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Home > Self-Massage > Back Massager

Back Massager

One of the best things I ever did for my back when I was having trouble with it was to spring for a back massager.  Well, technically my wife bought it for me as a gift, but who’s counting?  I think she paid about $150 for it.  I’m sitting down to write this article because I broke the thing today, and when I went to throw it out – being a sentimental sap of sorts – I actually realized I had an emotional attachment to the back massager.  That’s how much pain relief my back massager brought me, and how much I used my back massager.  I had my back massager for four years, and there’s no way I would have gotten through my back pain odyssey without my back massager.

The back massager I had was actually technically a chair insert, not a true massage chair.  There are two main other types of back massagers, standalone massage chairs and hand-held back massage devices.  Massage chairs, for reasons that will become apparent to you in a moment, are great, but a bit limited.  I don’t have much experience with hand-held automated massagers so I can’t offer much there.  Anyway, the model of back massager my wife purchased me was the Homedics SBM-200H.  Here’s a picture:

If you have back pain and you want to get better, this back massager or something like it (I got mine in 2007 and Homedics has since come out with a bunch more models) is an essential arrow in your quiver of treatments.  Let’s review massage as a concept for a moment.  For someone with a “bad back,” massage is a temporary solution to a permanent problem.  Massage, so the theory goes, improves the quality of the muscle tissue by stimulating the breakdown of intramuscular fascia and temporarily increasing bloodflow to the muscles, removing cellular waste and bringing cellular nutrients.  Secondary to the two foregoing benefits, you will probably experience reduced pain.  Last but not least, it feels great to have a muscle massaged!

Sounds good, right?  Okay, so, in my experience, my back could be hurting one day, I would sit in my back massager for 5-10 minutes, and I would literally instantly be pain-free.  When my back was really bad, I would use this back massager twice a day every day for about 10-15 minutes each time.  Now, a back massager is not going to solve your back pain problem, but it will semi-permanently improve the tissue quality of your paraspinal muscles, your multifidi, your rhomboids, the middle and lower portions of your trapezius, and the hurts-so-good levator scapulae.  And if the back massager temporarily reduces or eliminates your pain, this will give you the motivational window you need to start doing exercises, mobilizations, and stretches in order to permanently address your back pain.  Here's a video of someone demonstrating one of the Homedic back massagers so you can see how it works:

Did I mention you can watch TV and drink scotch while receiving a massage with one of these babies?  Oh, also, many of them come with a heating element which will further increase bloodflow to your back.  Okay, okay, you’re sold, so which back massager should you buy?  Like I said above, I had the SBM-200H and it was fantastic.  Homedics has come out with a few other models since the SBM-200H came out which are more expensive.  For the purposes of the rest of this article I’m going to assume you bought the SBM-200H.

If you go on Amazon and read reviews you’ll see about 15% of the reviewers complaining that the massage they got from the 200H was either too hard, too soft, or didn’t hit all the spots they wanted it to (didn’t go high enough or low enough on their back).  The fact is, these limitations affect all massage chair inserts – you just have to know how to use the back massager for your particular back, height, and weight.

I developed 3 different stages of use with this back massager after I got it, each more advanced than the previous.  When your back massager first arrives, assuming you don’t get massages regularly, your virgin back will be quite tender, and thus will only require a little bit of pressure from the back massager.  To get the most out of your back massager, there are 3 different stages of massage chair positions, each producing a more intense massage than the previous.  Additionally, there are three different body positions you can assume to massage different parts of your back.

When you first start using your back massager, your back will be at its most tender because it has not received regular massages before, and, as such, the muscle “tissue quality” of your back muscles is low.  As the theory of massage goes, muscles of low tissue quality are more tender and sensitive to touch than muscles of high tissue quality.  This explains why people who get massages very infrequently find them much more painful – and pleasurable, than people who regularly receive massages.

  muscle fibers

Muscles of high tissue quality generally do not produce the “pleasurable pain” sensation when they are being massaged whereas muscles that are badly in need of massage produce that sensation with minimal pressure.  What this all boils down to is that you are going to want to use your back massager in such a way that it only puts light pressure on your back muscles at first and, later, when your back muscle tissue quality has improved, you’ll want to increase the pressure of the massage.

Stage 1: Sitting Straight Up
When you first get your back massager you’ll want to use it in the position that I’ll call “Stage 1.”  This is the plain vanilla method; simply place it in a chair with a straight back.  The SBM-200H and other back massagers like it are preprogrammed to turn off after 15 minutes.  This is a good thing.  You don’t want to overdo a massage or you’ll damage the muscle tissue.  If your back hurts the day following a massage, you overdid it – use it for a shorter time period next time or decrease the pressure.  Now, in Stage 1 there are 3 different positions you can assume:

Position 1: Butt Back
In the first position, which targets your lower and middle back, you’ll want to have your butt all the way back in the chair.  Sit naturally, however.  Don’t try to sit bolt upright.  Doing so will cause your upper back muscles to contract.  Muscles can’t be properly massaged when they’re contracting.

Position 2: Butt Forward
Scoot your butt forward and sit on the edge of the chair.  Sit with an extreme slouch.  This will put your upper back much lower in the chair.  This position will have the back massager focus on your middle and upper back.

Position 3: The Bear Hug
Position 3 isn’t really its own position, but rather a variation on Positions 1 and 2.  When you’re receiving a massage from the back massager wrap your arms around yourself as tight as you can by placing your hands on your shoulder blades, under each arm like you’re hugging yourself really tightly.  Simultaneously slouch forward a bit.  This will slide your shoulder blades forward and allow the massager to access portions of your upper back it couldn’t reach previously.  It will also press your upper back more firmly into the back massager, resulting in deeper pressure.

Stage 2: The Chair Recline
Take the chair you have your back massager on and lean it back and rest the upper back of the chair on the arm of your couch.  This obviously works best with a smaller chair, like a wooden kitchen table chair (what I use).  If your back massager is in a big plus chair, this won’t work as well because tilting such a big chair back and a logistical challenge.  Obviously, if you have a reclining chair in your house, you can use that instead of leaning another chair back against the couch.  What this does is it increases the pressure of the massage considerably.  You won’t be ready for this much pressure until you’ve used your back massager for a couple weeks.  Damn it feels good, especially after a long day.

chair leaning on couch

Stage 3: Lying Down
This is the final stage.  Simply take your back massager and lay it flat on the floor.  Gingerly lay on top of it.  This obviously puts the full weight of your torso on the massager and will result in a deep tissue massage.  When in Stage 3, always remember that you need to take advantage of two different positions, one where you’re lower down on the back massager and one where your torso is higher up on the back massager – that way you hit your whole back.  Don’t even try this until you’ve worked in Stage 2 for a while or you’ll hurt yourself.  Oh, one word of caution.  Remember how I mentioned I broke my back massager at the beginning of this article?  Well, I accidentally stepped on it when it was lying on the floor, breaking the track the massagers run on.  So be careful!

That’s it, folks.  Dollar for dollar, buying that back massager was one of the best things that ever happened to my back and me.  I’d highly recommend buying one, just remember, it’s a temporary solution to a permanent problem, not a panacea.  Below are some links to Amazon if you’re interested in getting a back massager.  For the rest of you who already have one, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the forum.


Last Updated: 5/22/2011
Originally Posted: 5/22/2011