Massage chairs are a highly specialized type of seating designed to provide many of the benefits of visiting a massage therapist while taking the therapist out of the equation.
Even using cutting-edge technology, the very best massage chairs can’t compete with a skilled massage therapist, but they do offer a number of compelling advantages, the first among them being the sheer convenience of being able to enjoy a massage from the comfort of home, anytime, day or night.
As you’ll see, there are a surprising number of variations.
General Classifications of Massage Chairs
Broadly speaking, there are two different kinds of massage chairs: Professional and Consumerist.
Professional Massage Chairs
Professional massage chairs are portable massage chairs used by therapists in the conduct of their business. Mostly, these types of massage therapy chairs are used by private, licensed practitioners who get contracted by area businesses to give massages to their employees as one of the “perks” of the job.
These chairs are decidedly old school and purely functional, designed to give the masseuse easy access to the neck, back and shoulders of the client during the massage. They tend to be almost purely functional and designed with only minimal creature comforts, such as a padded headrest for the client.
Consumerist Massage Chairs
Where consumerist chairs are concerned, these can be broken into two distinct groups: Therapeutic and Hobbyist.
Therapeutic chairs tend to focus heavily on features designed to alleviate chronic pain, while hobbyist chairs tend to include more convenient features that appeal to users’ interests, tastes, and preferences.
For example, a therapeutic chair might include features like:
While a hobbyist chair will focus more on features like:
Therapeutic vs Hobbyist Massage Chairs
Obviously, there is often considerable overlap here. It’s common to find massage chairs that slant heavily toward therapeutic features while offering a couple of hobbyist-oriented features, too, and vice versa.
As a general rule, though, you can look at the features of any given chair and say that it favors one category over the other.
Hobbyist chairs are essentially generalist chairs. They’re good at relieving minor muscle tension and lowering a person’s stress level while offering a comfortable, relaxing experience.
Therapeutic chairs tend to focus on addressing one or two specific problems, with specific feature sets slanted accordingly.
For instance, a therapeutic massage chair focused on easing sciatic nerve pain will focus much more on providing an excellent lumbar and leg massage, while a chair designed to alleviate chronic neck pain will obviously focus more on features in the area of the neck and shoulders.
This broad classification is instructive but has its limitations. To drill down more deeply into this world, we’ve got to further sort chairs by some other classification.
There are three kinds of massage tracks in use today:
This is a stark division. Every massage chair on the market today is built around one of these frame types.
These were the very first massage chairs manufactured. The chairs are built around a rectangular steel frame in the back of the chair where massage rollers, massage balls, or fixed-position heads are mounted.
If there’s any movement at all, the massage mechanisms can only move along the X- And Y-Axis, although in practice, almost all the chairs made with a fixed frame these days use only stationary massage heads, so there’s no movement at all.
The pressure points in your back either align with the heads, or they don’t. If they do, you’ll get a decent massage. If not, your experience will be sub-par.
You don’t find many fixed-frame chairs for sale these days, and when you do, they’re invariably at the extreme low end of the market. The least expensive chairs, using the oldest (outdated) technology.
This is the current industry standard. The S-Track is a steel frame that’s bent in an S-Shape so that it follows the natural curve of your body’s spine.
Mount rollers onto this frame, and they’ll move in three dimensions, adding the Z-Axis at the points where your spine curves.
S-Track massage chairs are the most commonly seen on the market today, and every major manufacturer has at least a few options available. They render a high-quality massage experience that starts at your neck and goes to the small of your back.
This is the most recent frame innovation; consider this to be an S-Track on steroids.
The frame gets its name from its overall shape because the track continues past the small of your back, curving under the seat to allow the rollers to massage your glutes and the backs of your thighs.
These massage chairs often come with leg massage ports, extending the massage experience down to your calves and sometimes even to your feet, giving you something closer to a full body massage experience.
Other Ways of Classifying Different Types of Massage Chairs
Even breaking the various chairs on the market today down by frame type still doesn’t completely clarify the picture, so we’ll dig deeper still.
In other articles on this topic, we’ve seen people try to break chairs down by specific features, so you get things like:
Unfortunately, this isn’t terribly helpful, because specific features are just that – features. They can be added to most any design.
Once in a while, feature-based classifications can be useful, generally in cases where a given feature is astoundingly rare, but mostly it comes down to “features” that are more consciously made design decisions.
With that thought in mind, here are some of the other ways to break down and classify different types of massage chairs:
Chairs Designed for Big and Tall Users
Most of the massage chairs sold today are optimized for users ranging from 5’ to about 6’1.” If you’re taller than that, chairs that are optimized for “regular-sized” people won’t render a good massage for you.
There are two reasons for this: First, the rollers wind up hitting the wrong spots on your back. Second, if the massage chair in question has leg massage ports, they’re not designed to properly accommodate your long legs, so again, the rollers or airbags are going to be focused on all the wrong spots.
Some massage chairs, however (about 25% of the ones on the market today) are built with extendable ottomans that automatically detect your leg length and adjust accordingly. These chairs will accommodate users up to 6’5”, depending on the manufacturer.
While most manufacturers offer at least one model built with taller users in mind, Kahuna massage chairs get a special nod in this category because most of their models feature extendable ottomans, and they’ve even got one chair that’s custom designed for big and tall users, the SM7300.
Stealth Massage Chairs
These chairs were designed and built for people who place lots of importance on aesthetics. They want a massage chair, yes, but they don’t want it to stick out like a sore thumb in whatever room they’ve put it in.
Unfortunately, most massage chairs have leg massage ports, which some people view as a bit of an eyesore.
Some chairs, though, utilize a “hideaway ottoman,” so when you’re not actively using the chair to get a massage, you can fold the leg massage ports into the ottoman where they’re invisible. At that point, the chair looks like a typical piece of living room furniture.
Human Touch gets a special nod here. A majority of its models feature the hideaway ottoman, and the company is known for its stylish, striking designs.
While this is technically a feature, it’s such a rare one that it deserves its own classification. In fact, there are only a handful of massage chairs on the market today that offer inversion therapy. The best of the bunch is the Daiwa Legacy, but there are a small handful of other models that offer similar functionality.
Current industry standard is quad rollers, though you will find some value-priced chairs using tri- or dual rollers, and in a couple of instances, you’ll see a six-roller array.
Advanced Massage Techniques
Most massage chairs offer Shiatsu, but some also offer Swedish, Thai, and others.
The more airbags the better, although bear in mind that airbags are now in their second generation so for instance, a chair with 30 Second Gen. Airbags will give you a better massage than a chair with 40 First Gen. airbags, so it pays to ask questions about the technology if this feature is important to you.
There are two options here. Most chairs use an Automatic Body Scan. Before your massage begins, the chair will take a scan and make automatic adjustments to the position of the rollers and the width of the massage field.
That works 95% of the time, but if it doesn’t, it will leave you with a substandard massage.
Some chairs skip the Body Scan-Tech and simply provide buttons on the remote that allow you to tweak the roller positions and massage field width. This takes a bit of tinkering but guarantees that the rollers are always in the right place. An increasing number of models are now offering both (currently found in nearly half of the massage chairs sold).
Types of Massage Chairs Conclusion
As you can see, there are many different types of massage chairs and lots of different ways to classify them. It’s a big, busy, bustling market, with new technologies being introduced all the time.
At the root, though, these chairs are all about providing a relaxing, refreshing massage experience from the comfort of home, no appointment needed.