Handheld electric massagers are widely available and seldom used with caution. These massagers are a big business, and can be found almost anywhere — from a high-end retail chain, to a nook in a neighborhood pharmacy and occasionally in the back of a novelty shop. People predominantly seek these devices out for self relief of stressed, tensed and achy muscles. These products traditionally come with a user’s manual that gives basic safety guidelines typical for electrical devices. The manual may also recommend keeping the unit moving, cautioning against holding it in one location for an extended amount of time. Unfortunately, manuals are rarely read cover to cover — and if they are, consumers tend to take safety guidelines with a grain of salt, meaning, appropriate caution is seldom exercised. Perhaps the litigious nature of our culture has resulted in our callousness toward safety measures, assuming that hazards are overstated to protect the issuer from frivolous negligence lawsuits. It can take a horror story, either personalized or newsworthy, to clue people in to the validity of a safety caution.

A case report entitled “Carotid Dissection Associated with a Handheld Electric Massager” by Arthur C. Grant, MD, PhD and Norman Wang, MD posted by WebMD’s Medscape on 2/1/05, was published by the Southern Medical Journal in 2004. This report serves the purpose of a horror story, by bringing our awareness to the appropriate use and safety of electrical massaging devices.

This report is about a 38-year-old woman with a history of migraine headaches and smoking cigarettes for 15 years. She had a right-sided headache with pain extending down into her neck. Over-the-counter pain relievers offered her no help, and after a few days of pain, a friend of hers helped her massage the painful area, using a handheld electric massager on her neck for about 20 minutes. The area on which she focused was just below the angle of the jaw, over the sternocleidomastoid muscle. Five days after the neck massage, this woman had dysarthria (a speech disorder in which the pronunciation is unclear, yet the linguistic content and meaning are normal) and severe left-sided hemiparesis (paralysis). Medical tests confirmed the cause to be an internal carotid artery dissection resulting in a massive ischemic stroke.

A universal misconception about pain is that “no matter where it is, if it hurts, keep rubbing and manipulating it until it feels better.” In doing just that, a relatively young woman with no major stroke risk factors suffered from a disabling stroke. Apparently, the warnings to be careful with massage in the area near the carotid artery (lateral neck), and to keep a massaging device in constant movement are serious warnings with significant consequences. This sad account is best served as a caution to anyone using a handheld electric massager, to educate our clients on the proper use of these devices and to impact businesses advertising and packaging these massagers. Instead of a graphic image of a massager being used on the neck, a big red X through such an image might just send a powerful enough message. In the meantime, protect your friends and clients by educating them on this danger, to prevent this type of report from becoming a personal horror story.