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Massage Therapist Careers

Massage therapy is everywhere these days: convention centers, chiropractors' offices and medical facilities, spas and wellness centers, hotels, cruise ships, shopping malls and even airports. In healthcare settings, the goals of massage may include rehabilitation from injuries or pain reduction. Techniques vary, but therapists often use their hands, arms or even feet to put pressure on the muscles and tissues of the individual receiving the massage. Clients' bodies may be covered by towels or sheets, or clients may remain clothed during chair massages. Tools of the trade include medical heat lamps or hot stones to help warm muscles. The job can be physically demanding, but these professionals may find satisfaction in helping to enhance people's relaxation and general well-being.

How to Become a Massage Therapist

Aspiring massage therapists often need to acquire post-secondary education to work in the field, although state and local regulations vary. Massage therapy training from an accredited school may be a prerequisite for licensure, which is currently required in most states, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Programs often include at least 500 hours of post-secondary study, on either a part-time or full-time basis. Courses may include kinesiology and business management in addition to hands-on practice (bls.gov).

Massage therapy training programs typically result in a certificate or an associate degree in massage therapy. Associate degrees, which can take two years of full-time study to complete, may target professionals who want to build on their massage therapy background to expand into other related fields. These degrees often encompass general education courses that could assist students in developing business-related skills such as communication.

The following steps can help students aiming at massage therapy careers, although education is not a guarantee of employment:

  1. Graduation from high school or an equivalent credential such as a GED, which the BLS describes as a common prerequisite for career training.
  2. Completion of post-secondary study, either in the form of a certificate or an associate degree in massage therapy.
  3. Earning a state license, which frequently requires passing a standardized exam. Licensing requirements vary by state.
  4. Applying for open positions in one's area of residence.
  5. Keeping state license current, which may require continuing education or a fee for license renewal.

Post-Education Requirements

Required licensing examinations may either be specific to a state or from a nationally recognized organization such as these:

  • National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB): Certified massage therapists need to demonstrate mastery of core skills and pass the exam. In addition, board certified massage therapists must adhere to the organization's code of ethics, uphold the published standards of practice and earn continuing education credits.
  • Massage and Bodywork Licensing Examination (MBLEx) from the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards: The exam may cover anatomy and physiology, pathology, manipulation of soft tissue, client assessment, history and modalities of massage, and ethics and laws (fsmbt.org).

In addition, optional massage therapy certifications are available, for example:

  • Rolf Institute of Structural Integration: Certification is available for beginners or massage professionals in the field of Rolfing, a specialized kind of bodywork. The training program comprises three phases and typically takes 12 to 18 months.
  • American Reflexology Certification Board (ARCB): This national certification is for reflexology, a massage sub-specialty that applies pressure to reflexes on the client's feet, hands and outer ears. Certified reflexologists must adhere to ARCB's code of ethics and professional standards and must earn continuing education.

Specialties

Therapists may study customized techniques to use with specific groups of clients, for example, seniors, athletes or pregnant women. Massage therapy training programs may teach about varying specialties, also called modalities, as in these examples:

  • Deep-tissue massage
  • Shiatsu
  • Sports massage
  • Swedish massage

Job Growth and Average Salary

An increased focus on healthy lifestyles has influenced massage therapists' employment outlook. The BLS expects massage therapy jobs in the U.S. to expand by 20 percent between 2010 and 2020, partly due to the efforts to license and certify these professionals in most states, which has improved public recognition of the industry. Massage therapy can produce positive effects such as increased energy for older people, and the aging of the U.S. population could provide opportunities for therapists. Some companies are also using massage as a workplace benefit for employees (bls.gov/ooh, 2012).

As for massage therapist salary data, the median annual wage in the U.S. was $35,970 in May 2012, with the highest 10 percent of workers earning more than $70,140 and the lowest 10 percent earning less than $18,420 nationally (bls.gov/oes, 2013). The majority of massage therapists work part-time, particularly recent massage therapy school graduates who are building a client base. Wages vary according to geographic location, type of employer and other factors.

List of Related Careers

Other career options are possible for graduates of massage therapy programs, although they may require additional experience or education. These may include:

  • Athletic Trainers: Work with individuals of all ages to prevent, diagnose and treat muscle and bone injuries or related illnesses.
  • Physical Therapist Assistants: Assist patients during their rehabilitation period while they recover from illnesses or injuries, helping them regain movement under the close supervision of a physical therapist.
  • Spa Owner/Entrepreneur: Own a small business that employs massage therapists and provides therapeutic services to its clients.

Links to Sources and Associations

The following websites offer more information about massage therapy:

Alliance for Massage Therapy Education

American Reflexology Certification Board

American Massage Therapy Association

Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation

Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards

Massage Therapists: Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2012, Bureau of Labor Statistics

Massage Therapists: Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics

National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork

Rolf Institute of Structural Integration