How Do Massage Chairs Work

How Do Massage Chairs Work: A Look at Roller, Vibration, and Airbag Technology

Massage chairs have been around for years. Over a period of decades, massage chair technology has changed for the better. These days, massage chair technology can treat chronic pain, provide instant relief for migraines, muscle strains, and injuries, and can leave you feeling refreshed after a long day at the office.

How do massage chairs work? How these chairs work will depend on the style of chair you choose.  Most models will come equipped with a roller or airbag system, while some will come with both. The chair’s track design will determine how the chair’s rollers move. Additionally, the type of massage programs the chair offers can also indicate how the chair works. Certain types of massages will incorporate rolling and stretching motions so you know the chair will have a roller system. Other styles of massage will focus on vibration in order to relieve pain and tension in the muscles, so you know this type of chair utilizes a vibrating mechanism. Chairs that focus on applying pressure in order to manage pain are equipped with an airbag system.

Read on to learn about the different types of massage chair mechanical systems, the massage techniques used, and what massage programs are capable of, depending on massage style.

Mechanical Designs

Mechanical Designs

Over the years, the best massage chairs have seen total redesigns. The technology used is designed to mimic the feel of human hands. While massage chair roller systems and airbags can’t quite mimic the feel of human touch, some massage chairs have come close.

Modern massage chairs rely on complex mechanical systems. Designers have created mechanisms that are able to deliver a variety of massage chair techniques in order to improve the realism of a massage. Some chairs will use rollers to roll over the muscles using varying levels of pressure, others are equipped with airbag systems that will deflate or expand in order to relieve tension, and some use vibration.


Vibration in massage has been used for several years. Often, this type of massage is designed for muscle soreness and isn’t often used to treat serious injuries or intense pain.

Massage chairs that primarily use vibration during a massage are often found in lower priced models. This design is pretty straightforward. The chairs have a motor that generates the vibrations, which is then delivered to different areas of the body such as the neck, back, and shoulders. This type of continuous movement can help to relieve tension in the muscles. Higher priced vibrating massage chairs will also include a few massage techniques such as tapping, which can be effective in the lumbar region, which is a high tension area. The tapping motion will help to relieve pressure on the spine.


Chairs equipped with an airbag system are much different than vibrating  massage chairs or models with roller systems. Airbag massage chairs have expandable airbags installed under the chair’s lining. These airbags will roll or squeeze your muscles in order to relieve pressure. This motion is continuous and often works to improve blood flow, reduce tension, and relieve pain.

Roller Systemsroller massage systems

Massage chairs with a roller system consist of rollers installed behind the chair’s lining. These rollers will roll over muscles, working to relieve pain, tension, and stress using different levels of pressure. This chair design was inspired by the rolling and kneading actions used by massage therapists. These chairs tend to come with several models and massage programs that you can choose from based on the type of massage you’re looking for.

Some massage chairs with roller systems will also come with heated rollers. Heat therapy helps to relax the muscles and can be used to treat injuries such as muscle strain. However, massage chairs with a heat therapy mode are often on the pricey side.

Which Massage Chair is Right for You?

The type of chair you use should be based on your needs and your budget. However, if you have a chronic condition, a higher price tag is often worth the type of results these chairs can provide.

The vibrating massage chairs are by far the most affordable, but they’re not quite as effective as chairs with airbag or roller systems.

If cost isn’t a concern, then a  massage chair with a roller system can be a better option. These chairs tend to offer more massage programs and techniques than vibrating chairs or models equipped with an airbag system.

A Look Inside

In the past, massage chairs only came equipped with one style of massage chair technology. These days, it’s pretty common to find chairs that are equipped with a vibrating feature, a roller system, and an airbag system. Of course, chairs that offer all three technologies will be more expensive.

Massage chairs can use a combination of vibrating mechanisms, airbags, rollers, gears, and motors in order to accomplish a variety of massage techniques. These chairs are equipped with small devices that contain a gear or weighted wheel to make vibrations. When the motor rotates on a wheel it creates the vibrating motion.

During a massage, the rollers will work like human hands as they move over the user’s body. The structure of a chair’s frame is what determines the nature of the movements. Depending on the track style, a chair’s roller system can move up and down, side to side, and back and forth.

The Brain of the Massage Chair

The microprocessor located inside the chair provides information for every type of massage program. When the user chooses a program the microprocessor will send the command to different systems in the chair. While most chairs will not allow you to alter a preset massage program, you can easily adjust the amount of pressure used. Once you have made adjustments to the intensity of the massage, the microprocessor will send the commands to the correct systems to adjust the intensity of the massage.

Massage Chair Controls

If the chair you purchase comes with a variety of bells and whistles, then you’ll use the included remote or the controls located on a chair’s armrest to choose massage techniques or programs.

Massage Chair Program Optionsmassage chair options

The included programs and techniques allow you to enjoy a personalized massage. Most manufacturers have done a great job mimicking human massage techniques, so you can enjoy a home massage that’s equally as effective as the type of massage you’ll get from your local massage parlor. Below, you’ll find a list of some of the common techniques higher end massage chairs offer.


A Swedish massage applies pressure and kneads in the same direction as the heart, using rollers that glide over the muscles using long strokes. The massage strokes used are firm and designed to relieve muscle tension faster. Kneading, vibration, and tapping motions are often included in this type of massage program. The tapping movements are designed to relieve tension in the back and around the shoulders, while the kneading and vibration can improve circulation.


Shiatsu is one of the most common types of deep tissue massages that you’ll find in the leading massage chairs. This type of massage involves stretching and using a higher level of pressure on certain areas of the body. The techniques used include rotating, sweeping, pressing, and tapping motions. The roller systems will use pressure application in order to clear blockages in areas of the body where the pain is more common, while also promoting relaxation. This type of massage is designed to boost lymphatic flow, improve circulation, and restore your body.


Found in a massage chair’s footrest, reflexology roller systems are designed to work reflexes in the feet. This technique can provide instant relief. This technique is often found in full body massage chairs like the Best Massage Electric Full Body Shiatsu Massage Chair 06C.

General Deep Tissue

A general deep tissue program will use firmer strokes that apply more pressure in order to relieve muscle knots and tension found in fibrous tissues. This type of massage is designed to restore the body’s balance and it’s considered more effective in relieving pain. It can also increase flexibility, range of motion, and posture. A regular deep tissue massage can help a person to naturally manage their pain.

Massage Techniques

Below is a list of the most common types of techniques used in a massage program. These techniques are designed to mimic the feel of human hands.


The rollers operate faster with this massage technique and utilize pulsating tapping strokes. This is a common technique that works the back and lower lumbar region. It can improve circulation, relieve tension, promote healing, and can even break up scar tissue.


With this technique, the chair’s rollers will manipulate and stretch the muscles in order to relieve tension and muscle soreness. With most massage systems the rollers will knead the muscles using a circular motion and cover small areas of the body at a time. This type of program will focus more on high tension areas such as the neck, shoulders, and upper back. The kneading motion can provide deeper relief in these areas and can be combined with other massage chair functions such as tapping and vibration. A kneading massage will reduce pain and relieve tension.


The rolling technique utilizes a gentle pressure that’s targeted on specific parts of the body using down and up movements. This technique will focus more on the areas near the spine and is a great technique to use if you want to relieve tension or improve circulation.

Zero Gravity

This type of massage will take place once the body is placed in the zero gravity position. This position helps to align the spine while reducing pressure by placing the feet above the heart in order to eliminate the pressure placed on the spine.

Related Questions

Can a Massage Help After a Workout?

Can a Massage Help After a Workout?

Yes. Massages can help to prevent lactic acid build up, can improve circulation, and can reduce the severity of delayed onset muscle soreness by as much as thirty percent. In order to see these types of results, you must use your massage chair within a twenty minute time period, after a workout. To learn more about the benefits of a massage after a tough workout, click here to read my article on why you should hit the massage chair after a workout.

What is 3D and 4D Massage Chair Technology?

3D and 4D massage chairs feature extensive roller systems that are designed to provide a more realistic massage. 3D roller systems can move back and forth, side to side, and up and down. 4D chairs can do the same thing, but you can pause the system and prevent the rollers from moving on to a new area, allowing the rollers to focus on a specific area. This style of roller system also allows you to adjust the speed of the rollers.

Do Massage Chairs Really Help?

Yes, they can. If you’re suffering from a herniated disc, ongoing pain caused by a chronic condition such as fibromyalgia, or you’re recovering from an injury, a regular massage can help the body to heal at a faster rate, can help to reduce pain, tension, and pressure on the muscles and nerves, and can even help you to sleep better at night. In some cases, massage chair use can exacerbate a condition. Because of this, I recommend speaking with your physician prior to purchasing a massage chair.

Final Thoughts

How do massage chairs work depends on the type of mechanical system the chair utilizes. Options include airbag systems, track and roller systems, and vibrating mechanism. Higher end massage chairs will feature airbag or roller systems, or both. Lower priced massage chairs will come with basic vibrating functions and are not designed for chronic pain sufferers since these chairs are only able to deliver gentle massages. The chronic pain sufferer needs a massage chair that can manipulate and stimulate the muscles in order to promote healing and reduce pain.