Career Guide: Massage Therapist
Bureau of Labor Statistics
Nature of the Work
The medical benefits of “friction” were first documented in Western culture by the Greek physician Hippocrates around 400 BC. Today, massage therapy is being used as a means of treating painful ailments, decompressing tired and overworked muscles, reducing stress, rehabilitating sports injuries, and promoting general health. This is done by manipulating the soft tissue muscles of the body in order to improve circulation and remove waste products from the muscles.
Clients may seek massage for medical benefit or for relaxation purposes, and there is a wide range of massage treatment available to meet these distinct needs. Massage therapy that aims to improve physical health typically differs in duration and technique from massage that is intended to simply relax or rejuvenate clients. The training background of those who perform the two types of massage therapy differs as well.
Massage therapists can specialize in over 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 the client’s 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. There are also some forms of massage that are given solely to one type of client, for example prenatal massage and infant massage.
Massage therapists work by appointment. Before beginning a massage therapy session, therapists conduct an informal interview with the client to find out about the person’s medical history and desired results from the massage. This 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- 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 any 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 require clients to be undressed or to wear loose-fitting clothing. The therapist only exposes 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.
Essential Job-Hunting Information
Work environment. Massage therapists work in an array of settings both private and public: private offices, studios, hospitals, nursing homes, fitness centers, sports medicine facilities, airports, and shopping malls, for example. Some massage therapists also travel to clients’ homes or offices to provide a massage. It is not uncommon for full-time massage therapists to divide their time among several different settings, depending on the clients and locations scheduled.
Most massage therapists give massages in dimly lit settings. Using candles and/or incense is not uncommon. Ambient or other calm, soothing music is often played. The dim lighting, smells, and background noise are meant to put clients at ease. On the other hand, when visiting a client’s office, a massage therapist may not have those amenities. The working conditions depend heavily on a therapist’s location and what the client wants.
Because massage is physically demanding, massage therapists can succumb to injury if the proper technique is not used. Repetitive motion problems and fatigue from standing for extended periods of time are most common. This risk can be limited by use of good technique, proper spacing between sessions, exercise, and in many cases by the therapists themselves receiving a massage on a regular basis.
Because of the physical nature of the work and time needed in between sessions, massage therapists typically give massages less than 40 hours per week. Most therapists who work 15 to 30 hours per week consider themselves to be full-time workers, because when time for travel, equipment set-up, and business functions, such as billing, are added, a massage therapist’s hours per week may very well be more than 40 hours. About 42 percent of all massage therapists worked part time and 20 percent had variable schedules in 2006.