A photograph shows kinesiology tape being applied to a woman's arm, to illustrate the concept of tools for sports massage therapists.

There are many massage tools for sports massage therapists to consider incorporating into sessions. We spoke with sports massage therapists, educators and companies to create this list (and descriptions) of the tools you can use to complement massage therapy on athletes.

#1: Cupping

A staple of traditional Chinese medicine, cupping involves placing cups made of glass or other material on various areas of the body and applying suction. This can help decompress the tissue underneath, ease pain and optimize blood and lymph flow to promote recovery.

Many companies offer cupping sets, one of which is RockPods, a set of silicone cups made by RockTape. Adam Wolf, PT, LMT, FAFS, a Chicago physical therapist, massage therapist and founder of REAL Physical Therapy & The Movement Guild, utilizes RockPods in his practice.

“Cupping provides a level of decompression to tissue you can’t mimic with your hands,” he said. “It also allows for variety in the pressure differential since the cups tension some aspects while compressing other neighboring parts of tissue. This helps assists in creating optimal fluid exchange and tissue hydration, which can help speed up recovery.”

#2: Hot Packs

Heat relaxes tight muscles, reduces muscular tension and spasm, and increases blood flow, promoting a healing effect.

For sports massage therapists, who may be working in a locker room, on the sidelines, or at athletes’ homes or hotels, tool portability helps. Jesse Schexnayder, CEO of HotShotz, which makes reusable heat packs, says therapists can use hot packs like hot stones in a massage. The vasodilation that occurs when heat is applied to soft tissue helps athletes recover from workouts and soothes muscle spasms and achy joints.

#3: Rollers, Balls and Support Tools

Foam rollers, massage balls and other tools help sports massage therapists stretch their clients, ease pain and facilitate muscle recovery, and many are portable; compact enough to fit in a gym bag.

According to Cat Matlock, LMBT, RYT, “Studies are indicating that the use of foam rollers and therapeutic rolling with balls increases flexibility and range of motion, and decreases pain faster than stretching alone.”

Another tool is the Sacro Wedgy, a small prop designed to mimic an osteopathic sacrum hold. Coach Hurshel Meares invented it in the 1950s after finding success doing sacrum holds on football players, said Cindy Ballis, president of Sacro Wedgy. Benefits of a balanced sacrum, she said, include improved posture, alignment and reduced pain.

#4: Tape

Tape is widely used in rehabbing injuries and providing support during training and intense workouts.

Jeffrey Forman, PhD, BCTMB, CMT, as of this writing a consultant for Performance Health, said taping reduces pain, provides joint stability and increases blood flow under the skin. Those factors can make all the difference in an athlete’s performance and recovery.

“I tape people across the country at conferences and they come back to me and hug me the next day. They tell me they were able to sleep, that their shoulder pain is gone, their elbow pain is gone, their wrist is better,” said Forman.

Based on the results of a back-pain study he conducted, Forman suggests this protocol: massage, apply tape, then spray with topical analgesic.

#5: Pain-Relieving Topicals

Herbal pain relief creams should be a staple of any sports massage therapist’s toolkit to reduce swelling and ease muscle soreness.

A topical can boost the effects of massage and, if you retail the topical to clients, extend the effects.

“You want to give them something they can use at home so that when they come back to you, they are that much further ahead,” said Christy Mann, as of this writing a manager of operations for Doctor Hoy’s Natural Pain Relief Gel.

Ingredients that one might look for in a topical, said Mann, might include arnica, which reduces swelling and relieves pain; menthol, a chemical found to reduce discomfort from delayed-onset muscle soreness; and camphor, which reduces swelling and increases blood flow.

Additional pain-relieving ingredients include CBD, shea butter, apricot oil, and, in general, natural ingredients.

Aiyana Fraley

About the Author

Aiyana Fraley, LMT, is a freelance writer and health care professional with more than 17 years of experience in the massage field. She teaches yoga and offers sessions in massage, Reiki, sound healing and essential oils.