Foam Roller vs. Theragun: What Are the Differences?
Updated: Apr 26, 2021
By David Levine | April 6, 2021, at 1:39 p.m.
Both are physical therapy tools that help sore and tired muscles recover, but they do so in different ways.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced fitness enthusiasts to work out at home more often, and that has created an interesting corollary: home-based recovery from those workouts.
With access to sports massage, hot tubs, saunas and physical therapy also limited by the pandemic, exercisers have found ways both new and old to tend to sore muscles, achy joints and other consequences of a tough workout.
One relatively new tool is a massage gun. There are many brands – including TimTam, Hyperice, Achedaway and others – but one of the most popular is Theragun. Massage guns are similar to an older tool, the foam roller. Both are geared to provide what sports medicine types call self-myofascial release, or SMR. This helps overworked muscles recover and heal.
Here's how both tools work.
What's a Massage Gun?
A massage gun is an SMR workout recovery tool that utilizes an electric or battery-powered, handheld device to deliver high-frequency, percussive massage therapy on the skin to target sore muscle groups.
As such, it's used to treat and relieve muscle soreness, stiffness and inflammation, and increase range of motion. Massage guns like Theragun “have been flooding the health industry, for a good reason – people tend to feel better after using it,” says Kevin Aguinaldo, a doctor of physical therapy with ProSport Physical Therapy and Performance in Southern California. “Allowing for people to feel better is the first step in preparing someone for an activity.” Aguinaldo adds that the technology has improved in recent year to make massage guns more user-friendly. “Prior to this new wave of massage tools, massage guns were bulky, loud and tethered to a power source,” he says.
What's a Foam Roller?
A foam roller allows the user to employ his or her own body weight to actively "roll" out sore muscle groups, again with the intent of treating and relieving muscle pain, tightness and inflammation, as well as increasing range of motion.
Foam rollers have been around longer than massage guns, and they have also enjoyed increased attention (and sales) thanks to the pandemic. “Why hasn't it fallen off the gimmick train? People tend to feel better after using it,” Aguinaldo says.
Similarities Both a generic foam roller and a branded therapy device like Theragun are treatment modalities based on the principles of myofascial release. “Both target muscles and fascia with the intent of relieving pain and soreness as well as decreasing tightness and increasing flexibility,” says Dr. James Ting, sports medicine physician with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Southern California and a member of the medical staff of the Los Angeles Chargers NFL team. “The mechanical pressure exerted by these devices on nerve pain receptors in the muscles is thought to modulate and ultimately reduce the perception of pain in the targeted area.” They also move lactic acid, a byproduct of muscle exertion that plays a role in soreness, out of the muscles, and improve blood flow to speed delivery of nutrients and oxygen to muscles, thus reducing inflammation and supporting recovery. “Additional benefits are thought to be possibly due to the stimulation of nerve receptors in the targeted area which, ultimately, induce muscle relaxation, subsequently allowing access to a greater range of motion,” Ting adds. “It is important to note, however, that research on the effectiveness and derived benefits of these modalities is still, overall, limited.” Differences While both treatment tools focus on myofascial release, they differ in both the manner in which they target the affected area and in the potential size of the targeted area itself. “Foam rollers rely on body weight and manual rolling of typically larger muscle groups and areas, whereas a Theragun utilizes powered percussion massage therapy for more directed treatment of pinpoint areas and muscle groups,” Ting explains.
They also differ in how and where you can use them. “Foam rollers require a set floor space where you can lie down and use your body weight and position yourself to mobilize and massage certain muscle groups. Massage guns require less space, easier body positioning, and allow for more creativity in application,” Aguinaldo says.
Are There Dangers? Ting advises caution for individuals attempting to self-treat an injury or an area that has not yet been formally evaluated by a physician or certified physical therapist. In addition, “Individuals with underlying health conditions that could potentially lead to injury from aggressive myofascial treatments or deep massage therapy, such as osteoporosis or varicose veins in the intended treatment area, should be cautious and seek an evaluation before proceeding with use of these devices. Pregnant individuals should also consult with their physician prior to use of these devices,” he says. Those with bone fractures, blood clotting issues, sensory deficits or wounds should not use these tools, Aguinaldo says. Overuse can also cause problems. “The foam roller or massage gun can be the irritant if performed too frequently or too long,” Aguinaldo says. Use them in moderation and consider alternating between each tool to prevent overuse. Beyond these precautions, “Most people will benefit from using a foam roller or massage gun pre- or post-activity,” Aguinaldo says. He also reminds people, “We have to remember, this is one small piece to the large puzzle of keeping individuals feeling better and participating in meaningful activities.” Other recovery tools include rest, stretching, rehydration and proper nutrition. An injury beyond typical muscle soreness and fatigue – such as pain and immobility – needs a doctor’s attention. How Do You Choose? Ting says that a foam roller may be more beneficial for those targeting a larger area of the body and for those looking for a gentler treatment modality. A massage gun may be more useful for targeting small and harder-to-reach muscle groups or areas, “or for those looking for a deeper or more intense massage treatment.”
Cost may also be a factor. “A basic foam roller can cost you between $15-$20, whereas massage guns can range from $150 to $400,” Aguinaldo says. Finally, Aguinaldo points out that everyone is different and responds to differently to various therapeutic tools. “Sample each tool and see which works best for you and your specific situation. Seek a physical therapist or health care specialist for advice or if symptoms are worsening,” he says. SOURCESThe U.S. News Health team delivers accurate information about health, nutrition and fitness, as well as in-depth medical condition guides. All of our stories rely on multiple, independent sources and experts in the field, such as medical doctors and licensed nutritionists. To learn more about how we keep our content accurate and trustworthy, read our editorial guidelines.
Kevin Aguinaldo, PT, DPT Aguinaldo is a doctor of physical therapy with ProSport Physical Therapy & Performance in Southern California.