How do massage chairs work, anyway? If you own one, you may have wondered that very thing, or perhaps not—you might just be glad it does what it does!  

If the question has crossed your mind, though, we’ll outline the basics in the article below. Don’t worry, we’ll only be giving the subject a high-level treatment, so you won’t need an advanced degree to follow along.

But it’s a more interesting topic than you may think, so read on, and let’s take a closer look at the mysterious inner workings of your massage chair.

First Things First

In this article, we’ll be talking specifically about how massage chairs with rollers work because older, vibration-style massage chairs are pretty well understood. These chairs contain some number of stationary massage heads (usually between 8-12), and a motor inside the chair vibrates them in place. 

Real Relax PS3100 Massage Chair in black faux leather upholstery, with mechanically extendable footrest

Not much to talk about there, so we’ll focus on massage chairs with tracks and rollers and take you ‘behind the curtain,’ so to speak.

So, On To Tracked Massage Chairs

There are a number of components to talk briefly about, but all of them are controlled by the remote that comes with the chair. This is essentially your command center.  

It can take many forms, with some being a handheld wireless device not unlike your TV remote, except most massage chair remotes have a tiny LCD screen that gives you a visual display of some of the controls—like the positions of the rollers, for example.

Other remotes are wired into the chair itself. It’s a little old school, but it works essentially the same way as the wireless remotes, and still, others substitute a flat-screen touchpad/tablet in place of a remote. 

When you find these, they’re most often mounted on a little mechanical arm that is, in turn, mounted onto one of the arms of the chair.

Titan Pro Commander Massage Chair's 3D massage rollers and L-track system that starts from the neck and ends under the thighs

Note that some models also include a secondary control system in the form of buttons built into one of the chair arms. This secondary control system allows you to do the basics but is almost never as robust as the control you get via the remote.

Whatever form the control system takes, the remote is your means of interfacing with the chair. You input commands there and tell the chair what you want it to do.

The Recline Function

Almost every massage chair on the market today offers a recline function. If you want to, then, you can use your trusty massage chair as a recliner, even on days you don’t feel like treating yourself to a massage. 

The vast majority of these are auto-recliners, so the recline function works at the push of a button, though you can still find a few that require you to manually lay the seatback.

In cases where the recline function is mechanical, there’s a small motor inside the chair that activates when you press the button, reclining the chair either to its predefined position or, in some cases, until you tell it to stop.

Note that about a third of the chairs on the market today feature one or more Zero-G seating positions. 

Where these are offered, the angle of recline is preprogrammed into the chair, so you just push the Zero-G button (or one of the options, if multiple Zero-G seating options are available), and the motors quietly whir to life and put you in the desired position.


About half of the massage chairs on the market today offer heat, and although there are a few differences, broadly speaking, the heat function works like this:

Kahuna LM 9100 in blue synthetic leather upholstery and gold highlights and with heating for the entire back

There are one or two heating coils in the chair, most often in the seatback, but occasionally, you’ll find chairs that also offer heated footwells.

These are paired with a button on the remote. Pressing the activation button causes the elements to heat up, much the same way that a small space heater works, only this one has a very specific and localized function!

Air Massage

More than half the massage chairs on the market today offer some kind of air massage mode, and once again, we find a small motor driving the action.

Bodyfriend Phantom II Massage Chair with white outer shell and white synthetic leather plus rose gold highlights along edges

When you order an air massage, it will activate the motor, which will be used to force air into the bladders or airbags strategically located in the chair.

And air massage is a lot like being hugged by a cloud. Very relaxing.

Note, however, that some massage chairs also offer a body stretch function. In this case, the airbags inflate with the goal of holding you in place while the recline motor engages and gives you a good stretch that closely resembles a chiropractic adjustment. It’s significantly more intense than the gentle airbag-based massage, but that’s by design!

Roller Massage

Finally, we come to the heart of it. Most people invest in a massage chair for the roller-based massage it provides.

These days, most chairs come equipped with quad rollers, which are exactly what they sound like.

Ootori Nova N802 Massage Chair with eight rollers hitting the contours of the male model's back

The rollers are mounted to a track that allows them to move up and down your back, and depending on the length of the track, the rollers might even travel under the seat to massage your glutes and the backs of your thighs.

Older massage chairs only allow for roller movement along the X- and Y-axis. These chairs are known as “2D” massage chairs—for two dimensions of movement.

More modern chairs allow for X-, Y-, and Z-axis movement, allowing the rollers to press much more firmly into your back, rendering something very close to the deep tissue massage you sometimes get from your friendly neighborhood chiropractor.

Whatever the design of the track of the massage chair you have, once more, the motors in the chair make the magic happen. They respond to your commands issued via the remote, allowing you to switch from one massage technique to another, choose the speed and/or the intensity of the rollers, and make other adjustments as you desire.

Woman on a SMAGREHO Massage Chair, getting her neck, back, and waist massage from the eight fixed-point rollers

Massage techniques are preprogrammed motion routines that the rollers execute, which are stored in a little microprocessor inside the chair that basically plays the role of director, managing the motion of the rollers.

So, for example, when you choose a “Kneading” massage that tells the rollers to move over your back in a circular pattern while choosing a “Rolling” massage will simply have the rollers glide up and down your back.

Most massage chairs offer at least one advanced massage technique, with the most common being Shiatsu.

Shiatsu is a pressure point-based massage that relies on a firm press, so, as you can guess, it tends to be better on 3D massage chairs that give the rollers a degree of Z-axis motion.

In any case, at the end of the day, its motors hiding in the depths of your chair that drive the functions that ultimately make your back feel good and melt that tension away!


Ultimately, massage chairs work via a combination of motors, rollers, and the track system that’s built into the chair, with all those functions married to a remote that allows for quick and convenient access to all the chair’s features. And now you know!

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