here are just a few of the most common types of chairs you’ll come across when shopping, and how they differ:

Zero Gravity (or Recliner): A zero-gravity massage chair (or a massage recliner chair) works like other zero gravity recliners, which intend to create a “weightless” sensation by reclining your feet up.

Gaming: Ergonomic gaming chairs can be a good option for providing back support while using at a desk—a vibrating or massaging gaming chair takes it up another level.

Ottomans: For a full-body massage, chairs with ottomans can provide targeted massage for your lower body as well as your upper.

Then, you can get into specific features—all the bells and whistles that can come with your massage chair. This includes, but is not limited to, specific massage rollers, massage tracks, heated seats, foot massage, compression, adjustable intensity and movement, and countless others.

Here are some of the most common terminology to look out for when it comes to these additional features:

“S” Track versus “L” Track: This refers to the kind of internal track that the massage rollers follow. An “S” track follows an “S” shape, following the natural curve of the spine as it moves down. An “L” track follows similarly to the “S” track, but instead continues to extend past the lumbar spine area and moves below the butt and thighs. There are also “SL” tracks that use a hybrid version of these.

2D, 3D, and 4D: This refers to the different levels of intensity and thoroughness of a mechanical massage chair, with 2D being the least intense and 4D being the most.

Is a massage chair worth the investment?

Maybe. According to the experts, it depends on why you’re in the market for a massage chair.

If you’re looking to relax and unwind after a long day of standing on your feet or sitting at a desk, then it may be worth the convenience of having a massage chair right in your home.

However, if you’re looking to address chronic pain or alleviate the side effects of an injury that hasn’t been looked at by a medical professional, experts recommend avoiding them and speaking with a medical professional first and foremost.

Massage chairs are no doubt an investment that can cost you anywhere from $100 to $10,000. In addition, mechanical massage chairs—like any other mechanical device—will wear over time, and may need specific parts fixed or replaced. These replacement parts can add up in costs over time.

What to look for in a massage chair

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Credit: Getty Images / amirulsyaidi

Before buying a massage chair, make sure you have enough space in your home for one, as they can take up quite a bit of space.

What you may prefer in a massage chair, someone else may not want—it all comes down to personal preference and what kind of massage you want to get at the end of the day. However, there are some key qualities that you should make sure fits the bill before buying a massage chair.

Phelps emphasizes the importance of finding the right fit for you—specifically, you should find one that matches your height and aligns with your body correctly.

“The seat of the chair should fit you so that it comes behind your knees as you’re sitting upright and when you recline back. Your hips should also hit the back of the chair,” says Phelps. “If you’re a shorter person and the seat is larger, you’re not getting the affected areas, which will cause disappointment. If you’re using a smaller recliner, and you’re a taller person, you will not have any support on your head.”

If you can, try out the chair before buying it to make sure it properly fits your body—or, that it has adjustable features that can fit multiple sizes.

Some of the best massage chairs, according to reviewers

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Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.

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