Massage therapy is the art of manipulating an individual’s connective tissue and muscle in such a way as to promote relaxation, healing, and well-being. Stemming from the French word massage or “friction of kneading” and the Latin word massa “mass dough,” the term massage carries with it the notion of a baker kneading and pounding bread. Indeed both practitioners make similar motions as they work, although massage therapists must obviously be more careful, given their subjects are living, breathing human beings as opposed to inanimate dough.
At its core, massage therapy entails putting pressure on the body in both structured and unstructured ways. Pressure can further be split up into stationary and moving pressures and can be applied both manually and with mechanical aids. A manual massage can be applied with practitioners’ hands, fingers, knees, elbows, forearms, and even with their feet. In fact, there are more than eighty different possible modalities available to massage therapists.
There are several “target tissues” that are often manipulated during massage, including: muscles, tendons, fascia, joints, skin, ligaments, and other connective tissues. Organs in the gastrointestinal system are also frequently targeted, especially if a client struggles with indigestion or other stomach difficulties.
According to the US Department of Labor, the duties of a massage therapist can be summarized in terms of:
- Talking with clients about their medical history
- Discussing expectations and desired results with clients
- Evaluating a client’s pressure points, tense areas, and places of discomfort
- Applying the massage itself by manipulating clients’ muscles and tissues
- Discussing with clients how to improve their posture by stretching and strengthening certain areas of their body.
- Providing clients with other relaxation pointers and tips.
As of 2011, forty-three states and the District of Columbia regulate massage therapy. States that do not require message therapists to be licensed may have local regulations and guidelines for their practice put in place in the future. States that do require licensure of massage therapists demand that all practitioners complete accredited training programs.
In addition to completing an accredited training program, prospective massage therapists must pass a national exam in order to earn their licenses. State licensure boards for massage therapy determine the tests candidates will be required to take. In some cases, licensure exams are only from the state. There are, however, two nationally circulated tests that some states require candidates to take: the Massage and Bodywork Licensing Examination (MBLEx) and the National Certification Examination for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCETMB).
As is the case with licensure, massage therapy training standards vary by state. Typically speaking, private and public postsecondary institutions provide basic education programs in massage therapy. Programs of this nature take as much as 500+ hours of study prior to graduation and licensure. One must have a high school diploma or an equivalent degree prior to enrolling in a massage therapy program. These programs can be either full or part-time.
While enrolled in a massage therapy program, students must complete coursework in anatomy (the study of the organs and tissues of the human body), physiology (the study of the functions of these organs and tissues), kinesiology (the study of body mechanics and motion), business management, and ethics as well as several hours of hands-on experience, in which one learns and masters massage techniques.
Students may choose to concentrate on a specific modality or specialty of massage. Programs may offer help with job placement as well provide information on opportunities to further one’s education.
There are a number of opportunities in the profession of massage therapy to advance one’s skills and abilities. The American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) requires its members to pursue these opportunities in order to remain association members. After completing a full year of Professional Active membership, AMTA affiliates must finish forty-eight hours of massage therapy coursework every four years. In so doing, members stay up to date on the latest advances in massage therapy, as well as have the opportunity to sharpen their knowledge of the profession, their skills, and their ability to interact effectively with clients.
AMTA continuing education coursework can be broken down into five categories: business, ethics, massage general courses, self-care, and teachers. Courses in each category vary and can range from “A Massage Therapist’s Guide to Malpractice” to “Avoiding Burnout for Massage Therapists.”
AMTA ethics coursework is an especially relevant aspect of continuing education in massage therapy, as practitioners are expected to maintain proper standards of conduct at all times when working with clients. It is for this reason that courses such as “Creating Healthy Boundaries” and “A Holistic Model for Ethical Practice” are so important for one’s personal and professional development as a massage therapist.
One advantage of working in massage therapy is the vast array of work environments available to practitioners. For example, massage therapists who wish to work in private practice may choose to be self-employed. Self-employed practitioners provide their own massage tables and chairs, as well as pillows, sheets, massage oils, and lotions. Some massage therapists work out of their clients’ homes or offices, traveling to them instead of meeting clients in an office or workspace.
Private offices, resorts, spas, hospitals, gymnasiums, and shopping centers also hire massage therapists. Atmospheres in these environments vary depending on the location and intention behind the massage. For example, clients who wish to relax will expect muted light and soothing music. They might also expect to receive treatment in a private room. On the other hand, clients who are seeking to rehabilitate their injuries may not mind well-lit areas with other clients and massage therapists in the room.
Massage therapy is a physically taxing career, and massage therapists are likely to hurt themselves if they do not practice proper techniques or take breaks between sessions. It is also recommended that massage therapists receive massages to relieve the tension that fatigue and repetitive motion cause on their bodies.