How we selected finalists to test
While researching neck massagers, we discovered that there isn’t a defining industry leader or even a group of brand names that are strongly associated with the category. On top of that, there are literally hundreds of options available on Amazon and other stores. For someone with lots of muscle aches and pains, the selection can be overwhelming.
In order to narrow the list down, the first thing we did was eliminate any massagers that didn’t have at least a four-star rating on Amazon. We also looked for massagers that were positively reviewed by at least a few websites, including Consumer Reports and others.
Another decision we had to make was whether to limit the finalists to electric massagers or include one of the many “manual” massagers available as well. After speaking to several doctors, including Dr. Rapaport of Emory University, we decided to stick with electric massagers only.
There were a few reasons that led us to this decision. Ultimately, it was the fact that high-quality electric massagers will produce the therapeutic and medical benefits of a neck massage more consistently. Manual massagers, on the other hand, require the user to have strength, flexibility and at least some knowledge of technique.
Plus, having an electric massager is just more relaxing in general.
The five best neck & shoulder massagers
- Brookstone Shiatsu Neck & Shoulder Massager with Heat
- Gideon Shiatsu Deep Kneading Pillow
- LiBa Shiatsu Massager
- PurePulse Electronic Pulse Massager
- Zyllion Shiatsu Pillow Massager
How we tested
Any time we test a product that has one primary purpose, the most important metric is, of course, how well it performs that task. While that was also true for neck massagers, measuring “pain relief” can be difficult to quantify. One person’s rating of a muscle ache or pain could be completely different than the next person’s.
In order to make our data more qualitative and to control for the variety of ways that people rank muscle aches and pains, we gathered a group of 10 different people, with a range of ages and other demographics, as an ad-hoc focus group.
Along with the focus group we looked at the functionality of each massager, how easy they were to set up and transport, as well as the materials used and overall build quality of each massager.
Using a focus group to gain insight
We took an in-depth look into each of our five finalists. However, determining a “best” neck massager can be subjective, since everyone’s opinion on what constitutes a “good” neck massage can differ.
We used the feedback from our focus group participants alongside our own analysis and testing of the products to determine the best option available.
One of the primary benefits of using a neck massager is the fact that, unlike a professional massage therapist, it can be used any time. Daily or weekly use of a neck massager is key to maximizing the health benefits of neck massage in general, so our focus group questions were oriented around metrics that would indicate (and encourage) regular use of the product.
We wanted to know how much better (or worse) their muscles felt before and after using each massager and whether their overall pain level was reduced in a significant way.
These are the results of our focus group:
Aesthetics and style
While the appearance of each neck massager is certainly not the most important measurement used when picking a product, it still makes a difference in the purchasing process.
If the product owner thinks the item looks tacky, more often than not it’ll end up in the closet or a drawer somewhere and will probably be used less often. If, on the other hand, a massager is well-designed, it’ll be more likely to stay in the bedroom or living room, where it will probably be used more often to reduce muscle aches and pains.
Our top pick, the Brookstone, slightly edged out our top portable pick, the Gideon, with respective scores of 7.1 and seven.
When we selected our five neck & shoulder massager finalists, we made a point of selecting products that were simple and straightforward to operate to help relieve some pain without causing operation pains.
The only exception, the PurePulse, is still fairly simple to operate once you’ve read the instructions. However, it is certainly more complicated to operate than the other finalists. This was ultimately reflected in the score the PurePulse received amongst our focus group participants.
In this category, our top portable pick, the Gideon, slightly beat out the Brookstone with scores of nine and 8.9.
We asked each of our focus group participants to rate the overall design of each massager. Unlike the “aesthetics and style” question, design is more closely linked to general usability, as well as the ergonomics and layout of the neck massager itself. In this category, the Brookstone was far ahead of the pack with a score of 8.5. The PurePulse, on the other hand, only achieved a score of 3.8.
Pain relief is, of course, the most important measurement when rating neck massagers. For the purposes of our focus group, we asked our participants to group anything that could be considered “pain relief” — including relaxation, muscle ache reduction, decreases in muscle tension, improved blood circulation, sense of well-being and reduction in any pain they had before using the massager — into this category.
All of our finalists fared reasonably well in this category, but our top pick, the Brookstone, was hands-down the standout.
Would you use it again?
This question is somewhat redundant to the rest of the questions we asked, but we really wanted to drive home the point that a neck massager is only beneficial if it is actually used. Once again, the Brookstone led with a score of 8.5. In comparison, the PurePulse only earned a score of 5.6.
What to know before making a purchase decision
Neck massagers can be used simply as a basic relaxation tool. If you are in good health and aren’t particularly interested in the specific health benefits, you can choose any high-quality option and likely be satisfied with the pain and stress-relieving benefits.
However, if you are interested specifically in the health benefits of neck massage or have other health issues that may limit which massagers you’re able to use effectively, it’s important to choose a product that is most suitable for you.
One of the most important considerations when choosing a neck and shoulder massager is deciding how you want the pressure applied to the muscles themselves. Among our finalists, there were three different methods: arm strength, body weight and electrical power.
Both the Brookstone and the LiBa use arm strength to generate pressure. While each of these massagers has rotating shiatsu-style nodes, the majority of the pressure is generated by pulling down on the massager using your arms.
For those who are able to properly utilize this design, it offers significant flexibility, both in the amount and the specific location that pressure is applied. However, individuals who don’t have the necessary arm strength or dexterity or who simply don’t want to have to pull while receiving a massage, should probably consider a different option.
The second method of generating pressure is body weight. Both the Gideon and the Zyllion use this method.
Another important consideration is portability. Put another way: where do you plan on using the massager?
If product use will be limited to the home, then any of our finalists are viable options. If you plan on using the neck massager at work or in the car, portability becomes a more important factor.
If you work at a desk, you probably won’t be able to use the Brookstone, since it requires your arms to be used to apply pressure on your neck. While you could certainly take a break from work to use the Brookstone, using the Gideon (which is our top portable massager) is easier and will allow you to continue working at the same time.
The significant health benefits of massage
There is a growing body of research on the many benefits of massages and the latest research indicates that there are substantial benefits directly associated with massages — neck massages in particular.
Of course, not everyone has the means or time, to visit a massage therapist one or more times each week. Fortunately, according to the doctors we spoke to, neck massagers (such as the ones we are reviewing here) provide many of the same benefits.
The reason for this is fairly straightforward: Within the neck, there is something known as the “neurovascular bundle”. Stimulating this bundle, for example with a shiatsu-style neck massager, leads to reduced stress levels, increased relaxation and decreases in inflammation, among other benefits.
Massage benefits for specific health conditions
We spoke with several medical experts. Most notable was our conversation with Dr. Mark Rapaport, a Chairman at the Emory University School of Medicine who has published more than 180 peer-reviewed studies for a variety of prominent publications. Our conversation with Dr. Rapaport was also instrumental in conducting our review of the best foot massagers as well.
In addition to providing health benefits to generally healthy individuals, neck massages also provide significant health benefits for a wide variety of health conditions.
Our conversation with Dr. Rapaport educated us to the fact that individuals with a generalized anxiety disorder were recorded to have dramatically lower cortisol and stress levels, with increases in oxytocin levels and a general sense of well-being, after receiving a neck massage.
Another excellent example of how neck massages can provide health benefits comes from the studies which indicate that massages lead to decreased stress levels in women who have recently undergone a C-section. The corresponding decrease in cortisol levels and increased levels of oxytocin are excellent both for the mother and her newborn child.
There is also a growing body of research indicating that massages can have a significant impact on inflammatory markers. This helps reduce the time needed to heal from injuries or surgery and could potentially have dramatic benefits for individuals suffering from autoimmune disorders such as arthritis, Crohn’s disease and even allergies. Dr. Thomas Best of Ohio State University is one of the leading researchers in this field.
While the specific benefits are still being researched, one thing is clear: Neck massages offer significant benefits both for healthy individuals and those suffering from a wide range of medical conditions.
Best overall: Brookstone – Shiatsu
The Brookstone – Shiatsu Neck Massager was our top pick overall for a variety of reasons. In addition to feeling like the most “premium” product among the finalists, the versatility of the massager alongside the simplicity of operating it made the Brookstone an approachable and effective tool.
One of the things we liked most about the Brookstone was the ability to directly control where the massager was working and the precise intensity at any given moment on your muscles. While massagers like the Gideon and the Zyllion can technically be placed anywhere along the neck, shoulder or back, the Brookstone allowed for much more precise and fluid control.
That added control means we could also target very specific muscles on our neck and back. This was ideal for focusing on tough knots that would otherwise be difficult — if not impossible — to reach.
This was also the case with the LiBa neck massager. However, there were other issues with the LiBa that took it out of contention for the best choice overall. Most notable and significant was the fact that the material on the Liba started to wear down after just a few weeks of testing. Compared to the Brookstone, we predict that the Liba would last far less time with regular use.
Another thing we particularly liked about the Brookstone was the visual and physical aesthetics. In addition to looking and feeling like a high-quality product, the material itself was sturdy and stable, while also having just enough “give” to make the product flexible and easy to use.
The controls of the Brookstone were very simple as well. After putting your arms through their respective openings, there are three buttons on the left side: one to turn the massager on and off, one to turn the heat on and off and one to reverse (or lock) the direction of the shiatsu nodes. That being said, it’s worth noting that all of our finalists were essentially as easy to operate.
Things we didn’t like
While the Brookstone was hands-down the best product we tested, there were a couple of things we didn’t like.
First and most significant for those who are elderly or have a medical condition, the Brookstone massager requires moderate arm mobility and strength. While a healthy 30-year-old will have no problem in this regard, it could potentially be an issue for others.
If you’re concerned about the strength and mobility needed to use the Brookstone, here’s a good rule of thumb: if you can easily put on a heavy sweater, you should have no problem using the Brookstone.
The other issue we had with the Brookstone was the lack of portability. In addition to requiring a wall outlet to operate, we would have liked the cord itself to be a little longer. We found that using a surge strip or extension cord in conjunction with massager made things much easier.
If portability is a major concern for you, Brookstone does offer a wireless version of their massager, which can usually be purchased for about $30 more on Amazon.
Findings from the focus group
Our focus group largely matched our own analysis and testing of the Brookstone. The most notable numbers in the focus group were the “user-friendly” and “pain relief” scores, which were 8.9 and 8.7 out of 10, respectively.
On the user-friendly metric, individuals in our focus group liked that there weren’t lots of buttons or settings and no one needed to read the instruction manual that came with the massager. The three icons are self-explanatory and universal as well.
For pain relief, which is, of course, the single most important metric, users in our focus group thought the kneading shiatsu-style massage did a particularly great job of loosening and relaxing the shoulder and neck muscles.
The Brookstone also did a solid job in the mid and lower back area, however, both our focus group and our own testing indicated that the massager performed best in the neck and shoulder area.
- The Brookstone is the most effective massager we tested.
- The build quality of the Brookstone exceeded the other massagers, particularly the LiBa, which looks very similar.
- This model requires a wall outlet. If you want a portable model, try the Brookstone Cordless.
Most portable option: Gideon – Massage Pillow
The Gideon neck massager is another strong choice and may even be better for those who have medical conditions or are otherwise unable to exert the arm strength and mobility that the Brookstone massager requires.
The Gideon is controlled with a simple switch located about halfway down the power cord. Controlling the Gideon is easy as well, with only three options to choose from.
One of the biggest downsides to our top pick, the Brookstone, is the fact that it needs to be plugged into the wall (or any AC outlet) and that the included power cord is only about three feet long. The Gideon massager, on the other hand, has a much longer power cord (about seven feet long) and also comes with a car charging adapter.
This, along with the Gideon’s smaller size, makes the Gideon far more portable in practice. The Gideon is best for those who want to have a neck massager outside of the home — particularly in the car and office. The Gideon, with its “pillow” shape, is also well-suited for use while laying down.
Things we didn’t like about the Gideon
The Gideon neck massager is a strong product and is probably the best option for some people. However, there were a few things we didn’t like about the Gideon that prevented it from being our top pick overall.
First and foremost, the Gideon simply isn’t as effective at relieving pain. While the Gideon certainly works well, particularly in office chairs and while laying down, it wasn’t able to penetrate as deeply or precisely as the Brookstone. If you’re looking for the most accurate and powerful neck massage, the Brookstone is the way to go.
We also found that while that Gideon certainly does work for the neck, it stands out the most on lower parts of the back. In other words, the Gideon is better suited for those who want to use it in their car, bed or office chair.
Findings from the focus group
The Gideon’s focus group scores were strong but not outstanding across the board, with all scores but one somewhere in the seven to eight — the one exception being user-friendliness. This is particularly noteworthy for those who are less technologically-savvy and also makes the Gideon a great gift for a grandfather or grandmother who prefers simple electronics.
- The Gideon massager works in both the home, car and office.
- The Gideon is less precise but easier to use for those with reduced arm strength and mobility.
- The Gideon has the highest user-friendliness score among our finalists, with a score of nine out of 10.
Other finalists we tested
The other neck massagers we tested all had their strengths and weaknesses. While any of them are viable options, we determined that both the Brookstone and the Gideon offer a better value overall.
The PurePulse was the most unique product we tested and most people probably won’t be comfortable using a product like this in the home.
Unlike the other neck massagers we tested, the PurePulse massager uses electrical pulses to stimulate the muscles, which in turn essentially “resets” the muscle, allowing them to relax. The PurePulse is FDA-approved and in fact, many massage therapists and chiropractors frequently use them on their patients.
The Pure Pulse is fairly inexpensive when compared to the other massagers on our list and is also the most portable — the four AA batteries the massager uses lasted several hours during our testing.
There are three major downsides that prevented the PurePulse from being one of our recommended products.
First, the adhesive pads will need to be replaced from time to time and most people will want to have their own pads for sanitary reasons. Second, our focus group indicated that this was the least user-friendly massager, with multiple settings available. Finally, the massage itself is also somewhat disconcerting for some people, since electrical pulses cause muscles to tense and loosen without conscious control from the person using the massager.
Nevertheless, the PurePulse does work well and is utilized by healthcare professionals all over the world. It’s worth giving a try if you’re willing to experiment.
The Zyllion was similar in many ways to the Gideon massager. However, both in our own testing as well as the feedback from our focus groups, we found that the Zyllion didn’t perform as well as the Gideon across the board.
If you’re trying to decide between the Zyllion and the Gideon, we think you’re better off with the Gideon (it’s usually a few dollars cheaper on Amazon as well).
Those looking for a budget option may appreciate the value offered by the LiBa neck massager. The LiBa looks similar in many ways to the Brookstone. However, the LiBa costs anywhere from one-third to one-half the cost of the Brookstone.
When the pressure was applied using the arm straps, the massage rollers would often get stuck. This was definitely not meant to do while sitting at a chair or couch. When sitting and using the massager on your back, the rollers sometimes moved the actual leather casing, causing the rollers to get stuck and twist the leather. You would have to manually move realign the rollers back to the mesh portion that they belonged in.
While the LiBa is worth considering at that price point, it’s important to remember that there are significant differences between the two. Most important is the diminished build quality we found when testing the LiBa massager. By the end of our testing period, the LiBa was already starting to look somewhat worn and we doubted it would last more than a year or two with regular use.
After about eight months of testing this item, a wire came loose and it hung within the right roller portion. The rollers broke the wire causing the red lights to go out. Shortly after the Liba stopped working altogether.
The shiatsu nodes in the LiBa also aren’t as effective as they are on the Brookstone. As a result, putting significant amounts of pressure on the LiBa causes the nodes to slow down significantly, particularly when compared to the Brookstone.
The bottom line
The benefits of a neck massager are numerous and the Brookstone massager offers the best combination of pain relief, blood circulation, relaxed muscles, ease of use and value from the five finalists we tested. If you want a high-quality product that will last for years to come, the Brookstone is a strong choice.
If you’re looking for a more portable massager that is easier for those with limited arm strength and mobility to use, the Gideon is a strong option as well. Ultimately, the key is to find a product that you’ll actually use so that you can maximize the numerous health benefits associated with regular massages.