Massage Chairs FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

What is a Zero-G Chair?

Zero-G is short for Zero-Gravity and is a feature that a significant minority of massage chair models offer. Inspired by NASA, it’s a feature that sees the chair recline to a position where your knees are elevated slightly above your heart, which leaves you sitting in the chair with a genuine feeling of weightlessness.

Getting a massage in this position has a number of benefits, including the fact that it will help promote better blood flow, lower your blood pressure and promote faster healing after a surgery, but in a nutshell, it just makes for a better-quality massage that will leave you feeling better.

Typically, massage chairs that come with Zero-G seating options include either 1, 2, or 3 pre-programmed seating positions, available at the touch of a button.

What are massage chair airbags?

Airbags are bladders embedded in massage chairs that, at the touch of a button, can be filled with air then deflated in pulses. Their presence in a given model gives that chair a secondary means by which a massage can be rendered (with the massage rollers being the primary massage technology).

Like a roller-based massage, most massage chairs that offer airbags allow the person sitting in the chair the opportunity to adjust the intensity of the massage rendered by airbags.

Air massage is compression based and is rendered by squeezing, holding, then releasing the extremities targeted by the massage (typically the arms and legs, but some massage chairs have airbags that will give this type of massage to the neck, shoulders or feet).

Inflating and deflating the airbags slowly can simulate a kneading or rolling technique while cycling rapidly between inflation/deflation can simulate a basic tapping massage.

Note that the bladders described above are generally referred to as “first generation” airbags. Most companies have now moved beyond the simple bladder approach and have refined the design of their airbags, using either a series of smaller cells or airbags with multiple chambers, allowing the chairs to render a more precise and refined massage.

While we’re not aware of any company that refers specifically to these as “First” and “Second” generation air bags, we note the evolution in the technology in this way in many of our reviews.

Note that airbags also play a crucial role in the rendering of a body stretch, in massage chairs that offer that feature.

What are the different types of massages you can expect from a massage chair?

A human massage therapist is capable of rendering dozens of different types of massages. In fact, there are more than two hundred different techniques available. The vast majority of chairs on the market today, however, stick to a handful of basic techniques.

Here are the most common massage techniques you’ll find on the market today:

• Tapping – As the name indicates, a tapping massage utilizes the rollers (or, in some cases, rapidly inflating/deflating airbags) a bit like little-cushioned hammers, tapping specific points on your back. It’s a good massage technique to select if you’ve got stiff muscles or poor blood circulation. It can also be used to break up scar tissue, making it a solid choice for people who have undergone surgeries. Note that tapping is often called percussive massage.

Rolling – Imagine a rolling pin laying against your spine, then rolling gently but firmly away from it, focusing on the muscles there, while simultaneously moving up and down the length of your spine. That’s a rolling massage. It’s a great warm-up for some other massage program and is ideal for loosing tight back muscles.

Kneading – Kneading massage relies on a series of lifting and stretching motions to gently knead the tension out of the muscles in your back, neck, and shoulders. This is generally accomplished by the rollers moving in small circular motions up and down the length of your spine and along other pressure points in your body.

Shiatsu – The three techniques described above are considered basic massage techniques and appear in virtually all massage chairs on the market today. Most high-quality massage chairs offer at least one advanced technique, and this is the most common of the advanced techniques.

It’s a Japanese technique, and the word translates as “finger pressure.” It works by pressing, then stretching and rotating and is remarkably effective at relieving muscle tension and can leave you feeling restored and refreshed. It not only works to relieve muscle pain, but can also be used to alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression.

Swedish – This technique is only rarely seen on massage chairs but is always a welcome addition when it’s present. It relies on long, swirling massage strokes to break up muscle tension and improve circulation. Note that some chairs offer a “deep tissue” massage which is essentially a more robust variant of the traditional Swedish massage. This variant is ideal for people who suffer from chronic pain.

Vibration – This was the go-to massage “technique” offered in the very first massage chairs. You’ll still find a few low-end chairs offering a vibration style massage, and once in a while, you’ll find a few mainstream brands that feature a vibration plate in the seat of the chair.

While not a true technique, we wanted to mention it briefly, given its presence in a few models being sold today. Some people swear by it, claiming that it helps to foster better circulation. On the whole, we’ve found that people either love it or despise it. It’s worth experimenting with to see which camp you fall into.

Airbag (Compression) – If you have a massage chair with airbags (and most chairs sold today have at least a few), you can activate them to get an airbag massage. It’s rendered as the chair inflates and deflates the air bags in selected areas, which feels a bit like someone with giant hands gently squeezing and releasing the muscles. Its primary purpose is to gently relieve stress and improve blood circulation. It can also help stimulate your body’s lymphatic system, making it more efficient and effective at removing toxins.

Since the massage chair is basically a computer you can sit in, the airbags can be programmed to inflate and deflate rapidly, which can approximate a tapping-style massage, and some massage chair models offer this feature.

Body Stretching – While not technically a massage style, some companies list it as such, so we’re including it here for the sake of completeness. Stretching is accomplished by the chair’s airbags holding you in place as the chair itself slowly reclines, holds, and then returns to its default position. This has the same basic effect that a chiropractic adjustment does and is a great way to warm up to another, more robust massage, or cool down after a hard day’s work.

Note that not all body stretching routines are created equally. If this feature is important to you, you’ll probably be very interested in chairs offering highly aggressive Thai body stretch routines or Kahuna’s outstanding Yoga body stretch (offered on just about every model the company makes).

Reflexology – This isn’t a technique used by the rollers that move up and down your spine, but it is utilized by some companies that offer rollers in the leg massage ports. The idea is that by putting pressure on specific parts of the bottoms of your feet, it will relax other areas of your body, in addition to feeling incredible and relieving pain in your feet.

What is 3D and 4D Body Scanning?

Before we can answer this question, we’ve got to provide a bit of background. Almost all of the massage chairs on the market today rely on rollers to render the massage.

In a modern massage chair, the rollers can move up, down, left and right, following the track of the chair. Since the upper portion of the track is S-Shaped, following the natural curvature of your body’s spine, there is a certain in/out motion as well, and many of the rollers are designed in such a way that they can move a short distance from the track (usually in the area of 2-4”). Taken together then, this allows movement in three dimensions: The X, Y, and Z axis.

Chairs that offer a 4D massage have rollers that can do all of the above, plus turn. This turning action provides a deeper and more penetrating massage experience. Of course, it’s not actually a 4th movement dimension, because it’s still following along the X, Y, and Z axis, which has lead some people to say that this is more of a marketing gimmick than anything. Fans of 4D massage chairs, however, swear by them.

That brings us to body scanning technology. In order to render a truly great massage, the rollers have to hit your body’s pressure points. If they don’t, you’ll undoubtedly get some relief and benefit from the massage, but it will ultimately be a somewhat underwhelming experience.

Body scanning technology is incorporated into the vast majority of chairs on the market today. When you first sit in the chair and activate a massage program, the chair will scan you so that it “knows” where you back is, relative to the seatback.

Armed with this information, it can adjust the position of the rollers before your selected massage program begins to ensure that it hits the pressure points on your neck and back, and if you have an L-Track massage chair, your glutes and thighs.

Body scanning technology is generally quite accurate, but there are occasions where it won’t position the rollers exactly where you want them. In those cases, almost all of the chairs that feature the technology also offer a means of manually tweaking the position of the rollers so you can ensure that every time you sit in the chair, you’re getting the best massage that chair is capable of delivering.

What is an Ottoman in a massage chair?

In a recliner, the function of the Ottoman is simply to provide a platform to rest your feet on as you lean back in the chair. In a massage chair, the Ottoman does much more than that.

Most (but not all) of the massage chairs on the market today offer an Ottoman, and these invariably feature leg massage ports. When you sit in the chair, you slide your legs into the ports, and when you activate a massage routine, depending on the option you select, airbags in the leg ports will activate, giving you a soothing calf and foot massage.

Many chairs also feature rollers in the footwells of the leg ports, so that if you’re sitting in the chair with bare or sock-clad feet, you’ll also be treated to a relaxing foot massage.

Unfortunately, the presence of leg massage ports on the Ottoman makes most massage chairs stick out like a sore thumb, and they’re not very attractive. This has led some manufacturers to create models with a “hideaway Ottoman.”

Unless you’re actively using the chair to get a massage, the leg massage ports fold into the body of the chair where they’re out of sight. At first glance then, the chair in your living room is just a large recliner, giving chairs with this feature a generally more pleasing aesthetic.

What is a massage chair roller and what types are there?

In the evolution of the massage chair, rollers took the place of stationary massage heads, which were found in the very first models of massage chairs and can still be found in a few low-end models today.

Whatever form they take, in the overwhelming majority of massage chairs on the market today, it is the rollers that render the primary massage of the chair, with most chairs also offering some number of airbags to provide a secondary means of rendering a massage.

Massage chair rollers come in four configurations that we’ve seen on the market:

  • Dual Rollers.
  • Tri-Rollers (only offered by 1-2 models).
  • Quad-Rollers.
  • And a very few models on the market today feature sets of six-rollers.

Massage chair rollers are generally deployed in pairs, one for the left side of your back, and one for the right. A dual roller features a pair of massage chair rollers, one atop the other that travel up and down the length of the massage track, kneading your back.

The very few tri-rollers on the market feature two rollers placed side by side at the top, with one roller behind them.
Quad rollers look a bit like a miniature roller skate, with a pair of rollers top and bottom on either side of the track. The very new six-roller arrays look like quad rollers, but with an extra two rollers arrayed in the line.

How does stretching work in a Massage Chair?

Have you ever paid a visit to your local chiropractor to get an adjustment? If so, you know in a nutshell how stretching works in a massage chair. Body stretching seeks to do the same thing as a chiropractic adjustment. As such, it can provide almost immediate relief to those suffering from certain forms of chronic back pain.

In terms of executing the body stretch, the process works like this:

You sit in the chair and select the body stretch routine from your massage chair’s menu. The airbags in the chair inflate, holding you firmly in position by the arms and legs as the chair reclines back, gradually increasing the pressure on your spine, then releasing.

As you might guess, the quality of the body stretch you get varies widely from one company to another, and from one massage chair model to another. If you’re interested in the feature, you should know that the two most aggressive forms of body stretching are the Thai body stretch and the Yoga body stretch.

You can find the former in a few makes and models of massage chairs, scattered over a handful of different companies. Currently, the only company we know of offering the Yoga body stretch is Kahuna, and it’s featured in just about every chair the company makes.

Depending on who you ask, Kahuna’s Yoga stretch is either in first or second place (ahead of, or just behind) Thai stretching in terms of the best stretching routine in the business.

How does heating work in a massage chair?

There are two primary ways that heat therapy is incorporated into massage designs. The simplest and most straightforward of these involves heating elements, not unlike those you find in electric blankets and heating pads. A few chairs use far-infrared technology to provide heat.

You’ll find heat in slightly less than half of the massage chairs on the market today. Most commonly, when heat is offered, it’s limited to the lumbar area of the seat back. In some instances, however, you’ll find models offering more extensive back heat, and heated arm and/or leg ports.

Heat therapy in a massage chair works just like it does in a heating pad, except of course that it is combined with a massage program, which enhances the overall massage experience. The idea is to raise the temperature of a painfully sore part of your body, which increases blood flow, and thus oxygen to that area.

Heat therapy is described to be useful in the alleviating a variety of symptoms related to multiple conditions, including, but not limited to:

  • Abdominal cramps
  • Bursitis
  • Contracture
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Menstrual Cramps
  • Muscle Spasms
  • And Thrombophlebitis, which is clotting inside blood vessels

The one drawback we’ve found in terms of massage chairs that offer heat therapy is the fact that almost none of them allow the person sitting in the chair to precisely control the temperature of the heat provided. That’s a shame because even a simple heating pad usually has 3-4 default temperature settings, so you can fine-tune the amount of heat you’re looking for.

While heat therapy is a fantastic addition to any massage chair, we recommend using it for no more than twenty minutes at a time before giving your body a break.

How does Chromotherapy work in a massage chair?

Chromotherapy, often referred to as color therapy has its roots in ancient Chinese and Egyptian medicine. The idea behind it is a simple one: Different colors can impact the human body in various ways, by interacting with a person’s energy.

As you might guess, based on the brief description above, chromotherapy is classed as alternative medicine, and to date, its impacts on human health have not been quantified. Given its long tradition in medicine, however, millions of people all over the world swear by it.

Some massage chairs incorporate chromotherapy into their designs by adding soft-colored LED lights in various places on the chair’s frame. If you own a chair with chromotherapy and activate a massage program while sitting in a darkened room, the LED lights will activate, bathing the room in a soft, luminous glow.

Your mileage may vary, but many people report that the glow from the lights combined with the action of the rollers and airbags, and further combined with soft music makes for a more relaxing massage experience. Even if you don’t believe in it, it’s not a feature that adds greatly to the overall cost of the models that offer it, so it’s well worth considering and experimenting with.

How does Air Ionizer work in a massage chair? Isn’t breathing ionized air bad for you?

Air ionizer technology comes to us from Asia, where it’s frequently found in products ranging from air purifiers to toothbrushes. The idea behind it is that by ionizing the air, dust particles can be more easily captured by filtration devices, which means that the air you wind up breathing is cleaner and fresher.

That, combined with a gentle breeze blowing in your face while you’re getting a massage combines to create an experience that some people find more soothing and relaxing.

As to the second part of the question, breathing ionized air is perfectly safe. Air ionizers like the ones used in massage chairs are frequently confused with ozone generators, which are harmful to human health, as breathing in even small amounts of ozone can cause inflammation in your lungs. Fortunately, that’s not a concern in this case.

Important: Remember to always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any medical question you may have.

How does Space-Saving technology work in a massage chair?

Massage chairs without space-saving technology work just like recliners do. They have an established footprint when the chair is in its fully upright position. When you recline or activate the footrest/Ottoman, these simply move out and away from the established footprint of the chair.

A massage chair with space-saving technology makes active use of this established footprint by rotating in place and slightly forward as you recline. The best way to understand the benefit is to compare a massage chair without space-saving technology to one that offers that feature.

A chair without space saving technology will have to be placed 2-3’ from the wall you plan on setting it near in order for you to recline fully. If you have a chair with space-saving technology, you can get away with setting the chair as little as 3-4” from the wall. In a nutshell, then, it simply takes up less space in your house, which makes it ideal for people with smaller homes or apartments.

What is an S-Track?

An S-Track is a massage track in a modern massage chair that is S-shaped to follow the natural curve of your body’s spine. While the track length varies some from one model to the next, the basic idea behind an S-Track is to render a massage that begins at your neck and extends down your torso to the base of your spine.

What is an L-Track?

An L-Track is a massage track in a modern massage chair that is L-Shaped. As with an S-Track chair, the massage track starts at your neck and follows the natural curve of your back down to the base of your spine. From there, the track turns, creating an “L” shape, and travels under the seat to render a massage to your glutes and the backs of your thighs.

What is a “Fixed Frame” massage chair?

The very earliest massage chairs on the market didn’t feature either an S- or an L-Track. Instead, they offered a metal framework built into the seat back. Stationary massage heads were mounted on this framework, and typically, they simply vibrated in place, although some chairs of this type eventually went on to offer a few other basic massage techniques.

It didn’t take long before this type of chair gave way to the S-Track design, which saw massage rollers take the place of stationary massage heads, greatly improving the quality of the massage the chair could deliver.
Today, about the only place you see fixed-frame massage chairs sporting stationary massage heads is at the extreme low-end of the market. If you’re considering buying one of these, you’re much better off saving just a bit more money and getting an entry-level massage chair with an S-Track. These designs just can’t deliver a massage of anything close to the quality you get from an S-Track or L-Track chair.

What is a Hybrid L/S Track?

Mostly, this is a marketing gimmick. It’s a term used by a few companies to describe the massage track in their chair. It was more prevalent when L-Track massage chairs were first introduced, and has since been slowly falling into disuse, although you will still see more than a few Amazon vendors refer to the track in this way.

The idea behind the term was to describe the fact that an L-Track massage is also (by definition) an S-Track. When the L-Track was first introduced, people didn’t understand right away what it was and what it meant, and our best guess is that this terminology was a good way to connect the new track type to something that people were already familiar with.

Which is better? S-Track vs L-Track vs Hybrid L/S Track

This is an interesting question, but ultimately, the answer comes down to what your needs are.

An S-Track massage chair will work its magic in a range that spans from your head and neck to your tailbone. An L-Track massage chair extends the range of motion under the seat, massaging your glutes and the backs of your thighs.

If your primary interest is in a chair that will give you a good back massage, then there’s little point in paying extra for a range of motion you don’t really need. Sure, if you can get an L-Track for about the same price as the S-Track you want (possible, especially with periodic sales), then there’s certainly no harm in it, but if you’re going to have to pay a premium, and you don’t need it, save your money.

What are the most important features of a massage chair?

As with most questions, the answer here is going to be highly dependent on exactly what your needs are. Here are some general points to keep in mind though:

• No massage chair is ever going to surpass the skill and quality of a professionally trained massage therapist. You can get reasonably close if you invest in a chair with quad rollers, especially if those rollers are heated. Note that there are a few models available today that utilize six-roller arrays, and these come even closer to mimicking the feel of human hands.

• As good as massage by itself is, massage plus heat is going to provide a much better overall experience, and offer more therapeutic value, so lumbar heat should be high on your priorities list (the more extensive the heat, the better, generally, though again, if you don’t need heated footwells, don’t pay a premium for the feature).

• Related to the above, focus your attention on chairs that offer you some means of temperature control for the offered heat.

• Body stretching is another feature that provides tremendous therapeutic value, so put this high on your wish list too, especially if you suffer from chronic back pain.

The most important thing to keep in mind is what you plan to use the chair for, and that’s going to depend on your specific situation. If you spend several hours a day on your feet, then a chair with a good calf and foot massage (and preferably heated footwells) will serve you well, and it’s worth making sacrifices in other areas to get a superior massage in this area of your body.

In a similar vein, if you do office work, then finding a chair that gives a great head, neck and shoulder massage is critical. Unfortunately, this is an area that most chairs struggle with, and if that’s your primary need, it’s going to limit your options somewhat.

There are many other popular features (USB ports, Zero-G seating positions, space-saving design, etc.) and all of these are important in their way but come down to simple personal preference. Get as many of these as you’re interested in, but for most people, the presence or absence of these features won’t be a deal breaker.

How often should you use a massage chair?

There are no right or wrong answers here, beyond any warnings that may be included in the owner’s manual of the particular model you’ve purchased. For instance, on some value-priced models, you’ll see warnings about not using their product for more than thirty minutes at a time, with a thirty-minute cooldown, not for you, but for the chair!

There’s nothing harmful about getting a massage, so enjoy one as often as you like. The worst thing that will happen is that you’ll feel a lot more relaxed, and might get a better night’s sleep – that doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

Having said that, we will issue a general word of caution: If you’re in chronic pain, and if you have a massage chair capable of incredibly strong deep-tissue massage or especially aggressive body stretching, you’ll probably want to limit your use of those specific features.

The best advice we can give here is: listen to your body. A massage or body stretch shouldn’t leave you feeling worse after than you felt before. If it does, you’ve got the intensity settings cranked up too high and should give your body a rest before dialing the settings back and trying again.

  • Chair Institute
  • October 22, 2018
  • Library
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