9 best at-home massage tools to relieve aches, pains and knots

Liz Dodd
·8-min read
From foam rollers to massage guns, we tested the best equipment for tight shoulders, pulled muscles and tension headaches (The Independent/iStock)
From foam rollers to massage guns, we tested the best equipment for tight shoulders, pulled muscles and tension headaches (The Independent/iStock)

Whether you’re working from your sofa or throwing yourself into a new online exercise routine, it’s likely that lockdown is taking a toll on your body as well as your mind. With spas and massage therapists off-limits for now, it’s worth investing in a few at-home massage tools that can help you treat your own aches, knots and sprains.

From foam rollers to massage guns, we tested the best equipment for tight shoulders, pulled muscles and tension headaches. We loved all these products, but for us the greatest revelation was at-home acupressure. The spiky mats or pillows are dotted with little clusters of sharp points that stimulate but don’t break the skin, they work along the same principles as acupuncture or acupressure.

Depending on how much faith you have in alternative medicine, that means they either target specific points on your body to trigger a relaxation response or use a low, controlled level of sensation to trick your body into producing feel-good endorphins. Either way, they made us feel amazing: a short session, around 10-15 minutes, gave us a gentle energy boost; longer sessions (30-40 minutes) left us relaxed and ready for a nap. Some mats are harder than others: we’ve indicated that below. If you know you have a lower pain threshold, opt for a gentler mat.

Tools designed for athletes, or that provide a very targeted massage, like the foam roller or the spiky ball, are best used shortly after exercise or on your rest day. For tools more geared towards general wellbeing, like the acupressure mats and pillows, try scheduling a little pocket of time for self-care whenever that’s feasible – after an online yoga class or first thing in the morning, for example. We loved using the acupressure mat in the evening, with a blanket and eye bag on, listening to a guided meditation or podcast.

We have also included some massage oils and gels. These are best used when you’re using a tool that rolls over your skin, like the hand roller, but are also a treat, and smell incredible, for an acupressure session.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.

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Pranamat eco massage set

The spikiest acupressure mat we tested was also the most effective. Prana’s pretty mat, made with linen, cotton and coconut fibre, takes a little getting used to: the lotus-flower shaped spiky rosettes, made from hypoallergenic plastic, were the hardest we encountered. One of our reviewers couldn’t even come close to standing on it with bare feet. But this spikiness makes it extremely effective; so much so that it’s become an irreplaceable part of our self-care toolkit. The cushion, which comes with the mat if you buy the set, is stuffed with buckwheat. Rolling it under the nape of the neck and shoulders completely relieved our headaches – even one that had more to do with martinis than muscle strain. It works even if you’re not particularly setting aside time to chill out – laid over your chair while you’re watching TV, or in bed while reading at night, for example.

Buy now £140.00, Pranamat

Neal’s Yard soothing massage oil

A rejuvenating blend of essential oils goes into this product: floral geranium, calming lavender and sophisticated bergamot are relaxing but not soporific. The base oils – which include almond and avocado – are also deeply moisturising. This oil pairs well with any kind of rolling massager like the Hydrea, below, but our favourite trick is to use this for a self-foot massage. Get your thumbs or your knuckles into the arch of your foot for a nice release, then push gently on the top of your foot (the instep), running along from your toes to your ankle, to activate the pressure points there.

Buy now £14.00, Neal’s Yard Remedies

Hydrea stress spot massager

A simple, inexpensive way to work out tension in larger muscle groups, this handheld massager feels particularly good on tight shoulders and back muscles. The grip is excellent, so – unlike a manual massage – you don’t need to exert a huge amount of force to feel like you’re properly getting into tight muscle groups, meaning you won’t tire out as quickly. We loved using this after a bath as it’s so quick and easy to use, but feels immediately effective, and for a quick pick-me-up in the middle of the day.

Buy now £4.99, Naturisimo

Trigger Point grid foam roller

Love them or hate them, foam rollers are perhaps the most effective self massage device available to athletes. Our reviewer has long running ITB problems (tightness in a band of tissue, known as the iliotibial band, that runs from the glutes down to the outside of your lower leg) and has used more than her fair share of rollers, and this is her favourite. Because it’s split into grids that have a tiny bit of give, it’s easier to bear than a solid roller – handy if it is your ITB that you plan to target. This is not the tool to use if you’re looking for a relaxing, stress-relieving massage, but it is essential if you’re running or cycling more as your exercise during lockdown, or if you’re recovering from any kind of injury.

Buy now £39.99, Wiggle

Theragun liv

This handheld percussive massage device is unbelievably good at treating knots and tight shoulders. This is the lighter-weight, slightly cheaper model that Theragun offers and, unless you’re a professional athlete or physiotherapist, has all the features you need. If you like your massages high pressure, you’ll love this: when you glide it onto a particularly gnarly knot, the feeling is almost religious. It is loud – like audible in another room loud – and intense, but it treats specific muscle pains more effectively than anything else we tried. Excellent for athletes – the high-pressure massage reduces recovery time – it’s also a must if you’re suffering aches and pains from working at home.

Buy now £179.00, Theragun

Bed of Nails acupressure pillow

This is amazing if you suffer from any shoulder or neck pain, or tension headaches and migraines. We love acupressure mats, but always get the greatest benefit from targeting the tight muscles in the upper back and neck – these can get knotted up if you’re working from home and hunched over a computer. The little rosettes are sharp, but you get used to them quickly – try a towel over it if it’s too much at first. We loved having it under the nape of our neck and shoulders for muscle tension, or resting the back of our heads on it to soothe headaches or tiredness.

Buy now £40.00, Selfridges

Yogi Bare acupressure mat

A much cheaper, gentler and more portable version of the Prana eco mat above, our tester could stand on this mat without socks (or shrieking). It folds in half and clips together to the size of a small briefcase, which makes it easier to store or carry around – although admittedly you’re unlikely to ever use it outside the home. We found it a little on the soft side – it would be perfect for anyone new to acupressure or acupuncture. To get a little more intensity – particularly when targeting muscle pain – we liked to lay it over a firm yoga bolster. The lower price makes it a more accessible introduction to at-home acupressure.

Buy now £34.95, Yogi Bare

Yogamatters spiky massage ball

This unassuming spiky (yet squishy) ball uses the same principles as an acupressure mat to give you a targeted, fairly powerful foot massage. It is a real treat for runners or walkers who suffer from plantar fasciitis – an ache in the fascia under the arch that can be hard to treat – and feels glorious when your feet are tired: just roll it around under your feet while sitting comfortably. You can use it to target other knotted areas too, but we found that this involved a bit of contortion unless the knot was somewhere accessible.

Buy now £3.50, Yogamatters

China Gel

The world is divided between fans of this topical gel and its rival, Tiger Balm. We prefer China Gel for a feelgood massage, particularly if you want a bit of a boost – it’s made with punchy menthol, which is cooling and tingly pretty much from the moment you put it on. Because it’s non-greasy, it’s ideal to use with an acupressure mat; we also loved rubbing it into knotted shoulders after a long day at the laptop for an immediate lift.

Buy now £17.96, Yogamatters

The verdict: Self-massage tools

The Pranamat eco massage set is a complete, at-home acupressure session; it’s also a go to when you have a minor ailment, or need a pick-up. A bottle of Neal’s Yard’s gorgeous soothing oil is an essential whatever you decide to indulge in – and doubles as a luxurious moisturiser.

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