After a long day at work, nothing feels better than a few minutes of precious relaxation. And for a few decades now, the ergonomic recliner has turned it into an art.

From rollers to airbags, the innovative techniques aimed at relaxing the body and mind enable people to receive therapeutic benefits right at home.

But how do massage chairs work? We explore the incredible technology behind the leather upholstery that makes it all possible!

A Brief History of the Massage Chair

Roland A. Labbe filed a US patent in 1948 for a crude-looking chair with a vibrating device attached to it. The goal of this prototype was to relieve body tension, but honestly, Labbe’s design looked more like a medieval torture device than a comfy recliner!

Not long after in 1954, Nobuo Fujimoto debuted an electric massage chair in Japan built from scrap materials he had collected from the garbage heap.

Dawning Period Message Chair
Photo Credit: fujiiryoki

Dubbed The First Machine”, it featured vertically moving massage balls that performed kneading along the spine. This design officially became known as the world’s first mass-produced massage chair.

Since then, the interest in at-home massage has not waned, and the technology continues to evolve.

Today’s cutting-edge concepts aim to mimic the movement of human hands, so it’s like having a professional masseuse in your living room.

While they are considered a luxury product in the US, only a small percentage of Americans (mainly those who can afford one) has an ergonomic recliner in their home.

Meanwhile, massage chair culture is embraced more in Japan, and studies suggest around 10% of Japanese households have one, and that percentage is predicted to grow.

Massage Chair Design Overview

I think we can all agree that the best way to experience a massage is by going to a professional masseuse or chiropractor. The art of massage has been around for centuries, with techniques developed to treat pain, melt away stress, and usher in a state of relaxation.

Kahuna Massage Chairs in a showroom

The objective of the automated massage chair is to do the exact same thing.

The brain of the operation is the microprocessor, which initiates the various mechanical processes inside the chair once the user selects a program by pushing a button on the attached remote controller.

Massage chairs fall into three categories, and each offers a different set of technological features according to the user’s needs.

  • Low-range: Priced under $1500, these chairs have basic features and limited massage options.
  • Mid-range: Priced between $1500-$6500, these chairs offer a moderate amount of features, including some lux tech found in high-end chairs.
  • High-range: Priced at $6500+, these feature-rich chairs consist of the best cutting-edge tech and massage programs.

The massage chair is designed to administer therapeutic benefits for those who suffer from chronic pain, or if you’re a hobbyist, you can choose a good massage chair to help you take the edge off after an exhausting day at the office.

A quality chair will massage the entire body with a roller massage track that moves from the neck to the lower back or even extend underneath the seat to reach the glutes.

Mid to high-range chairs may offer extras such as heating, vibration, Zero Gravity Seating, airbag compression, and foot reflexology to enhance the overall therapeutic value.

The technology behind these features is meticulously designed to give the user a professional experience, with some leeway to adjust your massage preferences as desired.

So why is it important to know how massage chairs work? If you’re in the market for one, understanding the technology can help you sort through the features to pick the best choice for your needs.

It’s complex and can be overwhelming to navigate through the nuts and bolts, but we’ll go over everything in this article so you can feel confident when it comes to time to invest in the recliner of your dreams.

But first, let’s start with the brain of the operations.

Ogawa Master Drive AI Massage Chair


A microprocessor is a multi-functional, digitally integrated circuit that serves as the internal soundboard for the massage chair. All of the machine instructions are programmed there.

The microprocessor receives commands from the external remote controller when the user pushes a button to select a massage function. It then locates the programmed instructions for that specific function and initiates the mechanical process from within.

Remote Controller

Every massage chair comes with some sort of remote controller, whether it’s a panel of buttons on the armrest, a handheld remote, or a full-sized tablet with a pre-programmed app.

The remote gives users complete control over what the massage chair can do. From here, you can browse through automatic massage programs, build a massage using customization options, and adjust the speed/intensity of your massage.

Bear in mind that the massage programs and customization options vary from chair to chair. Typically, the more expensive the recliner, the more choices you’ll have to play around with.

Mechanical Roller Massage

Mechanical Roller Massage

Once you sit down and select a massage program via the remote controller, it sends a command to the microprocessor, activating the mechanical roller system.

This consists of rollers mounted upon a track that runs from the neck to the lumbar region (called an S-track) and sometimes extends underneath the seat (called an L-track). With most modern massage chairs, you’ll also find mechanical rollers in the footwells.

Older roller technology generally found in low-range chairs consists of massage balls, fixed heads, or dual rollers. They can produce a relaxing massage but don’t expect therapeutic benefits.

Quad rollers, tri rollers, and six rollers are the industry standard and are found in mid to high-range chairs. These rollers can administer a deep tissue massage for therapeutic value if you have back pain.

  • Massage Balls: These fixed balls mimic kneading to help relieve muscle tightness.
  • Fixed Heads: These are rollers that are fixed at various points along the track.
  • Dual Rollers: Two roller heads travel vertically along the track and can administer a variety of techniques, except deep tissue massage.
  • Quad Rollers: 3D or 4D rollers move vertically, horizontally, and in/out along the track to replicate human hands and apply a deep tissue massage.
  • Tri & Six Roller: Rare to find, this consists of 3 or more quad rollers along the track.

An intricate system of electric motors and gears spring the rollers into action. They move in patterns simulating various massage techniques, most commonly kneading, gripping, rolling, tapping, Shiatsu, and combo.

  • Kneading: The rollers move in circles.
  • Rolling: The rollers move vertically along the entire length of the track.
  • Tapping: This feels like the karate chop, with the rollers rapidly pushing in and out.
  • Gripping: The rollers grip and gently squeeze the muscles.
  • Shiatsu: An advanced technique simulated by rollers pressing against the pressure points.
  • Combo: A combination of two techniques at once.

Some massage chairs even offer simultaneous heating and vibration while the rollers work.

Mecor Heating & Vibration Message Chair

Heating & Vibration

Heating is a popular feature found across the market. The majority of chairs will offer heating in the lumbar region, but you can also find it in the footwells and full-body heat (rare).

This helps to relax the muscles, which is very therapeutic when combined with mechanical rollers.

Vibration is one of the first massage elements invented aimed at releasing tension.

To this day, it’s still implemented in low-range chairs through small electronic devices placed on top of gears. Nowadays, vibration is typically located in the seat to help soothe pain and tightness in the groin area and help facilitate blood circulation.

Air Compression Massage

The air compression massage utilizes a subliminal “squeezing” technique administered by first or second-generation airbags located throughout the massage chair.

This type of massage is geared towards relaxation, making users feel like they’re floating on a cloud. The squeezing is supposed to emulate compression socks, facilitating blood flow to diminish swelling and aches.

Osaki Air Compression Massage Chair

Floating on a cloud sounds nice… but how does it work?

If we go inside the chair, we’ll find a mini air compressor with multiple tubes attached to it—the tubes run throughout the recliner, connecting to each airbag. The air compressor’s duty is to inflate the airbags.

A switch controls the flow of air from the compressor to each airbag. This allows the user to choose which areas they want an air massage and adjust the individual airbags’ intensity and speed.

The higher the intensity, the more the airbag is inflated, initiating a firm squeeze around the muscles.

Most low to high-range chairs offer an air massage in the leg wells, arms, neck, thighs, and lower back.

Pro Tip: If you suffer from chronic leg and foot pain, air compression in the leg wells combined with heat and rollers is your ticket to an outstanding therapeutic foot/leg massage!

Zero Gravity Seating

Zero Gravity Seating is a concept inspired by NASA after observing astronauts’ body positioning in space without the pull of gravity. They found that the joints naturally aligned on their own, fostering an improved posture.

Message chair in a zero gravity recline position

This weightless concept is applied to modern massage technology, and you’ll find numerous chairs on the market that offer between 1-3 Zero-G positions while administering a massage.

The chair reclines until the legs are elevated above the heart to achieve Zero Gravity. The idea is to induce a feeling of weightlessness, distributing weight and pressure evenly throughout the body.

This helps release tension from the muscles and joints for pain relief.

So…Do Massage Chairs Work?

This is the age-old question. As you scroll through luxury massage chairs on the internet and your eyes pop at the high prices, you can’t help but wonder if massage technology works and whether it’s worth the splurge.

If you’ve made it this far in the article, then you know that the massage chair is an innovative creation designed for precision and improved health.

Five Different Massage Chairs

Quality is not an issue- if you’re willing to pay for it, that is.

It all comes down to what you want to get out of owning an ergonomic recliner. 

If you suffer from chronic pain…

You may visit the chiropractor regularly to treat chronic back and neck pain. Or, you may be on your feet for long hours, resulting in leg pain.

The chiropractor gets expensive and time-consuming if you go frequently. If so, a mid to high-range massage chair can give you therapeutic benefits and may help you save money on chiro appointments in the long run.

If you are a hobbyist who likes to treat yo’ self…

Life gets stressful, and self-care is important. If you’re someone with expendable cash and you want a mellow way to relax after a long day, a low to mid-range massage chair should do the trick.

While still pricey, you don’t have to wade through heaps of ritzy features that you may or may not need. Instead, you get a standard quality massage that will melt away tension and leave you feeling zen.

Final Thoughts: How Do Massage Chairs Work

A lot is going on underneath that smooth leather exterior. Massage chairs are designed utilizing cutting-edge technology, and over the decades, its impressive evolution keeps hobbyists coming back for more.

If you’re in the market for an ergonomic recliner, it helps to know how do massage chairs work. The core features that we discussed are also the most important features you’ll want to focus on, so you can make the most educated decision suited to your unique needs.

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