A self-massage could be just what you need to feel immediate relief from that gnawing ache in your neck or knot in your lower back.

By Megan Falk
July 14, 2020
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Whether you’ve been trying to keep your world running from your living room or you've been hustling non-stop as a frontline worker for the last five+ months, chances are your body still hasn’t fully adapted to the change of pace. Your neck might constantly ache from your not-so-ergonomic WFH set up, or your arches might radiate with pain from those house shoes you've been wearing all day every day. 

One way to provide short-term relief from the gnawing pain and strain? Give your bod a little self-massage. “Once you recognize the tightness, stiffness, soreness in your neck, shoulders, and beyond, you’re going to want to know that you can self-massage to relieve the tension in your body,” says Brenda Austin, a licensed massage therapist and the founder of Now and Zen Bodyworks in Addison, Texas. (Related: The Mind-Body Benefits of Getting a Massage)

And the occasional dull ache in your shoulder isn’t the only sign you could benefit from one. Some of your muscles might temporarily feel short and tight, causing stiffness and difficulty moving your body in certain directions, explains Austin. But when you give your body a little TLC, you’ll not only release feel-good endorphins like serotonin, but you’ll also momentarily loosen up any tightness and strain in the affected area, says Austin. “If you massage an area for about 30 seconds to a minute, you’re going to start feeling the tension release and feel as if the skin and tissue is more pliable,” she says.

While you may feel rejuvenated after a self-massage, as it increases blood flow to the worked areas, know that the effects probably aren’t permanent. “Self-massage can relieve pain and tension…and your body can't really relax into it while you're doing work on yourself,” says Alex Lippard, a licensed massage therapist and certified personal trainer in New York City. “As a massage therapist, self-massage is the last resort because it only causes fleeting symptom relief, while ignoring the source of most issues.”

The true source of the tight knots in your back and neck: Overstretched or weak muscles, says Lippard. In general, most people have overstretched upper backs and posterior muscles of the neck as a result of staying parked in front of a desk day after day; their anterior necks, side neck muscles, and pecs are short and tight due to slouching at a computer; and their hip flexors are short and stuck in place from sitting all day long, he explains. And each of those issues is better helped with targeted stretches, strength training exercises, and activities like yoga and Pilates than by self-massage, says Lippard. (Dealing with back pain? Try these expert-approved exercises and stretches.)

“Your body is like a piano,” explains Lippard. “Some strings play their note too flat and need to be tightened (i.e. toned). Other strings are pulled too tight and play their note too sharp. They need to be stretched so they aren't pulling so tight. The thing about self-massage, or [a typical massage you'd get at a spa], is that you're just trying to soften everything. That does not tune your ‘piano.’”

What’s more, if digging into these weak, overstretched muscles with a special massage tool or tennis ball is the only thing you do to relieve symptoms and you're not toning the muscles too, you might end up making them stay stretched and weak, he says. So while a self-massage may help you feel chill AF and pain-free in the lower back for an hour or so, you’re better off with doing lunge stretches, along with back, abdominal, and glute toning exercises to get back on your A-game, he says. “When the body comes into balance, many symptoms will go away,” says Lippard.

But if you're just looking for a little zen and are perfectly ok with some temporary relief, here’s how to do a self-massage at home. 

Prep Your Space

Just like how you wouldn’t walk into the gym and lift the heaviest weight on sight without loading your playlist of workout music, you need to do a little prep work before you start a self-massage. Set the atmosphere by turning on your favorite tranquil tunes (try Spotify’s “Relaxing Massage” playlist), lighting a few candles, or plugging in your essential oil diffuser. “You just need to make sure [you know] that this is your safe place, this is your self-care moment," says Austin, who makes her own line of candles and oils.

Once you’ve established the ~mood~, it’s time to get your self-massage tools ready. Choose a calming lotion or massage oil (Buy It, $10, amazon.com), or make your own by mixing grapeseed or coconut oil with your go-to essential oil, and rub it into your hands, says Austin. If you’ll be using a foam roller (more on that later), Austin recommends one with handles, such as the Atlas, which provides better control, but a standard version like this Amazon bestseller (Buy It, $14, amazon.com) will do the trick. When you’re dealing with tension in your upper traps and back, Lippard recommends using a Thera Cane (Buy It, $32, amazon.com), a candy cane-shaped tool that allows you to apply targeted pressure in hard-to-reach areas, or a lacrosse ball (Buy It, $8, amazon.com) to roll over the knots. Finally, take a few final deep breaths and be still for a moment before you give your body the self-massage it needs, says Austin.

Keep Some Things In Mind

Before you dive right in and start rubbing your neck with reckless abandon, a few words of advice. Aim to massage each area for 30 seconds to a minute, which will reduce the odds of feeling sore later on, says Austin. Lippard actually recommends capping it at 20 seconds to prevent irritation of the tissue. And don’t massage the area as hard as your forearm muscles will allow. “All I can say is harder is not better,” says Lippard. “You can dig too hard in a pain spot and make it more inflamed, so tread lightly if you're trying to roll on a lacrosse ball, foam roller, etc. for trigger point relief.” (Related: This $6 Amazon Purchase Is the Single Best Recovery Tool I Own)

Plus, not all achy areas are okay to massage. Keep your fingers and tools away from bony prominences and areas of acute pain, especially in the spine, says Lippard. “Sometimes a spinal nerve is entrapped or irritated, and pushing on it can make matters worse,” he says. “You may be better off in physical therapy if you have sharp pain.” And if you feel your heartbeat in any area, you’re likely cutting off the circulation and should immediately release your hands from the area, says Austin.

And if you've got a case of the sniffles or are dealing with a nasty cough, save your self-massage (or any massage, really!) for when you're completely recovered. Not only might your rub-down be painful since your body is extra sensitive when sick, but the pressure, heat, and movement involved in a massage may also curb your body's ability to fight off an infection and move waste through your gut and lymphatic system—the system of tissues and organs that help get toxins and other waste and byproducts out of the body, Maya Heinert, a pediatric emergency medicine physician and spokesperson for RxSaver, previously told Shape. Translation: Your body might not heal as fast as it normally would. If you think you *might* be getting sick, you'll want to hold off on the self-massage too, as it could spread any pathogens in your body throughout your lymph nodes, making it more likely that you get sick faster, Kristy Zadrozny, a licensed massage therapist in New York City, also previously told Shape.

You're Ready to Rub

Here's how to do a self-massage in six common areas of the body. While there are countless feel-good techniques for all your individual aches and pains, there are some general techniques you can test out if you want to go off-book. Try pressing your fingers and palms as if you are kneading dough, or doing so as you move your hands back and forth in a single long glide (i.e. massaging your leg from the ankle all the way up to the butt cheek), says Austin.

Self-Massage for Neck

Technique 1

  1. If pain is on the left side of your neck, bring your left hand to the base of your neck, where your neck meets your shoulder. 
  2. Press your index finger and middle finger into your neck. Maintaining pressure, glide your fingers up to the base of your scalp and down again.
  3. Continue for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat on the opposite side of your neck.

Technique 2

  1. Bring both hands to the back of your head, palms facing forward.
  2. Place both thumbs at the base of your skull and rub thumbs in a circular motion.
  3. Continue for 30 seconds to 1 minute.

(BTW, you could feel some neck pain by performing crunches wrong. Here's how to correct your form.)

Self-Massage for Shoulders

  1. If you have pain on the left side of your neck or left shoulder, place your right hand on your eft shoulder, or vice versa.
  2. Gently grab your shoulder with your hand and massage in a kneading motion, as if you were kneading bread. 
  3. Continue kneading down the top of the shoulder and back up the side of your neck.
  4. Continue for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat on the opposite side of you neck and shoulder.

Self-Massage for Upper Back

Technique 1

Equipment: Tennis ball and sock.

  1. Insert the tennis ball into the sock. Place the sock on the floor.
  2. Lay on the floor, chest facing up, with tennis ball sock in between your shoulder blades. 
  3. Using the motion of your body, slowly roll the ball to the area of tension at the upper back. 
  4. Hold the ball in the area of tension for three deep breaths, or until the tension releases, whichever occurs first. 
  5. Repeat on other areas of tension.

Technique 2

Equipment: Thera Cane

  1. Start in a standing position, holding the Thera Cane with the hook facing toward you. 
  2. If massaging the right side of your back, loop the Thera Cane over your left shoulder or vice versa. Grab the top handle with your left hand and place your right hand on the bottom portion of Thera Cane, beneath the bottom handle. 
  3. Place the tip of the Thera Cane on the soft tissue next to your shoulder blade, between your shoulder blade and spine. Push your left hand down and right hand forward (away from your body) to increase pressure. 
  4. Apply steady pressure for 5 or 10 seconds, release, relax, and repeat as necessary.

Self-Massage for Lower Back

  1. Place a foam roller on the floor.
  2. Lay down on the foam roller, face up, with roller beneath the middle back.
  3. Lift your hips off the ground and place your hands behind your head.
  4. Slowly roll up toward your lower back, then roll back to your middle back. 
  5. Continue for 20 to 30 seconds.

Self-Massage for Hamstrings

  1. Place a foam roller on the floor.
  2. Lay down on the foam roller, face up, with roller beneath your butt. Place your hands on the floor behind you.
  3. Slowly roll toward your knee, then roll back to the starting position just below your butt.
  4. Continue for 20 to 30 seconds.

(ICYMI, you definitely don't want to make these foam roller mistakes.)

Self-Massage for Feet

Technique 1

  1. Soak your feet in warm water with Epsom salt and/or essential oils for 15 to 20 minutes. 
  2. In a sitting position, bring your foot up to the opposite knee and place it on top of your leg.
  3. Starting at the toes, massage the bottom of your foot by rubbing in a circular motion with your thumbs.
  4. Continue rubbing with your thumbs in a circular motion across the arch of your foot, down to the heel.
  5. Reverse the direction and repeat for 20 to 30 seconds.
  6. Repeat on the opposite foot.

Technique 2

Equipment: lacrosse ball, tennis ball, golf ball, frozen water bottle.

  1. Soak your feet in warm water with Epsom salt and/or essential oils for 15 to 20 minutes. 
  2. Place your tool of choice on the floor. If using a frozen water bottle, position it perpendicular to your foot.
  3. While seated, place the arch of your foot on top of the tool. Roll to bottom of heel and back to the top of your arch.
  4. Continue for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat on the opposite foot.

(If you've got plantar fasciitis, these recovery tools will help ease the pain.)

What to Do After a Self-Massage

Once you finish your self-massage and are cool, calm, and collected, Austin recommends sipping on a glass of water, which will help transport any waste generated to the lymphatic system, where it will be flushed out of the body, she says. And after you’ve come out of your self-massage-induced trance, book an appointment with a professional if you can. After all, no DIY beauty treatment that requires your own effort and attention can ever be as satisfying as the real deal.

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