How to Become a Massage Therapist
Massage therapists are in high demand. They provide noninvasive treatment that can help relieve stress, manage pain, improve a person’s overall well-being, and more. If you’d like a rewarding career helping others, becoming a massage therapist could be a great option. Below, we’ll share how to become one.
More specifically, we’ll answer important questions like these:
- How long does it take to become a massage therapist?
- What does a massage therapist actually do?
- How do I start my career in massage therapy?
- What is the difference between a certified massage therapist and a licensed massage therapist?
- What qualifications do you need to be a massage therapist?
- What prior education do you need to enroll in a massage therapy program?
- What courses do you take to become a massage therapist?
- How many hours do you work as a massage therapist?
- Is being a massage therapist a good career choice?
- What are key questions to ask when looking at massage therapy programs?
Northwestern Health Sciences University (NWHSU) has been preparing students for the rewarding profession of massage therapy for more than 20 years. How do you become a massage therapist? The following is a great way to begin finding out.
How long does it take to become a massage therapist?
The length of time it takes to become a massage therapist will depend on the type of massage therapy program you attend and the credential you want to achieve. For example, a certificate program can take anywhere from six to 12 months, while an associate degree can take around two years.
What do you see yourself doing as a practicing massage therapist? There are several different types of massage therapy credentials, which is why it’s important to consider your long-term career goals before choosing a specific massage therapy program.
If, for instance, you think you may be interested in helping people with specific health conditions, such as migraines, carpal tunnel, and piriformis syndrome, then you’ll benefit from acquiring the appropriate credentials upfront, rather than attending—and paying for—continuing education courses later.
At NWHSU, for example, your options include the following:
- A certificate in relaxation massage. This is an eight-month program that 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 certificate in therapeutic massage. This is a 12–16 month program that prepares you for healthcare settings such as hospitals and chiropractic offices, in addition to owning and operating your own 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). This option expands upon the certificate curriculum and includes general education courses. This option takes around 20 months to complete. The AAS option opens up more opportunities for further education and professional advancement.
Part-time schedule options are also available.
What does a massage therapist actually do?
A massage therapist is a trained, licensed professional that practices the manual, or hands-on, movement of soft body tissues. 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.
In fact, massage therapy is a growing field within healthcare.
Be aware that educational programs vary in their emphasis on massage therapy as a form of healthcare. At NWHSU, for example, students are prepared to be healthcare professionals who provide massage therapy as part of an integrative healthcare team.
How do I start my career in massage therapy?
Starting your career in massage therapy begins with researching massage therapy programs. You’ll want to select a program from an accredited massage therapy institution. Be sure to contact prospective schools for information, visit the school or take a virtual tour, and talk to faculty, students, and program alumni.
See below for more information on choosing a massage therapy program.
What is the difference between a certified massage therapist and a licensed massage therapist?
A certified massage therapist and licensed massage therapist are essentially the same; the main difference depends on the terminology a given state chooses to use. They both have successfully completed a certificate or degree program from an accredited massage therapy school and have successfully passed a state-sanctioned massage therapy exam.
Technically speaking, four states currently do not require massage therapy licensure: Wyoming, Vermont, Minnesota, and Kansas. Note, however, that there may still be licensing requirements at the county or municipal level.
Also, there is a growing push to require licensure in every state. In Minnesota, for example, state legislators recently introduced a bill requiring massage therapists to be licensed.
What qualifications do you need to be a massage therapist?
Generally speaking, the basic steps to becoming a massage therapist involve:
- Completing coursework and hands-on massage training through a massage certification program.
- Passing a licensing examination.
- Applying for a license in the state or jurisdiction where you intend to practice.
Once you’ve gained these credentials, continuing education courses may be required to maintain your licensure.
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. In addition to completing an official application, there may be other admission requirements such as meeting a minimum cumulative GPA and passing a criminal background check.
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, pathology, 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.
How many hours do you work as a massage therapist?
The amount of hours that massage therapists work varies widely. Be aware that your total time on the job will not be spent exclusively on what the massage profession calls contact hours—the time spent doing actual massage. You will also need to clean and sanitize your massage room/equipment and perform business-related tasks.
In a 2020 survey conducted by the American Massage Therapy Association, the average number of work hours per week for massage therapists was 27.2 (results from the year before were 26.6 hours).
Is being a massage therapist a good career choice?
Being a massage therapist has a number of career advantages. There’s a growing demand for massage therapists. Also, compared to other professions, you have a lot more freedom to create your own career path. Plus, you can enjoy a low-stress work environment where you’ll have the rewarding experience of helping improve the health and well-being of others.
Let’s take a closer look at the advantages of being a massage therapist.
1. The massage therapy profession has a bright future
Is it easy to get a job as a massage therapist? Learning any discipline and becoming a professional at it takes dedication and hard work. But if you’re wondering about the job prospects for massage therapists, you should know the future is promising to say the least.
For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a 21% job growth rate between 2019 to 2029 for massage therapists. To put that in perspective, that’s more than five times the average growth rate for all occupations.
The demand will only increase as the general population continues to age—and as more people discover the benefits of noninvasive healthcare approaches such as massage therapy.
There is also a growing body of research demonstrating how massage therapy can, for example, reduce stress, manage pain, and improve sleep quality. In addition, statistics show that more and more healthcare professionals such as chiropractors, medical doctors, and physical therapists are recommending massage therapy to their patients.
2. Work alongside fellow healthcare providers
Would you like to be a valued healthcare professional? Integrative models of healthcare, which emphasize a team approach to each patient’s overall health, 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 field.
Consider just how much massage therapy is becoming an integral part of large-scale—and influential—healthcare institutions. Here are just a few examples:
- Mayo Clinic has been a true leader in integrating massage therapy into its inpatient and outpatient services since 2002.
- Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City employs licensed massage therapists in various departments.
- Michigan’s largest healthcare system, Beaumont Health, began a massage therapy program in its oncology department 15 years ago. That program has now expanded to numerous departments and the provider now has dozens of licensed massage therapists on staff.
See former NWHSU student Rachel Roller talk about her role as a massage therapist in a chiropractic and wellness center.
4. Establish a foundation for additional education and credentials
Your massage therapy education can give you a solid foundation of knowledge in health and the human body. That’s why a background in massage therapy can help you establish a career path in other healthcare professions.
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 freedom, especially compared to other healthcare professions. Among other benefits, that means you can more easily develop a work schedule that fits with your life—and with your obligations outside of work.
Although the professional options for massage therapists continue to expand, self-employment continues to be the most 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
Afraid of getting stuck in a work environment you don’t like? If so, that’s one more reason to take a close look at the massage therapy profession. Massage therapists have a wide array of work options. For example, in addition to owning and operating your own practice, you can work in:
- Various kinds of clinics and hospitals, including integrative healthcare clinics
- Senior care facilities
- Hospice care
- Fitness centers and sports facilities
- Spas, hotels, or cruise ships
- Office and corporate environments
- Franchise massage establishments
The following graphic illustrates the wide variety of workplaces where you can find massage therapists:
And don’t forget this: When it comes to workplace stress, massage therapists generally enjoy lower-stress environments, no matter where they practice.
What are key questions to ask when looking at 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?
In terms of accreditation and program excellence, massage therapy programs are not equal. You’ll want to attend a massage therapy program that meets official standards established within the massage therapy profession. Be sure the program you choose is designated as an accredited massage therapy program by the Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation (COMTA).
The massage therapy program at NWHSU, for example, actually adheres to a higher standard of education with its dual accreditation status—from both COMTA and the Higher Learning Commission, which is the same governing body that accredits institutions such as the University of Minnesota.
NWHSU is the only massage therapy institution in the state with this dual accreditation.
Watch Dr. Dale Healey, Dean of the College of Health and Wellness, explain the significance of this unique distinction.
What’s the massage therapy school like?
The best way to find out what a massage therapy program is like is by visiting the school. If it’s not possible to attend in person, check out the program’s virtual events.
You may also want to speak with current students to see how accessible and responsive faculty are to answer questions and provide extra support to help you succeed.
Does the school offer a variety of electives to explore various massage techniques?
Massage therapy has hundreds of possible modalities, or types of massage specializations. Though no single program can cover them all, you’ll benefit from a program that exposes you to a wide variety of them.
The more opportunities you have to experiment with different modalities, the more prepared you’ll be to create the kind of career path that’s right for you.
For instance, at NWHSU, we empower students to personalize their program by offering a wide range of electives. Sport massage, energy medicine, reflexology, trauma-informed healthcare, craniosacral therapy—these are just some examples.
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 the school’s 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 training are. These factors are what will ultimately help you become a well-prepared massage therapist.
See former massage therapy student Maddi Grette describe why NWHSU’s emphasis on healthcare was important to her.
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?
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?
In addition, you should 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 successful in the program.
Incorporate financial concerns into your search early on. The best place to start is with a school’s financial aid specialists. Be sure to also research both school-sponsored scholarships and external scholarships.
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.
Your next step: Reach out for more information
Exploring the possibility of a massage therapy career is an exciting time! You’ve just absorbed a lot of information on how to become a massage therapist. Want help putting it all in perspective? Do you have questions about your specific situation?
Reach out to NWHSU for personalized support on your path to becoming a massage therapist.
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