Massage therapy is the practice of using touch to manipulate the soft-tissue muscles of the body. It is performed for a variety of reasons, including treating painful ailments, decompressing tired and overworked muscles, reducing stress, rehabilitating sports injuries, and promoting general health. Clients often seek massage for its medical benefit and for relaxation purposes, and there is a wide range of massage treatments available.
Massage therapists can specialize in more than 80 different types of massage, called modalities. Swedish massage, deep-tissue massage, reflexology, acupressure, sports massage, and neuromuscular massage are just a few of the many approaches to massage therapy. Most massage therapists specialize in several modalities, which require different techniques. Some use exaggerated strokes ranging the length of a body part, while others use quick, percussion-like strokes with a cupped or closed hand. A massage can be as long as 2 hours or as short as 5 or 10 minutes. Usually, the type of massage given depends on the client's needs and physical condition. For example, therapists may use special techniques for elderly clients that they would not use for athletes, and they would use approaches for clients with injuries that would not be appropriate for clients seeking relaxation. Also, some forms of massage are given solely to one type of client; for example, prenatal massage and infant massage are given to pregnant women and new mothers, respectively.
Massage therapists work by appointment. Before beginning a massage therapy session, therapists conduct an informal interview with the client to learn the person's medical history and desired results from the massage. This interview gives therapists a chance to discuss which techniques could be beneficial to the client and which could be harmful. Because massage therapists tend to specialize in only a few areas of massage, customers will often be referred to or seek a therapist with a certain type of massage in mind. Based on the person's goals, ailments, medical history, and stress-related or pain-related problem areas, a massage therapist will conclude whether a massage would be harmful and if not, move forward with the session. While giving the massage, therapists alter their approach or concentrate on areas of particular discomfort as necessary.
Many modalities of massage therapy use massage oils, lotions, or creams to massage and rub the client's muscles. Most massage therapists, particularly those who are self-employed, supply their own table or chair, sheets, pillows, and body lotions or oils. Most modalities of massage require clients to be covered in a sheet or blanket and to be undressed or wear loose-fitting clothing. The therapist exposes only the body part being massaged. Some types of massage are done without oils or lotions and are performed with the client fully clothed.
Massage therapists must develop a rapport with their clients if repeat customers are to be secured. Because those who seek a therapist tend to make regular visits, developing a loyal clientele is an important part of becoming successful.
Massage therapists held about 144,600 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of massage therapists were as follows:
- Self-employed workers - 38%
- Personal care services - 31%
- Offices of all other health practitioners - 11%
- Offices of chiropractors - 8%
- Accommodation - 5%
Some massage therapists travel to clients’ homes or offices to give a massage. Others work out of their own homes. Many massage therapists, especially those who are self-employed, provide their own table or chair, sheets, pillows, and body lotions or oils.
A massage therapist’s working conditions depend heavily on the venue in which the massage is performed and on what the client wants. For example, when giving a massage to help clients relax, massage therapists generally work in dimly lit settings and use candles, incense, and calm, soothing music. In contrast, a massage meant to help rehabilitate a client with an injury may be conducted in a well-lit setting with several other people receiving treatment in the same room.
Injuries and Illnesses
Because giving a massage is physically demanding, massage therapists can injure themselves if they do not use the proper techniques. Repetitive-motion problems and fatigue from standing for extended periods are most common.
Therapists can limit these risks by using good body mechanics, spacing sessions properly, exercising, and, in many cases, receiving a massage themselves regularly.
Many massage therapists work part time. Because therapists work by appointment in most cases, their schedules and the number of hours worked each week vary considerably. Moreover, because of the strength and endurance needed to give a massage, many therapists cannot perform massage services 8 hours per day, 5 days per week.
In addition to giving massages, therapists, especially those who are self-employed, may spend time recording clients’ notes, marketing, booking clients, washing linens, and conducting other general business tasks.
Education & Training Required
Training standards and requirements for massage therapists vary greatly by State and locality. Education programs are typically found in private or public postsecondary institutions and can require 500 hours of study or more to complete. A high school diploma or equivalent degree is usually required for admission. Massage therapy programs generally cover subjects such as anatomy; physiology, the study of organs and tissues; kinesiology, the study of motion and body mechanics; business management; ethics; and the hands-on practice of massage techniques. Training programs may concentrate on certain modalities of massage. Several programs also provide alumni services such as post-graduate job placement and continuing educational services. Both full-time and part-time programs are available.
Massage therapy programs vary in accreditation. Generally, they are approved by a State board, and they also may be accredited by an independent accrediting agency. In States that regulate massage therapy, graduation from an approved school or training program usually is required in order to practice. Some State regulations require that therapists keep up on their knowledge and technique through continuing education.
In States with massage therapy regulations, workers must obtain a license after graduating from a training program and prior to practicing massage. Passage of an examination is usually required for licensure. The examination may be solely a State exam or one of two nationally recognized tests: the National Certification Examination for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCETMB) and the Massage and Bodywork Licensing Examination (MBLEx). Massage therapy licensure boards decide which certifications and tests to accept on a State-by-State basis. Therefore, those wishing to practice massage therapy should look into legal requirements for the State and locality in which they intend to practice. A fee and periodic renewal of licensure also may be required.
Other Skills Required
Strong communication skills and a friendly, empathetic personality are extremely helpful qualities for fostering a trusting relationship with clients and, in turn, expanding one's client base. Massage can be a delicate issue for some clients, and because of this, making clients feel comfortable is one of the most important skills for massage therapists.
How to Advance
Because of the nature of massage therapy, opportunities for advancement are limited. However, with increased experience and an expanding client base, there are opportunities for therapists to increase client fees and, therefore, income. Therapists also may become managers of the office in which they work and may teach in a training program. In addition, those who are well organized and have an entrepreneurial spirit may go into business for themselves. Self-employed massage therapists with a large client base have the highest earnings.
Employment of massage therapists is projected to grow 32 percent from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations.
About 23,300 openings for massage therapists are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.
Some of the projected employment growth in this occupation is due to recovery from the COVID-19 recession that began in 2020. Continued growth in the demand for massage services also will lead to new jobs for massage therapists.
As more people recognize massage therapy as a way to treat pain and to improve overall wellness, demand for massage therapists is expected to increase.
Similarly, demand will likely increase as more healthcare providers understand the benefits of massage and include these services in their treatment plans. However, in some healthcare settings demand will be tempered by limited insurance coverage for massage services.
In addition, many sports teams hire massage therapists to help their athletes recover from injuries and to relieve or manage pain, which should increase demand for these workers.
The median annual wage for massage therapists was $46,910 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $24,450, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $77,600.
In May 2021, the median annual wages for massage therapists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
- Offices of chiropractors - $58,930
- Offices of all other health practitioners - $47,930
- Personal care services - $44,710
- Accommodation - $29,600
Most massage therapists earn a combination of wages and tips and may receive free or discounted massages as a benefit.
Many massage therapists work part-time. Because therapists work by appointment in most cases, their schedules and the number of hours worked each week vary considerably. In addition to giving massages, therapists, especially those who are self-employed, may spend time recording clients’ notes, marketing, booking clients, washing linens, and conducting other general business tasks.