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Massage Therapist Education, Schools and Career Overview

There are 80 different recognized modalities or methods of massage that a massage therapist can choose to specialize in. Some of the more ancient modalities, many of which are still practiced today, have a cultural heritage and are geographically derived. For instance, you may have heard of Ayurevedic massage from East India, Russian or Swedish massage in Europe, acupressure in China, or Polynesia’s Lomi Lomi.

The decision to embrace less conventional modalities doesn’t have to be exclusive. Many massage therapists incorporate both medically accepted and complementary alternative modalities into their practice, to be able to meet the needs of a variety of different clients. Here’s an idea of what you can expect for the educational path of becoming a masseuse, more commonly known as a massage therapist now, and details about the career in general.

Massage Therapist Specializations

Depending on the type of practice a massage therapist is involved in, he or she may see very different types of clients for very different reasons. A medical massage therapist whose specialty is therapeutic or rehabilitative massage will most often work with people who have injuries that resulted from auto, work, or sports related accidents.

Massage therapists working in hotels and spas, on the other hand, may much less often find themselves working with clients for the express purpose of injury rehabilitation. Hotel and spa based massage therapists more often see clients who simply want to be pampered and invigorated by enjoying the simple pleasure of a massage. The state of submission and total relaxation that can be achieved in the hands of a skilled massage therapist has also been recognized as being able to reduce stress levels. In some instances this stress-reduction has been shown to be significant enough to lower blood pressure enough to abate hypertension.

Even outside a clinical or rehabilitative setting, massage therapists of all kinds will frequently work with clients who have complaints about ongoing aches and pains that may be the result of old injuries that never received treatment. Most all massage therapists will find themselves at some point addressing specific conditions related to injury, whether it is for therapeutic rehabilitation, or to address a decades-old neglected injury.

How to Become a Massage Therapist

  1. Consider the setting in which you would feel most comfortable working, whether this is a hotel or spa, or in a clinical setting like a chiropractor’s office. Perhaps even get some exposure to these respective settings by seeking massages of your own.
  2. Research the various modalities of massage and choose a few based on which are of most interest to you. Consider the clients you’d want to work with and whether you’d prefer a medically accepted modality, or one considered to be complimentary or alternative. Remember, being familiar with a few different modalities from each camp would increase the range of clients available to you.
  3. Select a school that offers the modalities of your choice. Test for and successfully pass either your state’s licensing board exam, or the NCBTMB (National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork) exam for national certification.

Here are some of the massage courses that you will be involved in at any massage therapy school that teaches the different modalities of bodywork:

Anatomy and Physiology 
These massage courses are the educational backbone for anyone interested in a career in medicine or any career that deals with the body. Massage therapists need to intricately understand how the human body works so that they can better understand how to soothe it. 

Kinesiology
Kinesiology is the study of movement, specifically the movement of associated muscle groups and how movement affects the body as a whole. These massage therapy classes will incorporate physical movement and its importance in keeping the body healthy and strong. 

Pathology 
Pathology is the study of disease. This massage course will help you to learn about the various different disease processes that can affect the body, and this will help you to grasp the concept of how massage therapy can be relaxing and rehabilitating to some of those conditions.

Expect hands-on instructional practice in various modalities and the specific techniques that comprise these. Programs typically focus on the more commonly practiced and medically accepted modalities; however, there are specialized schools that provide training in the alternative and complimentary forms of massage therapy.

Massage therapy degree programs

Most often individuals begin the practice of massage therapy and bodywork with a certificate earned through roughly 500 to 1,000 hours of training consisting of academic study of body systems, massage theory, pathology, business practices, and of course applied massage and bodywork. Certificate programs through massage therapy schools can provide the foundation for a successful career performing massage therapy and bodywork, but for those who wish to pursue greater scholastic challenges and increase their knowledge base and scope of practice, more advanced massage therapy degree options are available. 

A massage therapy certificate is an acceptable level of education for meeting licensure requirements in most states, and it is also sufficient for national certification through the various massage therapy certification agencies. However you can earn an associate degree in massage therapy, which may take a typical two-year community college path to complete. Master’s degrees and massage therapy doctoral degrees for practicing individuals will often focus on various aspects of both the business side of operating an independent practice as well as the human side of health and wellness.

Massage therapy schools

In addition to campus-based massage therapy schools you might expect to find, there are online options for massage therapy. With the level of hands-on training that this type of profession requires, it seems strange that you might be able to take such courses over the internet, but we are living in a growing, changing, technologically advanced world; allowing for the academic portion of massage therapy school to be easily fulfilled online.

Online massage therapy schooling is certainly the best choice for some students. With online education, you may have less or no worry about commuting to school or having to sit in a classroom, or about having to find a babysitter or time to fit classes in between work hours. Additionally, most of the massage therapy schools are now offering programs that you can complete on a full-time or part-time basis. This is just another way that these massage therapy schools are trying to make online education easier for you.

Massage therapy training

You may have an internship, or clinical assessment period, during the course of any massage therapy program. Most schools will require about 30 hours of clinical trial; however, some schools do require more.

The purpose of the massage therapy internship is to get you comfortable with performing massage; to show you how massage therapy can be an effective tool in promoting health and wellness, and to help you apply your education to real-world scenarios.

Massage therapy certification

An organization called the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB) provides national certification that satisfies the requirements for licensure enforced by most states. The NCBTMB administers an exam called the National Certification Examination for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCETMB). Completing a program through an accredited school and successfully completing the NCETMB exam will earn graduates the NCTMB credential, which stands for Nationally Certified in Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. NCTMB certification must be renewed every four years, but it isn’t particularly difficult to meet the requirements for doing so. Massage therapists who wish to retain the NCTMB credential are expected to complete 200 hours of therapeutic massage or continuing education every four years.

Massage therapy licensure

Most states regulate the practice of massage therapy by requiring licensure. A license to practice is granted upon completion of an accredited massage therapy program, which includes a number of hours spent in clinical practice, and the successful completion of an exam that tests related knowledge and applied skills. Because this test and the subsequent licensure is administered and granted on a state level, isn’t always transferrable to other states.

Career advancement for massage therapists

Advanced massage therapy degrees have the potential to take you further. This, of course, means different things to different people. To some this may mean expanding their scope of practice to include a greater variation of modalities; both medically accepted as well as complementary and alternative. To others this may mean more business and managerial training so as to be able to expand their business to include a greater number of employees and even multiple offices. And still others may seek out opportunities to become educators themselves; providing the next generation of massage therapists and bodywork specialists with the training and inspiration they need to establish their own practices. 

Whatever your personal and professional goals may be; whether simple and sustainable, grand and entrepreneurial, or benevolent and inspired, there is a massage therapy degree that is appropriate for you.

Massage Therapist Skills and Qualities


Massage therapists must truly appreciate their fellow humans and be free from judgment, squeamishness, and aversion to physical contact. The work may call on a practitioner to massage a client who has bad acne all over his back, or a client with an abundance of body hair. 

In addition to having be sensitive to client needs and keep personal issues at bay during work hours, physical strength is crucial to being a good massage therapist. A massage therapist’s hands must be strong enough to be capable of penetrating deep into the muscle and fascia of clients who may big in stature. The work of a massage therapist also involves standing and maneuvering around clients so as to effectively reach areas of the body in need of attention. The inability to handle the physical demands of the job is the number one reason cited for attrition in the field of massage therapy. 

Massage Therapist Salary and Career Outlook

Many healthcare positions are on the rise, due to a healthier aging population, advances in medical technology, and an increased interest in health and wellness in general. You might expect to see the following salary and job outlook figures for massage therapists in the coming years:

CareerTotal EmploymentAnnual Mean WageProjected Job Growth Rate
Massage Therapists103,300$44,95023.5%
Source: 2017 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov; 2016-26 State Occupational Projections, Projections Central, projectionscentral.com

 Sources:

  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Massage Therapists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/massage-therapists.htm
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, Massage Therapists, https://www.bls.gov/oes/2017/may/oes319011.htm
  • ONET, Massage Therapists, https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/31-9011.00

Massage Therapy Schools