TRIED & TESTED / Pressure points: Massage gadgets

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The Independent Culture
JUST ONE hour with a professional massage therapist can cost pounds 20. It's tempting to think that an electric gadget can do the trick of relaxing mind and body just as well. We asked a panel, including two massage therapists, to test out five electric massagers. The manufacturers claim these devices can relieve all kinds of aches and pains.

Perhaps not suprisingly, the two professionals thought these gadgets, which mostly rely on vibration for their relaxing effect, were a poor substitute for the real thing. 'None of them remotely compares to a hands-on massage,'said therapist Adam Jackson. 'They have yet to make a machine with the sensitivity and healing effects of human touch.' Our other two panellists agreed: 'About as sensuous as an inept lover who can't find the right spot,' said one.

Some of the devices may comfort because they provide heat as well as vibration - though, as therapist Catharine Scholnick reminded us, a soak in a warm aromatic bath would work just as well. But there are advantages in this type of massage, the main ones being convenience and low cost. You can use them any time in the comfort and privacy of your own home - and if you're remotely squeamish or embarrassed by the idea of being pummelled by a stranger, this may be the answer. Read on for our guide to the different types on the market.

THE PANEL

Adam Jackson, physical therapist and author; Catharine Scholnick, bodyworker/massage therapist; Anne Walker, student; Marianne Reback, teacher.

THE TEST

The panel gave the massagers marks for how good they were at relieving tension, how easy they were to use, looks and style, and value for money.

***MORPHY RICHARDS FOOT MASSAGER

pounds 29.99

Fill with water, plonk feet in, and switch on. The nobbled floor of the footbath starts to vibrate, massaging the soles of the feet. Another switch keeps the water hot. This staple device was very popular, easy to use and good value for money. According to Adam Jackson, it is especially good not only for foot and ankle problems, but also for 'emotional and mental tension. Recommended'.

Other panellists thought their feet felt pleasantly relaxed afterwards but that the massage sensation should have been stronger: 'I found watching the patterns of the vibration in the water more relaxing than the effect on my feet,' said Anne Walker. Marianne Reback said: 'Having experienced a foot massage recently, I can say that it does not even begin to compare.'

CARMEN INTRA-SONIC MASSAGER

pounds 49.99

Although this device is supposed to reach deep into the muscle by combining vibration with 'deep penetrating sound waves', the panel thought it the least effective of all the gadgets. 'It may be good for you in the long term,' said Marianne Reback, 'but the vibration was so small that a heavy lorry passing the house would have created a more beneficial effect.' Adam Jackson was more disparaging still: 'It looks quite nice but is almost totally ineffective. A complete waste of time and money.' Anne Wolfe said: 'With the strongest setting, the vibration seemed quite light and I could hardly feel anything on the lightest setting.' She found the small massage head just the right size for the face and neck, though, and felt it was easier to hold than some others because it is light. The massager has attachments for different parts of the body, including a concentrator to stimulate pressure points on your feet, reflexology-style. Poor value for money.

*VIVA AROMATHERAPY BODY MASSAGER

pounds 29.99

A do-it-yourself aromatherapy kit which comes with a selection of oils suitable for conditions from cellulite to those 'special times of the month'. The massager has four different applicators, including ones for the face and scalp, and can be heated up. It was Anne Wolfe's favourite: 'The heat setting was very pleasant on the skin, and relaxing when used with the oils' - though she added that, while the massage head was good for large muscle areas, it was rather big for smaller areas like the neck.

Catharine Scholnick thought it was gimmicky: 'Initially I was impressed by all the oils but I soon realised that these are all that is impressive about this product.' She would like to know exactly what was in the oils: 'The instructions should list the ingredients'. Adam Jackson thought the extra bottles of oils, which can be ordered from the manufacturers, were overpriced.

**CARMEN INFRA-RED MASSAGER

pounds 19.99

One of the more popular massagers, particularly because it can be heated. It was also good value for money. 'The best of the bunch,' said Adam Jackson. 'Infra-red helps relax deep tissues when combined with vibratory massage. Easy to use, and has fully illustrated, easy-to-follow instructions. Useful for minor aches add pains,' he added.

The instructions were the most helpful, with diagrams showing how to treat conditions including colds, insomnia and flatulence (apply between shoulder blades). Panellists weren't too keen, however, on an uncomfortable hairbrush attachment for scalp massage. Care should be taken not to keep the infra-red switched on for too long - a friend of Catharine Scholnick's who tried it for her tennis elbow was slightly burnt.

*PRO-SHIATSU PORTABLE MASSAGER

pounds 80

This was the only machine that recreated the feeling of muscles being kneaded by a masseur - and a masseur with a powerful hand, at that. Instead of simply vibrating like the other appliances, two rotating balls move backwards and forwards, grabbing the flesh like disembodied hands. 'The only deep tissue massager,' said Adam Jackson. Despite this realism, panellists weren't altogether enthusiastic about the appliance, complaining that it could be uncomfortable. 'The machine that bites back,' quipped Anne Wolfe. 'Deepest of all the massages, but painful on calf and neck muscles. It squeezes very hard.' Catharine Scholnick declared it 'the most human-like of all the appliances. It even pinches]' She was also concerned about what its effects might be on the spinal column. Adam Jackson advised against using it, as the manufacturers suggest, for the limbs and the abdomen. Very expensive.

STOCKISTS: Morphy Richards: 0709 585525. Carmen: 061-681 8321; Viva: larger Boots stores, department stores and selected chemists, health food and electrical shops; Pro-Shiatsu: Harrods, Selfridges, DH Evans in London, some branches of Debenhams, Fenwicks, Allders and other department stores.

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