How Massage Chairs Work – A Detailed Guide

How Massage Chairs Work

Have you ever wondered how massage chairs work?

Even if you may not be interested in the mechanics behind it, it is worthy to know the following: Vibration, Airbag and Roller technology.

Why so? This is because they are the three ways a massage chair can give a massage. What you get determines what type (and quality) of massage you will eventually be getting from your massage chair.


First and foremost, we have vibration massage therapy. 

Vibration is a shaking motion, therefore vibration massage therapy involves the pressing and releasing of body tissues in an upward and downward / backward and forward movement to help muscles contract and relax.

vibration massage

*white circles indicating where vibration happens

The concept behind vibration in massage chairs is actually pretty straightforward. 

A motor that generates these vibrations is installed and it delivers them to different areas of the body which commonly, is the neck, back and shoulders region.

Such trembling movements cause fine trembling and create a tingling sensation and the continuous movement help relieve tension in the muscles.

Depending on the speed and amount of pressure applied, vibration massage can be effective in soothing or stimulating the body.  

One of the most basic massage technique in use for many years, vibration is usually found in massage chairs with a lower price tag (think office chair massage pad, massage office chair etc.).

Whilst they are designed to relieve muscle soreness and not for serious injuries or intense pain, vibration massage generally does help in:

  • soothing irritated nerves
  • loosening scar tissues
  • stimulating blood circulation
  • stimulating glandular activity
  • relaxing muscles

You may be able to find some vibrating massage chairs to have a few more massage techniques like tapping in the lumbar region (a high tension area) but they may be higher priced.

Still, most are massage chairs under $500, easily making them the most affordable option to many.  


If you have been to a massage parlour before, you would have experienced how a massage therapist grips and squeezes your muscles firmly for a few seconds before releasing them.

What this does is that such motions help relieve tension in these tight muscles, prompting them to relax.

On the same note, airbags are incorporated into massage chairs to achieve this same purpose. But first, let’s look at how airbags inside a massage chair look like:


While the arms, calves and feet are the most common areas for airbags placement, some feature-rich massage chairs have them located throughout the chair to work on various parts of the body as well. This includes:

airbag massage system
  • Head and Neck
  • Shoulders
  • Trapezius
  • Waist
  • Glutes
  • Thighs

Some massage chairs have multiple airbags in one particular area while others may only have one.

This is why you often see questions of number of airbags being asked, or it becoming a selling point of a massage chair. The more airbags a chair has, the better it seems. 

Nevertheless, some massage chairs allow you to individually inflate one set of airbags without affecting the others while other models let you adjust the intensity of the air massage. It all depends on the model you are getting.

how airbags massage chair work

How airbags massage work is that they serve primarily to compress specific parts of the body. 

They squeeze, compress, knead, roll and some even swing.

A small air compressor is connected to the airbags through a series of pipes/tubes and this is what inflates the airbags.

The fuller an airbag is inflated, the firmer and more intense a squeeze it provides.

When compressing, the airbags work in a wave-like motion to loosen up any muscle tension or push the muscles deeper into the rollers for a deep tissue massage.

When they knead, they mimic the motion of human hands with the goal of relieving muscle tension and promoting circulation to enhance the effects of the overall massage.

airbags foot masage

Regardless, you can see why the biggest draw of this feature lies in the foot and calf region because more often than not, this is where most people experience circulation problems.

Just like how compression hosiery/socks work, air massage work similarly to give you the relief after a long day on the feet. 

Likewise, they actively relieve circulation issues on other regions of the body for where they have it.

For the higher end massage chairs, the speed of inflating and deflating can actually simulate different massage techniques – the more rapid they do, the more it resembles the tapping method of massage. On the flip side, inflating the bags at a slower rate simulates rolling or kneading.

Having said that, airbags are still mostly a supplemental massage device – to provide most of these massage techniques/features, massage chairs have to rely on mechanical means and this bring us to our next point.


Before anything, here’s how rollers in a massage chair generally look like:

massage chair rollers

All full body massage chairs have a roller system and whilst different chairs have different roller designs, they usually do not vary too far from the above.

Installed behind the chair’s lining, these rollers run along what’s called a “track system” to provide massages to the user.

massage track

Depending on the track design, you can get massages from the head all the way down to the pelvic and glutes section.

At the very least, most rollers should be able to reach your lumbar region.

What rollers do is that they mimic the hands of a massage therapist to work over the muscles in a series of massage techniques.

rollers imitating massage hands

Depending on what your massage chair offers, this can range from swedish, shiatsu, kneading, tapping, kneading and tapping combination and the likes to relieve pain, tension and stress.

Technically, you can expect the more expensive a chair is, the more massage techniques that it is able to provide. 

If we are to delve deeper into the roller category, there is actually a 2D, 3D and 4D distinction. 

2D Massage 

This is actually what most (if not all) massage chairs are until not too long ago, around 2015, when massage chair technology underwent a dramatic overhaul with the introduction of 3D and 4D massage roller mechanisms. 

2d massage rollers

A 2D mechanism, in this case, refers to the two dimensional rolling direction.

As pictured left, the rollers go UP and DOWN, and LEFT to RIGHT along the massage track.

The most basic type of massage, it gives mild to moderate level of relaxation and you can usually customize the speed you want.

Recommended for: people with smaller budgets; people looking for basic massage

ExamplesReal Relax Favor-03 Plus, Kahuna LM6800

3D Massage

In 3D massage chairs, an additional dimension is added whereby besides rolling up and down, left to right, the rollers are able to go IN and OUT.

3d massage chair mechanism

What this means is that the rollers can either protrude to push into a user’s body for a deeper massage, or retract for a less intense sensation for that extra dimension.

This, gives a true Deep Tissue Massage.

Aside from speed, you can also control the depth of the massage by adjusting the range of the rollers which for some, can go as much as 5 inches.

Recommended for: people looking for deep tissue massage;  bigger budgets

Examples: Infinity IT-8500 X3, Medical Breakthrough 6 v4, Luraco i7 Plus iRobotics, Kahuna Hubot HM-078

4D Massage

The latest technology, 4D massage is the addition of yet another dimension to the previous 3D models - time.

No, nothing fancy like time travel or whatnot but instead, you can control the speed AND intensity of the roller DURING the massage strokes. And by that, we don't mean speed control like how you choose between different levels in 2D models. 

Rather, it means that the speed, in that one motion stroke, can be adjusted differently - faster as it moves up the back and then slowing down at the end of the stroke.

4d massage

Picture this: when you go to a massage therapist and there is a painful knot found, s/he will massage it away by going up and down and circling around that knot, alternating between fast and slow motions with their thumbs.

The 4D rollers are able to mimic just that.

By rolling in a circular motion WHILE adjusting the speed of rotation simultaneously around a knot, this is the most human-like massage experience any massage chair can give. 

What you get is deep tissue, reflexology, sports massage effect - the ultimate relaxation and relief with this intuitive stroke control.

Recommended for: people with chronic pain problems; seeking for latest technology

ExamplesOsaki OS-Pro Soho 4DSynca Wellness Kagra

Summing Up

Ultimately, what type of massage chair you eventually go for depends on what your situation and requirements are. 

how massage chair works

If there is no particular issue and you simply want a basic massage chair without spending too much money, then a vibration or airbag only massage chair may suffice. Do note that the former is not quite as effective, though it is the most affordable. 

On the other hand, if there are particular ailments or chronic pain issues that you wish to seek some form of relief off from your massage chair, then going for a roller-based massage chair is the way to go. Of that, you may decide to go with 2D, 3D or even 4D, depending on your budget. 

Most roller-based massage chairs are equipped with airbag system as well so if budget allows, getting a combination of both is usually better. 

There are actually a bunch of other essential elements to look at when choosing a massage chair. Amongst them, some important questions to consider include:

  • Does it have zero gravity?
  • Does it have roller foot massage?
  • Does it come with S or L track?
  • Does it have body scan?

There are more - if you are interested, you may check out our guide here. Also, if you want to save time on your research, this list here may be of immense help to you too.