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Massage Therapy Career and Degree Guide

An in-depth guide to becoming a massage therapist.

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Home » Massage Therapy

What is Massage Therapy?

Massage therapy is an ancient holistic practice used for relaxation and healing. At its most basic level, massage is a method of applying structured or unstructured pressure, vibration, motion and tension to the body. There are various types of massage that focus on specific parts of the body or treat certain ailments.

Massage therapists use their hands, fingers, forearms and elbows to create the desired results. Depending on the type of massage, a therapist may use certain tools such as stones.

As the massage profession gains recognition from the health care industry, massage therapy career opportunities increase exponentially.

What You Can Do with a Massage Therapy Certificate

Armed with a massage therapy certificate, you’ll be prepared to work in a variety of settings including:

Where Massage Therapists Can Work

  • Spas
  • Hotels, cruise ships and other travel accommodations
  • Chiropractic offices
  • Gyms, fitness, and recreational facilities
  • Nursing homes
  • Shopping malls
  • Studios

If you’ve dreamed of running your own practice, look for a massage therapy program that includes basic business courses. While it won’t cover everything you need to know, a few introductory business concepts will set you in the right direction.

While most massage therapy certificates will give you enough knowledge to perform a wide range of massage techniques, you can also use the education as a stepping stone to specialize in a certain type of massage or expand your knowledge into a new area, such as hypnotherapy.

The History of Massage Therapy

Massage therapy wasn’t always recognized as a viable healthcare treatment in Western medicine, however, the practice has existed in China and Egypt since ancient times.

The first mention of massage therapy appeared in 2700 BCE in the Chinese text titled “The Yellow Emperor’s Classic Book of Internal Medicine.” It’s now used as a textbook in many massage therapy schools.

Massage therapy appeared to show up in Egypt around 2500 BCE with tombs displaying references to the practice. The Egyptians are also credited with discovering the benefits of reflexology.

It wasn’t until centuries later that massage therapy reached Western civilization.

By the early 1800s, the massage technique most of us are familiar with today—Swedish massage—was developed. Swedish doctor, gymnast and educator Per Henril Ling created a method of movement known as the “Swedish Movement System.” However, it was Dutchman Johan Georg Mezger who defined the basic hand strokes of Swedish massage.

Massage Therapy Degree Programs

There are more than 245 accredited massage therapy schools across the U.S., many of which have multiple campuses. As you begin searching for the right school, be sure to ask the important questions.

  • What is the average class size?
  • What are my financial aid options?
  • Is the school accredited by the Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation?
  • How much hands-on learning will I receive?

The length of massage therapy school varies; programs range from 300 hours to 1,000 hours. Before enrolling in a certificate or diploma program, find out if your state has licensing requirements for massage therapists. This can help you determine which program length is right for you.

Another factor to consider is how specialized you want to be. Massage therapy is a varied career and you’ll find practitioners everywhere from nursing homes to cruise ships. If you’re interested in serving a special population, such as pregnant women or trauma victims, massage therapy offers those paths as well.

When searching out a massage therapy program, it’s important to ensure it’s accredited. There are five accrediting organizations to look for when deciding on a school.

  • Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation (COMTA)
  • Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology (ACCSCT)
  • Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET)
  • Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES)
  • National Accrediting Commission of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences (NACCAS)

Massage Therapy Coursework

Although you don’t need a college degree to become a massage therapist, there is a certain amount of training you’ll need to complete in order to qualify for licensure. You can find dozens of certificate and diploma programs that specifically train you in massage therapy. Some programs also give students the opportunity to specialize in a certain area of the field, such as sports massage.

Coursework will typically include the following topics:

Subjects You’ll Study in School

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Theory of massage
  • Hygiene
  • Business and license procedures
  • Ethics
  • Pathology
  • Contraindications and limitations
  • Muscle energy techniques
  • Eastern and Western theory
  • Swedish massage
  • Myofascial Release
  • Clinical and sports massage
  • Elder/geriatric massage

Massage Therapy Careers

One of the benefits of a massage therapy career is the wide range of opportunities. Massage therapists work in all different types of settings including spas, clinics, physicians’ offices, hotels and fitness centers.

Some massage therapists travel to a client’s home or office as well. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), half of the nearly 201,100 massage therapists in the U.S. are self-employed.

Working for yourself has plenty of benefits, but also poses some challenges. You’ll need to work hard at networking to build a client base. Business acumen is a necessary trait as you’ll also be responsible for bookkeeping, marketing and payroll if you have employees.

Most massage therapists enter the profession with the goal of helping others. If you’re interested in helping a special population, say pregnant women or trauma victims, consider a specialized massage career.

Massage Therapy Salaries and Job Outlook

While you may not be entering the field for the money, massage therapists can often dictate their earning potential if they run their own business or work hard to build a regular client base.

Salary & Career Growth


annual average salary


job growth

According to the current Occupational Employment Statistics from the BLS, the average salary for massage therapists is $47,180 per year. Your earnings are usually a combination of wages and tips.

According to the BLS, the highest 10% earn more than $80,630.

The massage therapy field is expected to grow 21% through 2029 which is much faster than average. A combination of factors are influencing this surge in employment. More massage clinic franchises are opening across the country. Their prices tend to be more affordable than spas creating availability to a wider range of customers.

In addition, healthcare providers have started to recognize the benefits of natural health treatments such as massage. Some insurance companies also provide coverage for massage therapy.

Massage Therapy Job Description

Massage therapists play an important role in caring for a variety of medical issues, from rehabilitation of injuries to clinical depression. Their role is to listen to their clients’ needs and provide a massage experience to treat these issues. Here’s a look at some of their regular job duties:

  • Create a relaxing environment for the client
  • Talk to the patient about symptoms, medical history and desired results
  • Manipulate muscles and soft tissues
  • Use tools such as a massage table, oils, lotions and hot stones
  • Check in with the client throughout the massage
  • Provide guidance on stretching, relaxation and posture improvement

Massage therapists may specialize in different types of massage including Swedish, prenatal, deep tissue, or sports massage.

If you’re self-employed, you’ll also need to market your business, maintain financial records, and book appointments.

Traits and Skills for the Job

Job demand is growing as massage therapy has been shown to treat all types of issues, from physical pain to anxiety and depression. Here are just some of the skills and personality traits needed to succeed in this growing career.

If these traits describe you, don’t wait to start your massage therapy education.

You are…

  • Compassionate
  • Independent
  • Socially perceptive
  • Dependable
  • Friendly
  • An excellent listener

You have…

  • Good physical strength
  • Excellent communication skills
  • Unwavering ethical standards
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Good judgment
  • Critical thinking skills

How to Get Started

Consider what you’re looking to get out of a massage therapy school. Some programs are no-frills where you learn basic techniques while others offer a more comprehensive curriculum with courses in nutrition and specific massage modalities.

According to the BLS, 45 states and the District of Columbia regulate massage therapy. As you embark on your education, find out what requirements exist for training hours and licensing in your state. In order to become licensed, you may need to take a test at the state level or pass the Massage and Bodywork Licensing Examination (MBLEx).