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Massage Therapist Career Guide

What is a massage therapist?

A massage therapist is a licensed professional who treats the soft tissues and joints of the body to improve circulation, treat pain from injuries, reduce tension, and support good health. They do this by manually manipulating and applying pressure to the muscles, tendons, and ligaments. If you love working with others and have a knack for helping those who are hurt, becoming a massage therapist could be a lucrative career for you!

The typical duties of a massage therapist include listening to clients, assessing their needs, reviewing their medical history, and designing therapy that provides the results they are looking for. This involves locating painful or tense areas of the body and manipulating the muscles or other soft tissues to loosen them. They also advise clients on how to improve posture, stretch properly, and use relaxation techniques. 

Massage therapists use a variety of techniques with their hands, fingers, forearms, elbows, and sometimes feet to knead muscles and soft tissue, treat injuries, and promote general wellness. They employ various lotions, oils, heat lamps, hot stones, massage tables and chairs, and other means to treat clients. A massage therapy session can typically last anywhere from 15 minutes to over an hour.

Massage therapists might specialize in a particular type of massage therapy, such as Swedish massage, deep-tissue massage, and sports massage. Most therapists are proficient in several different types of massage. Once a massage therapist assesses a client, they decide which type of massage would be the most beneficial.  

Massage therapists offer many benefits to their clients, including those suffering from cancer, heart disease, stomach problems, and fibromyalgia. They can help clients reduce stress and anxiety, improve sleep, lessen pain, alleviate muscle tension, improve immune function, and promote overall wellness, among other benefits.

Qualifications and eligibility

Massage therapists need to have a strong combination of people skills and physical skills as they interact with clients and perform work on them by touching, kneading, stretching, and massaging. They should be empathetic, patient, and caring toward those who are in pain, tense, and under stress when performing therapy. Here are some essential skills that these individuals need:

  • Dexterity: massage therapists use their arms, hands, and fingers to identify and manipulate tension points. 
  • Physiology: massage therapists need to have a good understanding of human physiology or how the organs and tissue function. They also need to know the diseases that affect organs.
  • Kinesiology: this is the study of how the human body moves. This is very important for advising clients on proper stretching techniques. 
  • Physical Stamina: massage therapists stand much of the work day and exert physical energy by kneading muscles for long periods. The effort is taxing on your hands and fingers, so physical stamina is a must.

Educational requirements:

  • High school diploma or equivalent
  • Certificate from an accredited vocational school
  • Hands-on training – usually obtained while in the certificate program

Top certificate programs include:

  • Isla Verde Spa Relaxation Massage Certificate Course – If you’re not sure whether massage therapy is right for you, taking this course from Udemy is the perfect way to find out. Though it won’t certify you under state guidelines, it’s a great intro course into what it’s like being a massage therapist and can help you decide whether this is the right career for you.
  • US Career Institute – If you’re taking the Massage and Bodywork Licensing Exam (MBLEx), this online course from US Career Institute will teach you everything you need to know to become a licensed massage therapist. The exam fee is included in your tuition, which saves you money!
  • Allied Health – For those located in Arizona or Virginia, Allied Health’s programs are self-paced, offer financial assistance, and allow you to make payment plans. With 700 hours of education, this is one of the top massage therapist schools.

Work environment

Massage therapists work in both the healthcare and hospitality industries. They often are self-employed and work at home, make house calls, or work at a doctor’s or chiropractor’s office. Others work at healthcare offices, spas, fitness centers, cruise ships, and resorts. The work can be tedious and physically demanding as they may repeat the same procedures multiple times per day and stand for long periods. Sessions are usually set in a dimly lit room. They usually provide their own accessories, including a massage table, oils, sheets, pillows, and more.

Typical work hours

Most massage therapists work between 35 and 40 hours a week, although self-employed therapists may work longer hours. A typical massage session can last between 15 minutes to 2 hours. These professionals generally work evenings and weekends to accommodate clients’ schedules.

Types of massage therapists

There are a variety of massage techniques that therapists use. Here are some common types of massage therapy:

  • Swedish massage – Swedish massage is the standard relaxation they use. It typically is a full-body massage that employs a gentle touch. This type of massage is great for reducing tension and calming the nervous system. 
  • Deep tissue massage – This type of massage is deeper and involves releasing tightness in your muscles and tendons. It is good for treating injuries and chronic muscle pain as well.
  • Sports massage – Sports massages are a type of deep-tissue massage that focuses on a specific set of muscles an athlete uses regularly in a particular sport. Sports massages can target an array of muscles that get overworked. 
  • Aromatherapy massage – This type of massage mixes traditional full-body massage techniques with various essential oils. The oils are applied directly to the skin and massaged in. Aromatherapy massages typically focus on the back, shoulders, and head.
  • Trigger point massage – These massages target trigger points, such as a knot in your neck or a tight spot in your back that might be spasming. These massages can be good for those with chronic pain.
  • Hypnotherapy – A combination of standard massage techniques with relaxation and meditation techniques used to relax both the body and mind. This type of massage helps relieve tension and psychological stress. You will need hypnotherapy training.
  • Myofascial release – This type of massage targets the fascia, which is the connective tissue under the skin that supports the muscles and allows you to move freely. These massages involve stretching and kneading to alleviate tension and tightness, especially in the neck, shoulders, and back.
  • Lymphatic massage – Lymphatic fluid helps remove waste products from the body. Lymphatic massage utilizes a gentle touch to help lymphatic fluid flow more freely through the body. It’s used to reduce inflammation and treat arthritis, among other things. 
  • Medical massage – These massages center on a specific issue, such as an injury, and use special rehabilitation techniques to help recovery and ease pain. 
  • Shiatsu massage – A Japanese massage technique where therapists use a combination of hands, palms, and thumbs to massage various areas of the body by using rhythmic or pulsing pressure. This type of massage can help reduce tension, anxiety, depression, and stress. 
  • Prenatal massage – Prenatal massages help expecting mothers relax and can help alleviate aches and pains associated with pregnancy. They generally help by taking pressure off the hips and reducing swelling in the feet and legs. Most people will need an additional Prenatal Massage Certificate.

Income potential

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for massage therapists was $46,910 in May 2021. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $24,450, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $77,600.

The salaries for the top industries for massage therapists are:

  • 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 tips as well as wages.  

The average annual salary for massage therapists in the United States is $55,118 as of June 2022, and the range is between $49,341 and $63,314. The income potential where you live can vary, depending on education, location, and experience. 

The average annual pay for massage therapists was $59,802 a year in July 2022. The range of salaries extends from $107,000 down to $19,000, with most therapists falling between $41,500 and $71,000.  The highest-paying cities are San Jose, CA ($73,265 per year), Oakland, CA ($72,454 per year), and Hayward, CA ($71,032 per year).

Many massage therapists work part-time. The average weekly pay for part-time individuals is $939 a week, with a high of $2,346 and a low of $337. The wide range in part-time salaries may be due to hours worked, skill level, location, and years of experience. The best-paying cities for part-time massage therapists are San Francisco, CA ($28.89 per hour), Fremont, CA ($28.16 an hour), and San Jose, CA ($27.17 per hour).

Position trends

Per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of massage therapists is projected to grow 32 percent from 2020 to 2030, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. There were approximately 144,000 professionals employed in 2020, and that number is expected to increase to 191,100 by 2030, which is an increase of 46,500 jobs. The increase in demand is due in part to more people recognizing the benefits of massage therapy to treat pain and improve overall wellness.  

Career path

Many massage therapists start out at spas, hotels, doctor’s offices, and fitness centers. They might be full-time, part-time, or contract workers. Cruise ships offer benefits for therapists, such as travel and the opportunity to see new places. These professionals also have virtually no expenses on a cruise ship as room and board are covered by the cruise line, but the hours are typically long. 

Once you’ve built your client base, established yourself, and earned a reputation, you can become self-employed, either working out of your home or renting space in a spa, salon, or wellness clinic. With experience and sound business practices, you can then expand your business by hiring other therapists.

Many opportunities exist for massage therapists in healthcare, especially as more insurance companies cover the cost of services. If you are looking to move into a different healthcare profession, you could earn a graduate degree in integrative health or physical therapy.  

Other career path options for massage therapists include working at hotels and resorts, hospitals, professional sports teams, and university athletics departments.

Steps to becoming a massage therapist

1. Massage therapy school

A few states only require a high school diploma or a GED, but most states require a certificate or a diploma from a massage therapy school approved by the state. Earning a certificate from an accredited school is a requirement in some states and not in others. Check in the state you live to see which requirements apply to you. Some of the national accrediting agencies for massage therapy schools are:

The amount of training hours required varies by state. In Arizona, you need 700 hours. In California, you need 500. Check the requirements in the state you live in.

2. Gain practical experience

While attending massage therapy school, it is beneficial for students to gain hands-on experience. Students can either work as interns at local spas, clinics, etc., or they can work at a school’s massage clinic.

3. Pass the state licensing examination

Most states require that massage therapists pass a licensing exam. Some states offer their own exam, but the two most common exams used are the Massage and Bodywork Licensing Examination (MBLEx), administered by the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards (FSMTB) and the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB) Exam.

4. Obtain a state license

Once you’ve passed the licensing exam (if it’s required in your state), you will need to get a license to work as a massage therapist. Although a few states don’t require a state license, most do. Each state has its own requirements. You can find the requirements for your state by visiting the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) website or the Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals website.

5. Get certified

Certification is not required in most states, but in a few, it is required instead of a state license. Certification is administered by the NCBTMB and demonstrates your dedication and expertise in the field of massage therapy. You can also get one or more of the specialty certificates they offer, which can open up new job opportunities and help you increase your earnings. 

Some of the certifications available are:

  • Clinical rehabilitative massage: By the Academy of Clinical Massage, you’ll have to take an additional exam and learn how to massage those who are injured and working on rehab.
  • Veterinary and equine massage
  • Spa management and massage
  • Oncology massage: This is a 7-month program that will train you to work with those who have cancer. 
  • Grief massage

6. Continuing education

Some states require a certain number of continuing education hours to maintain your massage therapy license. The number of hours varies by state. You can find out what the requirements are for the state you want to work in at the AMTA website.    

Tips for becoming a massage therapist

If you have an interest in anatomy, physiology, working with your hands, and helping others relieve stress, recover from injuries, and alleviate chronic pain, you have the main ingredients to become a massage therapist.

Research the requirements

Each state has different educational and licensing requirements. Make sure you know what you need to do before you jump in. 

Find the right school for you

Whether you choose an accredited school or not, choose a school that meets your needs educationally and financially. 

Decide where you want to work

Do you want to be self-employed working out of your home? Are you interested in working in a spa or healthcare facility? Maybe you want to work for a massage therapy chain or in a chiropractor’s office. Find out what you need to do, as well as any types of massage you will need to specialize in and be certified in to pursue the path you want to take. You don’t necessarily need to do this right away, but as you gain experience, you’ll want to navigate toward the type of massage therapy or the environment that is most satisfying to you. That might be sports massage or deep tissue massage or working in a nursing home with senior citizens. 

Understand the skills required

To be successful, you’ll need excellent customer service and interpersonal skills, as well as the ability to interact with a variety of different people of different ages every day. Physical stamina is essential, as is being a good listener to assess the client’s needs. If you want to be self-employed, you’ll need solid sales and marketing skills. Working with clients who are tense, stressed, and in varying degrees of pain requires compassion and patience. You’ll also need to have good time management skills.

Find your interests

Take time to assess the type of client you are most interested in treating. Do you want to work with athletes or pregnant women?  Injury patients or seniors? Are you most interested in giving leisure massages at a resort? Does working on a cruise ship sound exciting? This will have an impact on the types of jobs you look for. 

Practice, practice, practice

When you’re just starting out, grab your friends and family members and practice your technique on them (they won’t mind!). If you can, find volunteers with different needs and ailments. Get feedback so you start to understand what works and what doesn’t so you’ll better know what to do with actual clients. Find your style and develop it. 

Be professional at all times

A massage therapist should always maintain a high level of professionalism. Make sure you are prepared for every session with the correct accessories and a plan of action to meet a specific client’s needs, A high standard of hygiene is essential for physical contact with others. Always maintain appropriate boundaries with each client. Finally, always make your client feel comfortable and well cared for. 

Take care of yourself

Massage therapy is a physically demanding job and weariness can set in late in the day. It is essential to know your limits so you always have the stamina to perform at your best for every client, whether that’s the first one or the last one of the day. Take care of yourself and maintain good health and wellness. 

Be passionate

A crucial part of being a successful massage therapist is having a passion for the job. Genuinely care about your clients and about helping them reach their goals, whether that’s overcoming an injury or dealing with cancer. Strive to always make a positive impact on your clients. 

Stay current on the latest techniques, products, and trends

The more you know about what the latest techniques, products, and trends are, the better you’ll be positioned to offer your clients what they’re looking for. This is especially critical if you are looking at becoming a self-employed massage therapist. Keeping up-to-date with trends will keep you one step ahead of your competitors.

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