For many aching backs, getting a professional massage is an infrequent luxury, leaving relief from muscle kinks and tension to the generous, if unreliable, hands of loved ones.
And so, barring such kindness, as one often must, we can knead our own knots using self-massage tools.
Many of these tools, such as the Original Backnobber, apply direct and sustained pressure to trigger points, which are hyperirritable spots on taut muscle that are painful upon compression. The sensitive spots, thought to be caused by overuse of the muscle, can radiate pain to other areas, cause muscle weakness and restrict range of motion.
Others, such as the Original Body Stick or The Grid, roll over surrounding muscle and connective tissue (fascia) as well as trigger and reflex points, which helps loosen the whole area.
"The combination of both is what you really want to do," said massage therapist Maureen Moon, who is based in Boulder, Colo. "Roll around the muscle on the fascia first, then do some trigger points, then go back to the rolling."
As a general guideline, Moon recommends using self-massagers every three days or so, and it helps to apply ice and soak in a hot Epsom-salt bath for 20 minutes each before and after the massage. Have a trigger-point chart on hand so you know where to focus.
Beware of overuse, which can cause bruising or exhaust other muscles, and do not apply pressure to bony areas, Moon said.
Before using any tools, check with a health care or fitness provider to discuss how and how often you should use them, Moon said. Some people who bruise easily or have inflammation, or who have conditions such as fibromyalgia or multiple sclerosis, might be advised to use caution.
If possible, it helps to still see a licensed massage therapist on a regular basis to identify and address the most relevant muscle systems, Moon said.
$29.95 at bodyback.com
Moon: "Lie on a yoga mat with your knees up to keep pressure off of the low back. Because it's wood, it can be inflexible. Be careful if you have kyphosis, lordosis or scoliosis (severe spine curvatures)."
We thought: Ouch! Too painful.
Two tennis balls in a sock DIY massage
Free if you have these items
Moon: "The balls should straddle the spine, resting on the muscles and not on the spine itself. Helps to relax the muscles that support and rotate the spine. I suggest extreme caution for those with severe curvatures of the spine."
We thought: Similar to the Back Roller but less painful. Nice to lean back on while sitting at your desk.
Body Back Sticks Percussion Massagers
$11.95 at bodyback.com
Moon: "Can be used for light tapotement (percussive strokes) over muscles to increase circulation, penetrate deep muscular tissues and energize the nervous system."
We thought: Fun, but for back pain it's better if someone else taps on you.
AccuMassage Trigger Point Massager
$24.95 at bodyback.com
Moon: "Great for the muscles of the neck and shoulder blades as well as the calf and thigh muscles. It is excellent for focus on trigger points and has the feature of squeezing the handles together to achieve the desired pressure."
We thought: Excellent for pinching neck and shoulder muscles to relieve acute pain.
Original Body Stick
$43.50 at protherapysupplies.com
Moon: "The spindles that roll independently over your muscles, and the flexibility of the stick, make it easier on your body than some of the others."
We thought: The movement, like a rolling pin, is gentler than the Backnobber and feels good. A little awkward to use on your back because you have to engage your muscles to roll it there.
Original Backnobber II
$41.95 at pressurepositive.com
Moon: "Especially good for releasing tightened knots in those areas difficult to massage by yourself, such as the shoulder blade region, base of the skull and low back. I love using it on my calf muscles and feet as well. It is also useful for cross-fiber friction on tendon attachments in rotator cuff injures and the like."
We thought: Relieves pain well, discrete to use while sitting at work.
Body Back Buddy
$34.95 at bodyback.com
Moon: "Similar to the Backnobber, but lighter."
We thought: At first confusing, but the handles make it easier to apply pressure, and the extra knobs offer versatility for targeting different trigger points.
$39.99 at tptherapy.com
Moon: "Great for deep tissue self-massage. Be sure it is safe for you to use. It does get in quite deep, and you have to use your body weight to maneuver this tool, so it can cause stress on various muscles and other body parts."
We thought: Feels good on the back, but it hurts quite a bit on iliotibial (IT) bands on outer thighs.
Help for your aching back
These no-batteries-required tools help you self-soothe
Back massager (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)