The science behind percussive therapy is providing relief not just for elite athletes
At this year’s Olympics, thousands of world-class athletes competed in Tokyo, representing their respective countries. While these athletes are used to performing at the highest levels of competition, it’s a common misconception that the tools elite athletes use to recover and manage pain, such as percussive thrapy, are inaccessible to everyday people.
Relieving common pain and soreness
As a chiropractor I have always been passionate about helping people — whether they are professional athletes, office workers, parents or any person with some soreness — feel their best so they can live life to the fullest. When I created the first percussive therapy device in 2008, I was focused on relieving my own pain. I had no idea the impact that percussive therapy would eventually have on others who experienced pain and soreness in their bodies, from high-performance athletes to everyday people.
I did know that 99% of chronic pain appointments result in doctors prescribing medication. Those same medications affect people differently, with some creating potentially lifelong dependencies. I’ve always believed that people should have access to non-pharmacological methods that help treat the cause of their pain, rather than just masking their symptoms.
The evolution of percussive therapy
The idea to create a percussive therapy device came to me after I suffered a severe motorcycle injury. I searched for a solution to relieve my debilitating pain, but nothing helped. I realized the only viable options were prescription medication or surgery, though what I really craved was a way to accelerate my body’s natural healing processes.
Understanding the long history and research-backed benefits of applying pressure and vibration to soft tissues, I designed a makeshift tool in my garage to try and combine these modalities and, in theory, amplify their benefits. Over the next eight years I continually evolved this into several different versions and prototypes. In 2016, the first generation of percussion therapy devices hit the market, allowing everyday people to experience the breakthrough science of percussive therapy.
Today, percussive therapy is used by professional sports teams and athletes, celebrities, world-renowned trainers, physical therapists, orthopedic surgeons, chiropractors and everyday consumers. But, despite its increasing popularity, percussive therapy and its benefits still remain a mystery to many.
What it is and how it works
Percussive therapy is the rapid and repetitive application of pressure perpendicular to the body, which provides both local pressure and vibration stimuli to the treatment area.
It helps increase blood flow and decrease the tension held deep within muscles. This technology is unique in that it employs a combination of amplitude, frequency and torque to maximize the therapeutic effects each time the device makes contact with the body.
The continuous stimulation modulates pain perception while also delivering deep, effective treatment that is more comfortable than manual therapy due to its desensitizing effects., Stimulation of sensory receptors also helps reduce muscle tone and alleviate the tension that builds up after performing simple tasks like lifting a heavy item or sitting at a desk for an extended period of time.
Percussive therapy works by offering a unique combination of three key elements:
- Amplitude (depth) — the distance the attachment travels, which results in the size of the vibration stimuli. This allows percussive therapy devices to treat deep within the muscle;
- Frequency (speed) — the speed of movement which is calibrated to a range that has shown to have therapeutic benefits. It is the frequency that plays a key role in modulating the nervous system and overriding the pain signals to the brain, making the treatment experience more comfortable than manual muscle therapy;
- And torque (no-stall force) — the ability of the device to maintain the desired frequency and amplitude when more force is used to provide a great myofascial intervention. This allows the greatest range of treatment applications without stalling so users can effectively treat the areas that need it most.
The benefits of percussive therapy
Everybody can benefit from percussive therapy. It offers several core benefits, including reducing pain and discomfort, helping to decrease muscle soreness and stiffness, accelerated warm-up and recovery, increased blood flow and reduced sensitivity to stretching.
These benefits are relevant to the individual treating themselves, or could be integrated as a tool within a treatment plan by a chiropractor. In recent years, many practitioners have introduced percussive therapy as a way to reduce muscle tone and increase passive and active range of motion before applying other treatment modalities.
Percussive therapy has also recently been shown to help with sleep, which is an integral part of muscle recovery. Sleep disorders are widespread — more than 50 million Americans suffer from a diagnosed sleep disorder, with millions turning to prescription sleeping aids. However, prescription and over-the-counter remedies often have a long list of risks and side effects associated with them. Poor sleep quality not only impacts daily energy levels, but also is proven to have a negative effect on hormones, exercise performance and brain function.
Percussive therapy helps turn on the “recovery switch” in the body to encourage more restful sleep and to repair and restore the body — and there are statistics to prove it. According to recent commercial research, percussive therapy helped 87% of participants fall asleep nearly five minutes quicker than they do on a “normal night.” Additionally, 70% of study participants reported sleeping longer through the night, with 7% fewer awakenings per participant and 56% of participants seeing an improvement in their sleep score calculated by clinically-validated wearable technology, which accounts for factors such as sleep duration, deep sleep, wakening, efficiency and movement.
When and how to use percussive therapy
Percussive therapy is a unique modality because it can be used by an individual on themselves for therapeutic benefit or it can be used by a medical professional for more advanced interventions.
Connecting both of these circumstances to provide a continuum of care both professional and independent can be extremely valuable. Furthermore, it can be used in a variety of other situations — from muscle activation prior to workouts or physical activity, to reducing fatigue and maintaining performance during, to accelerating recovery following a workout or period of intense physical activity.
Lastly, as part of a treatment plan it could be used prophylactically to reduce soreness during progressive loading protocols, as a tool to reduce tension and increase local blood flow and tissue oxygenation, or as a pain-management tool to reduce sensitivity before subsequent interventions.
The amount of time percussive therapy devices should be used depends on the desired result and the area of the body that’s being treated. The average user should treat themselves 2-3 times a day, and benefits are observed with as little as 15 seconds to a maximum treatment time of two minutes per muscle group. A medical professional can tailor the treatment application to the unique needs of the patient, whether it is treatment duration, the force used, the movement direction over the soft tissues, and the different attachments used. Leading companies in the industry offer accredited continuing education courses that help professionals understand how to best implement the modality and optimize its use.
Benefits for everyone
The benefits of percussive therapy go beyond what is seen on the sidelines of a sporting game, on the television screen, or in a chiropractor’s office. Percussive therapy is for everybody, regardless of their age, gender, occupation or walk of life.
No matter a person’s fitness level, everybody experiences their fair share of wear and tear on the body. The reality is that most people deal with some sort of aches or pains caused by tight muscles or joints, which prevent them from experiencing life to the fullest. Percussive therapy is a solution that, if integrated into an individual’s life, can alleviate those ailments by promoting the body’s natural recovery processes.
JASON WERSLAND, DC, is the founder and chief wellness officer of Therabody. After a traumatic motorcycle accident, he needed a solution to relieve his debilitating pain. Realizing the only viable options to alleviate his pain were prescription medicine or surgery, he designed a device out of a power tool. That became the category-defining Theragun, the world’s first percussive therapy device. A chiropractor by training, he is passionate about helping people live healthier, happier lives.
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