Back massager

Back massager (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)

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.

Back Roller

$29.95 at

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.

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