How to Become a Massage Therapist
In this comprehensive overview, we’ll share what it takes to become a massage therapist.
- The basic definition of a massage therapist
- The requirements to become a massage therapist
- Estimates on how long the process can take
- The benefits of being a massage therapist
- Tips on how to choose a massage therapy school or program
Northwestern Health Sciences University (NWHSU) has been preparing students for the rewarding profession of massage therapy for nearly 20 years. How do you become a massage therapist? The following is a great way to begin finding out.
What is the definition of a massage therapist?
A massage therapist is a trained and licensed professional that practices the manual, or hands-on, movement of soft body tissues to enhance a person’s well-being. (Soft body tissues include muscle, connective tissue, tendons, and ligaments.)
People seek massage therapy for a variety of reasons—including to reduce stress and anxiety, relax muscles, rehabilitate injuries, reduce pain, and promote overall health and wellness.
Note that massage therapist training programs vary in their emphasis on massage therapy as a form of healthcare. At NWHSU, students are prepared to be healthcare professionals who provide massage therapy.
What does it take to become a massage therapist?
Becoming a massage therapist requires obtaining a license to practice. To do that you must attend a massage therapy certification program.
If you’re considering a career as a massage therapist, it’s important to understand that there can be several different types of massage therapy credentials.
For example, at NWHSU, your options include the following:
- A certificate in relaxation massage prepares you for work environments such as salon spas and massage franchise settings. (Note that this certificate does not limit you to these settings, however.)
- A certification in therapeutic massage prepares you for healthcare settings, such as chiropractic offices and hospitals, and also prepares you to run a private massage therapy practice. (Note that this certificate does not limit you to these settings, however.)
- An Associate of Applied Science in Massage Therapy (AAS) expands upon the certificate curriculum and includes general education courses. The AAS option opens up more opportunities for further education and professional advancement.
Consider your career goals before choosing a specific massage therapy path.
Massage therapist requirements summarized
Generally speaking, the basic steps to becoming a massage therapist involve:
- Completing coursework and hands-on massage training through a massage program
- Passing a licensing examination and/or obtaining the required certification
- Applying for a license in a given state or jurisdiction
Once you’ve gained these credentials, continuing education courses may be required to maintain your licensure.
You may also want to pursue additional certifications to advance your career and/or allow you to practice specialized massage techniques.
What prior education do you need to enroll in a massage therapy program?
Typically, a high school diploma or GED is the only prerequisite to enroll in a massage therapy program.
How long is massage therapy school?
The program length to become a massage therapist will vary with the program you choose and the type of massage therapy credentials you are pursuing.
Note that programs may offer options for attending part-time or full-time.
At NWHSU, depending on the program you choose, it will take 2 to 5 trimesters (or 7½ to 19½ months) to complete.
What courses do you take to become a massage therapist?
Course requirements will vary from one school to another. At NWHSU, the massage therapy curriculum includes four major components.
- Classroom coursework in biological sciences. Subjects like anatomy, physiology, body mechanics, and nutrition provide students an overview of the human body and how it works.
- Classroom coursework in topics related to the practice of massage. Topics on law, ethics, communication, and management prepare students for professional practice.
- Lab courses for hands-on assessment and treatment techniques. These courses instruct students on how to tailor massage treatment for the unique needs of each client.
- Hands-on clinical experience. Students have opportunities to practice massage in real-world settings. In fact, these opportunities are extensive at NWHSU thanks to both our own clinics and the numerous partnerships we have with healthcare entities in the area.
Watch massage therapy student Jennifer Cardinal describe her experience at NWHSU.
What are the benefits of being a massage therapist?
If you’re looking at a variety of career paths and want to know why massage therapy would be a good choice, consider the following reasons.
1. Join a profession with an exceptionally bright future
To say the field of massage therapy is growing would be an understatement. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a 26% job growth rate between 2016 to 2026 for massage therapists (the average rate for all occupations is 7%).
The demand will only increase as the general population continues to age—and as more people discover the benefits of natural, non-invasive healthcare approaches.
See former NWHSU student Rachel Roller talk about her role as a massage therapist in a chiropractic and wellness center.
According to the American Massage Therapy Association, 88% of Americans believe massage therapy is effective at reducing pain, which is especially relevant in light of today’s opioid crisis.
In addition, statistics show that more Americans are discussing massage therapy options with their healthcare providers.
2. Become a professional in the healing arts and natural healthcare movement
Are you a healer at heart? As a massage therapist, you can have a fulfilling career that’s deeply rooted in health and healing—and centered in the power of touch and the body’s ability to heal itself.
Massage therapy is also fast-becoming an important part of the natural, whole-person integrated healthcare movement. That’s largely because more and more people are seeking a non-pharmacological approach for pain relief and overall health improvement.
3. Work alongside fellow healthcare providers
Would you like to be a valued healthcare professional? Integrative models of healthcare are becoming increasingly common. And that’s great news for massage therapists.
With the appropriate training and credentials, massage therapists can work with acupuncturists, chiropractic doctors, medical doctors, nurses, physical therapists, and others in the healthcare industry.
See former massage therapy student Maddi Grette describe why NWHSU’s emphasis on healthcare was important to her.
4. Establish a professional springboard into other areas
A background in massage therapy can also be a great springboard to other professions. Massage therapy education gives you a solid foundation of knowledge in health and the human body.
It’s not uncommon for massage therapists to expand their expertise and eventually become chiropractors, acupuncturists, nurses, and more.
5. Enjoy the freedom to create your own career path
The massage therapy profession offers a high degree of autonomy, especially compared to other healthcare professions. Enjoy schedule flexibility that fits with your life. Self-employment is also a viable—and popular—choice for massage therapy graduates.
Watch former student Jason Erickson explain his experience at NWHSU and how it inspired him to open a clinic of his own.
6. Specialize in areas that fit with your interests
As a massage therapist, you can develop a specialization path that allows you to focus on specific client types. Pregnant women, children, cancer patients, seniors, hospice patients, veterans, athletes—these are just a handful of examples.
Watch former NWHSU student Janet Kadlec describe her work as a massage therapist at a hospice.
7. Choose from a variety of work environments
Massage therapists have an array of work environment options. For example, you can work in various kinds of clinics and hospitals; senior care facilities; fitness centers and sports facilities; spas, hotels, or cruise ships; franchise massage establishments; or your own private office.
The following illustrates the wide variety of options that a massage therapist has for career paths.
What’s the next step for how to become a massage therapist?
Review massage therapy programs
As you consider massage therapy programs, you’ll need to weigh a number of factors. Here are some of the most important.
Is the school accredited?
You’ll want to attend a massage therapy program that meets official standards established within the massage therapy profession. Be sure the school you choose is accredited by the Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation (COMTA).
In terms of accreditation and program excellence, massage therapy programs are not equal.
For example, the massage therapy program at NWHSU actually adheres to a higher standard of education with its dual accreditation status: from COMTA and the Higher Learning Commission, which is the same governing body that accredits institutions such as the University of Minnesota.
Watch Dr. Dale Healey, Dean of the College of Health and Wellness, explain the significance of NWHSU’s unique dual accreditation.
What’s the school like?
Similarly, to get a feel for the campus and the life of a student, you can schedule an individual tour.
At NWHSU, you can even shadow a student.
Where is it located?
Massage programs typically require extensive lab work and hands-on practice. And that means a lot of time on campus.
Think through the implications of the school’s location: How far are you willing or able to travel each day? Does the school provide options that can fit with your schedule?
And if you’re open to relocating, think about the area’s cost of living as well as what it has to offer in terms of quality of life—e.g., arts, entertainment, dining, neighborhoods, parks and outdoor recreation. Can you see yourself living there?
What is the program’s educational approach?
Massage therapy programs have obvious similarities with one another. After all, their goal is to ultimately prepare people for the massage therapy profession.
On the other hand, they can also differ in profound ways.
As you familiarize yourself with a prospective program, try to understand its educational approach to massage therapy.
For example, how does it view the role of a massage therapist in a person’s overall healthcare? How grounded in the sciences is the program? How important are evidence-based methods?
As you explore these questions, you should also be asking yourself if the school’s approach resonates with how you want to learn.
But just as important, you should pay attention to how rigorous the curriculum and overall preparation is. These are what will ultimately help you become a well-prepared massage therapist.
You can understand more about these important issues from a school’s website and program literature, as well as directly from faculty, students, and alumni.
How much will it cost?
This question should encompass not only tuition, fees, and supplies but also all the other expenses that will be involved in attending. For example, how will you get to school? And what will the expenses be related to that travel?
You should also be aware of possible hidden expenses in some massage programs. Inquire about the cost of tutoring, meeting with faculty members outside of class time, and other resources that you may need in order to be fully successful in the program.
A massage therapy program should be as transparent as possible as it clearly lays out just how much it will cost to attend.
Make sure you incorporate financial concerns into your search early on. The best place to start is with a school’s financial aid specialists.
Finally, here’s an important caveat as you research massage therapy schools: Don’t simply look for the lowest cost.
Remember that the value you gain from attending a given program will depend a lot on how well it prepares you to be a successful professional.
An excellent program will not only help you develop great hands-on skills but also good communication skills, which can help you excel in any environment you choose. These soft skills are what separate good therapists from exceptional ones.
Want to learn why Northwestern Health Sciences University
is an exceptional place to become a massage therapist?