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Fitness

Theragun: How to use it with strains, sprains and injured veins

Percussive therapy can feel magical, but you should use your massage gun with caution for some conditions.

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Massage guns are great most of the time, but not all of the time. 

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Anyone who's ever gotten a massage knows just how life-changing a few elbows in the back can be. You walk out of the parlor feeling zen and powerful, ready to take on all of life's obligations. Not to mention you smell like a variety pack of essential oils

Percussive therapy, also known as  percussion therapy or vibration therapy, offers many of the same benefits as traditional massage -- sans essential oils, unless you dab them on by yourself. Massage guns, like the luxurious Theragun, can prevent muscle soreness after exercise and potentially alleviate muscle stiffness once it's already set in. 

Despite the wondrous ability of percussion therapy to alleviate post-workout muscle soreness, in some situations, your muscles are best left alone. Keep reading to learn when you should go for a self-massage, and when you should steer clear or ask a doctor. 

Read more: How to recover from a tough workout

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What does percussion massage treat? 

First and foremost, massage guns treat muscle soreness and stiffness. Of all the research on percussive therapy, the vast majority of it focuses on vibration as a workout recovery mechanism, though not all studies report effectiveness in that area.  

No recovery technique, however, has been found to successfully eliminate workout-related muscle soreness, so it's not fair to only call out massage guns on their lack of superpowers (I'm patiently waiting for someone to invent a magical muscle healer).  

In addition to exercise-related muscle pain, there's also some evidence that percussion therapy can help relieve pain in people who have fibromyalgia. And Theragun's website says that the high speeds and powerful stimulus of a massage gun override pain signals to your brain, which may make percussion therapy effective for managing chronic pain

Related: 6 workouts for people who hate working out

Injuries you should not use a massage gun on (without doctor supervision)

As innocuous as massage therapy seems, there are some cases in which you should not get a massage, or at least talk to your doctor before relaxing on the table. Considering the fact that massage guns are basically high-powered, self-administered massages, you should heed those same guidelines when using a Theragun or other percussion massagers

If you have any of these injuries or conditions, think twice before powering on your massage gun. 

Muscle strains

This is what people colloquially call a "pulled muscle." Muscles get strained when they're stretched past their normal range of motion, often the result of overuse, improper use (bad form) or sudden motions that tear the muscle. 

Muscle strains are usually painful, so you probably won't be tempted to use your Theragun on a pulled hamstring. But just in case you thought that was a good idea, it's not -- the powerful hammering motion of percussion therapy can further damage your muscles. Treat your pulled muscle with the PRICE method (protection, rest, ice, compression, elevation) and see a doctor if necessary. If you want to massage a strained muscle, start with gentle pressure using only your hands and apply pressure around the injury, not directly on it.

This isn't to say you must avoid massage guns until a strain is fully healed. In fact, limited research suggests that vibration therapy as part of an overall treatment plan can help people regain strength and flexibility in pulled muscles. This is best supervised by a doctor, however. 

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Massage guns like the Theragun can certainly help with sore, achy muscles, but you should use caution when you have an actual injury. 

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Sprains

A sprain, although often mixed up with a strain, is actually a stretched or torn ligament. Ligaments connect two bones together. Like muscle strains, sprains occur when a part of your body is stretched past its normal range of motion, often very suddenly. You might hear a "pop" in your joint when the injury occurs. 

You should avoid using a massage gun on torn ligaments to avoid any further damage, especially right after the injury happens. As your sprain starts to heal, talk to your doctor about massage and percussion therapy before trying any treatments on your own.

Inflammation-related injuries

In medical terminology, itis is a suffix that means inflammation. So colitis literally means "colon inflammation." That's not one of the -itis conditions you need to steer clear of massage guns for, but you should use massage guns cautiously if you have any of these: 

  • Tendinitis (inflammation of a tendon)
  • Bursitis (inflammation of the bursae, or fluid-filled sacs that cushion your bones from tendons and muscles)
  • Fasciitis (inflammation of the fascia, or connective tissue, most commonly diagnosed in the heel as plantar fasciitis) 
  • Periostitis (inflammation of the periosteum, a layer of connective tissue that surrounds bone)

Broken bones

This might seem obvious, but don't use a massage gun near (and definitely not on) bones that are broken or healing -- not even if you've been cleared for exercise and feel no pain. If you are cast-free, that means your bone has mended and is in a stable position, but significant force (like that of a massage gun) can still cause severe pain and, in a worst-case scenario, damage your newly mended bone. 

Chronic conditions

Some illnesses and chronic diseases also require caution when it comes to massage and massage guns. Talk to your doctor before trying percussion therapy if you have any of these conditions: 

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Severe varicose veins
  • Other conditions that affect your blood vessels, such as atherosclerosis, peripheral artery disease, deep vein thrombosis or arteriosclerosis
  • Osteoporosis (bone degeneration)
  • Muscular dystrophy or other muscle disorders
  • Autoimmune conditions such as lupus, scleroderma and multiple sclerosis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia or gout

It might seem like percussion therapy only benefits people in perfect health, but that's not necessarily the case. If you have one of the above conditions or injuries, there's still a chance you can benefit from a massage gun, but it's wise to discuss with your doctor first. 

For example, if you have a shoulder strain, you can still use a massage gun on other parts of your body. And if you have arthritis, you can adjust the settings on your massage gun to a comfortable level, as well as use caution  around areas that ache particularly bad.

Read more: Does foam rolling actually work, or is it all hype?

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Products like Hyperice's vibrating foam roller should also be used with caution if you have an injury or illness that might get worse from percussive therapy. 

Hyperice

Who should and who shouldn't get a massage gun

Whether or not you should purchase a massage gun depends on two main factors: personal preference and doctor's orders. If you don't have any injuries or chronic conditions that warrant a doctor's clearance, and you enjoy percussive massage, go for it -- compare models and pricing

In some cases, a doctor might clear you to purchase a massage gun but give you detailed instructions on when, where and how to use it. If that's the case, follow those instructions to avoid injury. 

If your doctor advises you against self-percussive massage but you really, really want to try it out, ask about a referral to a physical therapist or chiropractor who uses percussive massage in their practice. 

And if you just don't enjoy these high-powered massages, not to worry -- you can always try whole-body cryotherapy or inflatable compression boots