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Wellness

What is a Theragun? Why you should try this power drill-like self-massager

Can this massage for elite athletes be the answer to your chronic soreness?

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Theragun

You may be familiar with Theragun, a handheld massage gun that's taken over Instagram with slow-motion videos of athletes' muscles rippling under the device, which looks (and sounds) kind of like a power drill.

The Theragun, and other devices like it, use a tactic called percussive therapy to treat muscle soreness in everyone from professional athletes to weekend warriors. Percussive therapy is said to be effective at speeding up muscle recovery time and reducing pain after a workout.

But does percussive therapy -- and devices like the Theragun -- live up to the hype? And are they the right choice for everyone? Here's what you should know.

What is percussive therapy?

Also called percussion therapy and vibration therapy, percussive therapy is a form of soft tissue manipulation (the same thing that a massage therapist does to you during a massage) intended to reduce muscle soreness and increase range of motion.

Even though some people refer to percussive therapy as vibration therapy, most percussive therapy devices actually use a hammering or thumping movement in addition to vibrations. Some models also use circular motions, and most offer varying speeds and pressure.

What does it do?

A percussive therapy device delivers targeted vibrations and pressure to your muscles as a way to treat and manage muscle soreness, stiffness and decreased range of motion.

Because they are so powerful, it's thought that these devices can reach deeper layers of muscle than human hands, a foam roller or other muscle recovery methods can.

Does percussive therapy actually work?

That depends on what you mean by "work."

A common misconception is that percussive therapy can totally eliminate soreness once it's already present. The truth is that no kind of therapy exists for that. I don't know about you, but even when I get an hour-long deep tissue massage, soreness persists -- the massage just reduces the amount of time I suffer.

Percussive therapy more or less does the same thing as massage or self-myofascial release (foam rolling): It increases blood flow to the treated areas, increases skin temperature, reduces muscle inflammation, releases muscle tension and breaks up muscle knots.

Women exercising on foam rollers in gym

Percussive therapy helps relieve muscle tension and soreness in the same way foam rolling does.

Getty Images

One study concluded that percussive therapy might be very effective as a preventative method for managing delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), or the slow soreness you can feel creeping up on you until it painfully sets in about 48 hours post-exercise.

But unlike massage therapy and foam rolling, research on the effectiveness of vibration or percussive therapy for muscle soreness is limited.

According to TheraGun, the main purpose of percussive therapy isn't actually massage. Instead, percussive therapy aims to mask and override pain signals to your brain, which would make you feel as if the soreness is gone.

That concept was developed on the basis that a healthy brain reacts to pain signals in milliseconds. By delivering a sensation to the muscles that's even faster than that, your brain can't keep up, so you feel no pain. It's the same philosophy behind transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) units, like Livia.

Does a Theragun work better than going to a massage therapist?

Massage has long been used as a technique to reduce muscle soreness, and most of us can agree that a 60-minute Swedish feels fantastic for mind and body.

Because percussive therapy devices like the Theragun do essentially the same thing -- but much faster and perhaps deeper -- it makes sense to think that a massage gun works better than a massage therapist.

Theragun's website claims their devices provide "deeper and more efficient results than massage," but as with many newer devices and modalities, not enough science exists one way or the other to be conclusive.

Some research shows that vibration therapy isn't effective at all as a recovery method, but other research has determined that it's at least as effective as going to get a massage.

How much do they cost?

They cost exponentially more than an hour-long (or even a 90-minute) massage: Theragun runs between $299 and $599. Other high-end brands, like Hypervolt and Booster also cost $200 and up.

There are cheaper options, though. If you search "massage gun" on Amazon, the retailer will spit back more than 800 listings ranging from just $30 all the way up to $600.

Read more: Theragun, Hypervolt & more: The best massage guns

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Should you try it?

If you regularly get traditional massages (which often run upwards of $100 per 60-minute sessions), the cost throughout the year may very well exceed the price of a Theragun or other expensive massage gun. If you're looking for something less time consuming and structured than your regular massages, one of these devices might be worth the investment.

Massage therapy is proven to be beneficial for more than just our bodies -- research links massage to improvements in anxiety, stress and depression. Massage has also been linked to better sleep and improved mood, so those things alone may be enough encouragement to continue your usual massage regimen.

Before you buy, you might already have something on-hand that can give you a sense of what percussive therapy feels like: At my CrossFit gym, athletes pass around a car buffer that delivers a similar vibration and, in my experience, works effectively to work out muscle knots and soothe soreness.

Where to buy a Theragun (and other massage guns)

If you're interested in trying out percussive therapy but don't want to drop a month's worth of groceries on a massage gun, try out one of the less expensive options first, such as the Renpho rechargeable model.

An expensive model like a Theragun or Hypervolt is best for very active people who experience muscle soreness often, want to implement a recovery regimen to reduce soreness and stiffness, and would prefer an at-home, handheld device rather than a traditional massage.

Want to compare options? Read our roundup of the best percussive therapy devices