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Massage isn't just for pampering -- it's increasingly being recognized as an important component of a healthy life. Business intelligence firm IBISWorld estimates that massage therapy was a $16 billion industry in the U.S. in 2017, and studies have shown massage to be effective in treating conditions ranging from cancer-related fatigue to substance abuse withdrawal, fibromyalgia, headaches, high blood pressure and more.
Students of massage therapy can pursue a variety of career paths across a wide range of settings, from private practices and luxury hotel spas to health care facilities and backstage at sporting events. Read on to find out what you'll learn in massage therapy school, get some detailed massage therapist salary information and hear the truth about online massage therapy programs.
What does a massage therapist do?
Massage therapists treat clients by manipulating the muscles and soft tissues of the body. Depending on the approach taken to the therapy, a trained therapist's touch can relieve stress, improve circulation, help heal injuries and contribute to the general wellness of clients.
Take a look at this list of specific duties that most massage therapists perform on a regular basis:
- Talking with clients about their goals for the session, as well as any symptoms or relevant medical history
- Manually assessing clients to identify areas of pain or tension
- Using a variety of techniques to manipulate clients' muscles and other soft tissues
- Providing clients with after-care plans that may include stretches, posture exercises and strengthening techniques
Massage therapist specializations
Training for massage therapist jobs often includes the option to specialize in a number of specific technical approaches, commonly called modalities in massage therapy programs. It's estimated that today's therapists can choose among more than 350 specific modalities -- we'll list just a few of them here:
- Chair massage
- Sport massage
- Myofascial release therapy
- Prenatal massage
- Myotherapy (trigger point)
How to become a massage therapist
Massage therapists stand on their feet for several hours a day, and the work requires a certain amount of upper body strength. Your fitness can mean the difference between giving good massages and giving great ones, so strengthening your shoulders, chest and back can help you succeed. You can also begin preparing mentally for a massage therapy career as early as high school, if your school offers anatomy and physiology courses.
In general, here's what is typically needed to become a massage therapist:
- Earn a high school diploma or equivalent
- Enroll in a certificate, diploma, or degree program for massage therapy
- Maintain physical fitness to be able to meet the needs of a variety of clientele
- Apply for an apprenticeship or hands-on massage training
Here's a quick list of subjects you're likely to study at a typical massage therapy school:
- Clinical massage
- Relaxation massage
- Sports massage
- Deep tissue massage
- Applied anatomy
- Practice management
- Ethics and professionalism
Massage therapy degree and certificate programs
The route to becoming a massage therapist typically follows one of three paths:
- A post-secondary certificate
- Diploma program
- Two-year associate degree
Data from the Occupational Information Network (O*NET) shows that nearly 60 percent of practicing therapists in 2017 held post-secondary certificates, while around 30 percent had stopped short of completing a degree or certificate program and likely held a career diploma. Associate degrees are rare in the world of massage therapist education, but they can be a good idea if you're thinking about transferring some credits into a bachelor's degree program at a later date.
Prospective students can pursue education from a variety of providers. Community colleges, technical institutes, vocational schools and dedicated massage therapy academies can all provide the type of training required by most state licensing agencies.
Apprenticeships at massage therapy training schools
In some states, apprenticeship programs may be available to enhance or substitute for certain elements of massage therapy school training. If you're interested in learning on the job rather than studying in a traditional classroom, check with local massage providers and your state licensing board to find out if such programs exist in your area.
How long is a massage therapy program?
Programs of varying lengths can be found, but massage therapy schools that are members of the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) provide a minimum of 500 hours of in-class, supervised learning.
The general guidelines are all well and good, but how long does it take to become a massage therapist in your state? Many rules and regulations for massage therapists are set at the state level, and some areas of the country may require more massage therapist training than the AMTA guideline suggests. Check with your state licensing authority to find out more.
Online massage therapy schools
Online massage therapy schools may be rare, but the programs do exist for students who can't easily fit a traditional school schedule in with their work and family responsibilities. Massage therapy is a very hands-on discipline, so it might be best to try and find a hybrid program that allows you to work occasionally with experienced therapists.
Online massage therapy programs can also combine well with an in-person apprenticeship, if any organizations near you offer such opportunities.
Massage therapist certification and licensing
A passing score on the Massage and Bodywork Licensing Examination (MBLEx) is required for massage therapists seeking licensure in most states. The exam is administered by the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards (FSMTB), and your results can transfer from one state to another without much difficulty.
In addition to meeting industry licensing requirements, massage therapists must also be aware of state-level regulations on massage practice. Many states require licensed massage therapists to complete a certain number of continuing education units (CEUs) each license period in order to renew their license successfully.
Although you may not be able to directly earn your massage therapist certification online, the AMTA and other organizations offer online study guides and practice MBLEx tests to help you make sure you're prepared for the real thing.
Career advancement options for massage therapists
Growing your business as an independent massage therapist is the most common way that members of the industry advance their careers. Taking some college-level business courses can help you better understand how service markets work, and learning the finer points of customer service can keep your clients coming back time and time again.
Membership in professional associations can also help you grow your business, particularly because of the industry connections you can make with other members. Check out our list of professional associations for massage therapists near the end of the article.
Skills and abilities for massage therapists
According to the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), there are certain skills, traits and abilities that most top massage therapists possess. Here's a quick rundown of some of the most important items on the list published by O*NET:
- Active listening
- Oral comprehension
- Manual dexterity
- Dynamic strength
- Multilimb coordination
- Critical thinking
Massage therapist average salary and employment outlook
We've established that massage therapy is a rewarding, flexible career with great growth potential, but how much do massage therapists make? The answer to that isn't simple -- massage therapist average salary can depend on a range of factors, including experience, industry and geographic location -- but national averages can give you an idea of the payscale you can expect.
Here's a quick breakdown of massage therapist average salary and job outlook figures from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):
|Career||Total Employment||Annual Mean Wage||Projected Job Growth Rate|
Professional associations for massage therapists
Massage therapy work lies at the intersection of health care, hospitality/recreation and the skilled trades, which can be a difficult arena in which to find your niche. Professional associations like these can help you learn what you need to know about making your way in the world of massage:
- American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA)
- Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals (ABMP)
- Reflexology Association of America (RAA)
- American Medical Massage Association (AMMA)
- American Organization for Bodywork Therapies of Asia (AOBTA)
Each association has its own guidelines for applicants. Some may allow you to join while you're still a student, allowing you to start making use of the benefits before you're practicing officially.