When the massage chair was first introduced to the market in 1962, it was Mr. Inada’s basic invention of rollers going up and down the spine. The concept of airbags did not come for some time after that. Nowadays, we see airbags in more parts of the body than there are rollers. For example, in some of the more feature-rich massage chairs, you will see airbags in the following places:
1. feet and calves
5. shoulders – front, back, side, and rear!
6. arms and hands
7. trapezia muscles
9. head (the new Osaki 7000 massage chair actually has a headband that you put around your skull that has airbags that massage your skull and suboccipital muscles…ideal for stress headache sufferers)
I’m sure there will be even more places that the manufacturing companies think of to put an airbag. Who knows, they may even be testing airbags for the front of your body for all I know.
Well, I guess the big question that I get from massage chair shoppers regarding airbags is not “How many airbags does this or that massage chair have?”, but “Do airbags really do anything?”
Great question and here is my input on that query. The primary function of airbags is to compress a body part. In some cases like in the Inada Sogno Dreamwave, airbags actually serve to also move the seat which induces passive motion to the pelvis and low back. A wonderful feature that is very unique to that model. But, for all the rest of the airbags, I can’t think of any other purpose than to compress body parts.
If you’ve tried out a massage chair, you’ve probably experienced the foot and calf massage. This is typically the most popular and commonly-seen airbag set on most chairs. You felt the compression on your calves and feet. For some of you, the compression was too much and too intense. For others, it is not enough or just right. Well, imagine having circulation problems. For poor circulation, many folks experience swelling of the feet and ankles. And, what is the typical home treatment for that? Compression hosiery/socks. Can you see how the airbags of a massage chair can mimic that compression, not just passively like with socks, but actively with motion of the airbags starting from the feet and moving upwards in a wave-like manner towards the heart?
Now, if it is helpful for swollen ankles, which we see that it is, can you see how it may serve a normal foot and ankle just by enhancing circulation back to the heart. In this case, I believe that the airbag compression encourages healthy circulation from foot to heart. I suppose the same could be said for hand and arm airbag compression, as these components also “milk” the body part towards the heart.
Massage Chair Airbags Do More Than Just Compress…
Some airbags compress not to improve circulation, but to move a body part in a particular direction. For example, we are seeing many massage chairs come into the market now that have waist airbags that push one side of the low back forward and then the other. Simultaneous to that, the airbags of the seat may inflate on one side or the other to induce a rotation of the low back. You see, on one side the waist airbag is inflated while on the other side the seat airbag is inflated. This induces rotation to the low back, which, in the past, has been a difficult motion to reproduce passively in a massage chair. I have felt that rotation in many of the massage chairs in my showroom and it is actually fantastic and appears to have a real therapeutic benefit for the soft tissues of the low back.
Now, as far as the other airbags go, I suppose it is truly a personal preference. An airbag in some body location may be just what you need to overcome some pain or other distress. What may work for one may not affect another the same way. I have heard from clients who thought that the shoulder airbag massage of the Inada Sogno or Osaki 6000 was the answer to a chronic trapezius muscle tightness. But, for others, they didn’t think it did anything but annoy them. So, as the spanish would say, “Cada cabeza es un mundo” or, in plain English, “to each his own.”
Dr. Alan Weidner