I have been casually collecting tools for self-massage for many years. It never ceases to amaze me how just the right texture or shape can seem to make all the difference — great sensory satisfaction from subtle differences. Although I use tools to treat my own “muscle knots” (trigger points), my enthusiasm is quite independent of any clinical concerns: whether it “really works” and why. I loved the sensations of massage long before I was massage therapist, and although I am now retired from that work, I continue to collect massage tools and experiment with them.
Interestingly, several of my favourites all come from the same place: The Pressure Positive Company. I think perhaps they share my obsession with massage tools, because they make a bunch of good ones. Here are my impressions of several of their inventions (and one they just distribute) …
The Backnobber (second incarnation) is an effective variation on a familiar old massage tool theme: there are many S-shaped and J-shaped massage “sticks” in this world. It is a wheel that has been re-invented many times. I have owned several flavours over the years, and used to sell one to clients. If I had known about the Backnobber back then, I definitely would have chosen it as the product to sell. To the extent that tools of this type are useful — more about that in a minute — this is an excellent one. The fact that it breaks down into two pieces is a huge practical bonus: it stores much more easily than its cousins. This is its primary distinguishing feature. In other respects, it is simply competent: light, sturdy, comfortable to grip, and simpler than much of the competition, lacking any unnecessary extra appendages.
The Backnobber can only do so much, however. It is difficult to maintain fine, firm control over the business end of a reaching massage tool. There is only one reason for these tools to exist: to reach spots that cannot otherwise be reached at all. However, there aren’t many spots like that, and if a spot can be reached by virtually any other means, it is usually better to do so. I rarely reach for the Backnobber, because I have found better ways of reaching nearly every “unreachable” spot. For instance, between the shoulder blades: I much prefer rolling on a foam ball for that region. However, I do keep my Backnobber around for the odd massage job … while all other similar tools were disposed of long ago.
The Index Knobber is my least favourite Pressure Positive tool and the only one I have a couple negative comments about: but not very negative. Mostly I just find it a little awkward. The pressure bulb is displaced some distance from my grip, so if my pressure is even slightly off-axis, the whole thing wants to twist. It would make a better therapist’s tool than a self-massage tool, I think: using it to massage someone else, I could align my body and pressure with the axis of the tool. Massaging myself, however, I rarely have the luxury of tuned alignment of pressure: I am usually trying to push on something at an inconvenient angle, and I must tighten my grip on a fairly slender plastic handle to keep it from slipping. And, that said, it’s perfectly useful for some spots — it’s just not as versatile a tool as some others here. Such as the wonderful Knobble …
The Knobble (second edition) is my favourite Pressure Positive tool. It has stood the test of time, and it is the tool I grab from my boxes more often than any other except a plain ball. By happy coincidence, I used it to save myself from a nasty headache with 24 hours of its arrival in the mail (see Perfect Spot No. 1). Somehow Pressure Positive has managed to effectively reinvent the wheel again with this incredibly simple-seeming product. It seems to have the answer to that burning massage tool design question: “What is the best possible way to transmit force from the hand to a point without limiting the user to any particular angle or grip?”
The answer, apparently, is to make a good, grippy handle that perfectly fills the palm, and then extend it into a radially symmetric pyramid. Its symmetry is the key to its success, I think. Most massage tools (including several of Pressure Positive’s other offerings) are asymmetric, and the user must adjust/align it in relationship to the target. What is the best possible way to transmit force from the hand to a point without limiting the user to any particular angle or grip?That’s not a “bad” thing: for some nooks or crannies of your body, the right asymmetry will be ideal. But the same tool will then also be wrong for some other nook or cranny. The Knobble’s symmetry makes it a beautifully grip-agnostic generalist of a tool; no matter what you’re aiming at, it grips the same firm way, which makes it feel more like a hand-replacement or enhancement. (A ball is symmetrical too … but lacks a handle, and a point.)
And why (why, why?) didn’t I have a tool already that I could drop the weight of my head onto? I have a large collection of tools, and not one of them allows me to settle my suboccipital muscles (again, Spot 1) onto a hard but rounded point. The simple, short, pyramidal shape of the knobble is stable (yet adjustable) under my skull; the point is bulbuous enough to take my weight, but sharp enough to deliver satisfying, focussed pressure. Weirdly, there just wasn’t anything else like this in my collection — yet it’s ideal for applying pressure to one of the single best targets for self-massage in the whole body.
The Jacknobber is like a Knobble, but with more options: it is useful at a range of pressure angles, generally easy to hang onto, and there’s a “nob” handy no matter how you grab it. However, I usually can’t use it as firmly and accurately as the Knobble’s palm-shaped and grippy handle, which I prefer. On the other hand, the Jacknobber’s pyramid base means that can rest on a surface very sturdily, which occasionally comes in handy. For instance, it is somewhat useful for hard, pointed massage of the low back muscles: you can place it on the ground, settle weight onto it, and it remains quite stable. (For contrast, the rounded handle of the Knobble makes it a little wobbly when used that way: the Knobble wobble.)
The Orbit Massager is a complex tool — a much more invented tool than the others so far, which are really “just” useful plastic shapes. The Orbit is mechanical: a massage ball mounted like a ball-bearing inside a large palm-shaped near-hemisphere of a handle with (crucially) an elastic strap. So it’s basically a ball with a handle, which means that you can continuously roll, and get a continuous broad point of compression with rolling instead of lubrication, with or without fabric in the way. That’s ingenius and useful, with many possible applications.
And yet I usually prefer to lie on massage balls, or pinch them between my body and the wall, where I can achieve much stronger pressures, and with a variety of ball sizes, than I ever could by pressing the Orbit into my flesh. And I definitely prefer foam textures to the hard plastic of the Orbit’s ball. These are not deal-breakers — it is still a nice, useful tool — but they do keep it from being my favourite.
The strap is a nice bit of attention to detail: helpful for anyone, but for a professional therapist, that strap is significant: it means the tool can constantly be lifted and repositioned with little or no grip effort. You don’t have to move it to hang onto it, which is a terrific addition.
The Tiger Tail Rolling Muscle Massager is not Pressure Positive’s invention — it’s made by Polar Fusion, in Washington state — but they choose to sell it, because it’s terrific for self-massage of the arms and legs, and I’ve used it mostly for my shins over the past year (see Massage Therapy for Shin Splints). In writing this review, I learned that I’ve been missing an “obvious” and lovely way of using it to massage the forearms as well: just brace one end on the hip, hold the other with one hand, and then moving the other arm across the roller. Suddenly it’s my new best friend! My forearms are chronically exhausted by long days of typing (see Massage Therapy for Tennis Elbow and Wrist Pain).
It is really just a specialized rolling pin, made for squishing muscle instead of dough. There is no question that I thought of (and tried) using an actual rolling pin on my own shins long, long before I heard of the Tiger Tail. But a rolling pin tends to be too hard, too broad, and too fragile (the handles tend not to be sturdy enough, unless you’ve got a really good quality rolling pin) for most massage purposes. The Tiger Tail is really just a specialized rolling pin, made for squishing muscle instead of dough.The Tiger Tail solves these issues: it’s got a foam cover on a narrow cylinder, and it’s extremely sturdy.
And yet its applications are fairly limited to “rollable” spots, primarily the legs and the forearms, and I have one product-design gripe: it doesn’t quite roll smoothly. There’s just a bit of sticky binding as it rolls, so sometimes it advances in little lurches and seems like it needs lubrication.
This product is a perfect case study in how the right tool can make all the difference: I can self-massage my own legs with this tool effortlessly compared to trying to do the job with hands or any other tool, particularly the shins and quadriceps. It’s easy to apply and control plenty of pressure.
I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and assistant editor of Science-Based Medicine. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook and Google, but mostly Twitter.