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Exploring massage therapy as a career option


Everyone knows what a massage feels like. But technically speaking, what is it?

Massage therapy is a scientific system of manipulations on the muscles and connective tissues through use of the hands or a device that mimics the hands’ action. Generally, it’s used for relaxation, health maintenance, or rehabilitation. Research shows massage helps reduce stress responses, boosts the immune response, lowers blood pressure, improves one’s sense of well-being, and reduces pain. Massage therapy encompasses numerous specialties, including deep-tissue massage, trigger-point massage, neuromuscular therapy, myofascial release, relaxation therapy, sports massage, on-site chair massage, and spa-oriented massage treatments. Some therapists even specialize in animal massage, which is particularly popular for dogs and horses.

My detour into massage
I got my first massage training when I went to nursing school in the 1970s. In those days, a back rub was part of P.M. care for patients in many hospitals. After graduation, I worked second shift, and giving a back rub was one of my regular nursing duties.

Since then, of course, nursing practice has drifted away from such hands-on techniques as part of routine patient care. But in the late 1980s, a friend started training in massage therapy. Intrigued, I followed her lead and enrolled in massage school. I found that giving massages brought back an aspect of nursing care I’ve always loved—contact with an individual through caring, noninvasive touch. Now I maintain a private practice in massage and pursue massage research projects within hospice and hospital settings.

Career opportunities
With the increased awareness and popularity of massage, opportunities for massage therapists are expanding. Therapists can choose to focus on a particular modality or client population, such as pregnant mothers, infants, elderly patients, athletes, or stressed employees.
Many therapists are self-employed, which allows you to be your own boss and have greater schedule flexibility. However, going into private practice requires business skills, such as marketing, budgeting, scheduling, and equipment management. A therapist lacking these skills may be better off working for someone else for the best chance at a steady income and health benefits.

When I started my massage practice in 1991, employment options for massage therapists were limited. Where I live, one could open a private practice or work at a health club, spa, or Y. Also, a few chiropractors had started to incorporate massage therapy into their practices and were hiring or contracting with massage therapists to work in their offices.

Today, we have many more options. Massage therapy settings include hospitals, hospices, workplaces (giving on-chair massages to employees), athletic teams, spas, cruise ships, and airports. Several massage therapy chains now exist, and many hospitals are providing massage therapy for both patient care and employee wellness.

Consumers have come to appreciate the benefits of massage and are getting more massages than ever. By one estimate, about 39 million American adults get a massage annually. According to the American Massage Therapy Association, people age 55 and older have tripled their use of massage over the past 10 years.

Educational programs and requirements
Massage therapy study programs are available across the country through both private and public institutions. All programs teach the strokes used in massage, such as effleurage and petrissage, and provide a strong foundation in anatomy and physiology. Although I’d done extensive course work in these subjects in nursing school, my massage education brought a different perspective to my understanding of the human body (particularly the muscles) and the way it works.

The number of educational programs has increased dramatically in the last 5 years. In 2002, an estimated 628 massage therapy schools offered programs of at least 500 in-class hours. By January 2007, about 1,274 schools were offering such programs—an increase of more than 100%. National chains of massage therapy schools have emerged. Several post-secondary institutions have added massage therapy training to their educational programs, and more schools are offering associate degree programs in massage.

Educational requirements for entry-level massage therapists vary, depending in many cases on state regulation of the profession. All but one of the states that regulate massage therapy require at least 500 in-class hours. Typically, completing a massage training program takes 9 to 18 months.

Massage therapy study programs are accredited by two agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education—the Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation and the National Accrediting Commission of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences. To find a massage therapy school near you, visit the website of the American Massage Therapy Association (

Explore the possibilities
To find out if massage therapy might be a good career choice for you—as an alternative, supplement, or sideline to nursing—get massages from a few different therapists. Ask them about massage training programs in your area. Use the Internet for further exploration.
Explore the various massage modalities in which local study programs provide training; some programs may emphasize spa massage, for instance, while others feature neuromuscular massage. If a massage school in your area holds an open house, drop by for a tour and a chance to meet with faculty. Of course, when deciding whether to enroll in a massage training program, find out how long it would take to complete the program and how much it costs.
Becoming a massage therapist has reconnected me to one of the most fulfilling aspects of my early years as a nurse: hands-on interaction with clients.

And by no means have my nursing education and practice been wasted. I’ve been able to incorporate much of the knowledge I gained as a nurse into my massage practice, which has greatly enhanced my massage therapy skills. I find it extremely satisfying to get back to my nursing roots through such patient contact.

Selected references
American Massage Therapy Association. Becoming a therapist. Available at: March 18, 2007.

American Massage Therapy Association. State laws. Available at: Accessed March 18, 2007.

M.K. Brennan, MS, RN, LMBT, is a self-employed massage therapist at Stress Management Consultants in Charlotte, N.C. She also works part-time as a Case Manager at Carolinas Medical Center – University Hospital in Charlotte.


  • You gave some great advice when you mentioned visiting a few therapists and asking them about the career. I really want to get a job as a masseuse and am still looking for a good beauty academy to teach me. Some professionals already working the job should be able to refer me to some good programs after all. It’s a really interesting career choice to me and I hadn’t considered it until lately when I realized how fun it must be to just take care of relaxed people all day. The fact they’re already in a state of calm should make dealing with them relatively easy and I need that sort of no-stress job in my life.

  • I am a surgical technologist and I am going to be attending MT school this upcoming fall. I know the healing it does for a sore body and just want to be able to share that with others.

    Love this article!

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