Positive Vibes: Today’s Best Massage-Therapy Products

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Advances in computer programming in massage chairs have added more precision than ever before to the movements of massage heads and rollers. Today’s massage chairs also allow for more-customized massages.



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For massage therapists, two hands might not be enough. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in May 2012 that employment of massage therapists is expected to grow by 20 percent through 2020. It’s unsurprising, then, that massage-chair manufacturers are trying to take advantage of the interest in massage by touting models that they say can poke, prod and knead you in a way that’s more humanlike than it was 3 years ago.

MOVING UP. In 2010, we noted that massage chairs’ range of movement, or the capability to reach more areas of your back, had increased through the use of air bags and massage heads. Three manufacturers, Elite Massage Chairs, Inner Balance Wellness and Panasonic, refined movement by reducing the size or number of the massage heads that are inside of their massage chairs. These tweaks mean that massage heads, when they’re coupled with more-sophisticated computer programming, can make more-precise twists and turns. The result is that the massage chairs better mimic the action of human hands, the manufacturers tell Consumers Digest. Prices for these more-precise massage chairs start at $3,000.

Reducing the number of massage heads means that components achieve a wider range of motion to provide consumers with a fuller massage from massage chairs now than they could 3 years ago, says Todd Theissen of Inner Balance Wellness. “Before, it started in the lumbar area and went to the shoulders,” he says. “Now, it can go all the way from the back of the head down to the tailbone.”

In our evaluation of massage chairs, we found that the intensity of these tight circular motions is particularly effective at massaging neck and shoulder muscles compared with models that use larger motions, which typically are suitable for larger areas, such as your back muscles.

PROGRAM CHANGE. In addition to tweaked mechanical parts, you’ll notice that massage chairs that have preprogrammed settings instead of just the traditional high-, medium- and low-intensity settings, have become commonplace. We found that massage chairs that start at $600 now have at least three preprogrammed settings that concentrate on your lower back, shoulders or entire back at the touch of a button. In 2010, this feature was found only on chairs that started at $2,000.

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Turning programmability up a notch are massage chairs that allow you to program your own customized massage. Larry Thomas, who is a senior editor at Furniture Today, tells us that in 2010 no chairs allowed users to program their own customized massage, say, to focus a shiatsu, or rolling, massage just on the back. Now such customization is widespread—available in massage chairs that start at as little as $1,300.

Beyond programmability, you now can find 19 massage chairs from seven manufacturers that incorporate body-scanning technology. This feature, which is available in chairs that start at $2,190, adds to a massage chair’s capability to customize your massage experience. This feature began to emerge in late 2010, Thomas says, and comes from the mattress industry, in which retailers used in-store body scanners to help customers to determine the right mattress for them.

Here’s how the scanners work in a massage chair: The scanners detect the shape of the person who sits in the chair, which allows a user to get, say, a shiatsu rub on a more precise location on the shoulders or back than he/she previously could get. Three years ago, scanning technology wasn’t as precise in mapping your body. You could choose only to have general areas targeted. Today’s more expansive scans also include the neck, shoulders and bottom.

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