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What Do Massage Therapists Do?

Massage therapy is a field that’s grown steadily as the concept of self-care has become mainstream and accepted as an important part of wellness and healing.

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Home » Massage Therapy » Duties

Massage therapists use touch, pressure, and movement to manipulate muscles to alleviate tension and soreness, help heal physical injury or manage pain, and reduce stress. Massage therapists can specialize in a variety of techniques, from those designed to calm and relax to practices that aim to restore mobility and flexibility.

While roles of massage therapists can vary widely depending on your specialty, there are several basic duties common to nearly all massage therapy jobs.

  • Work with clients to gain knowledge of their medical histories, symptoms, and desired outcomes
  • Understand the properties of lotions, oils, massage tables, and other massage therapy-related equipment and tools
  • Use fingers, hands, and arms to knead and manipulate the body’s muscles and soft tissue
  • Offer guidance to patients relating to posture, gait, sleep, strength, and relaxation

Massage Therapist Roles and Responsibilities

Your job as a massage therapist can vary depending on where you work as well as what you specialize in. However, a basic massage therapy course can prepare you for several different types of massage, including:

  • Swedish
  • Shiatsu
  • Reflexology
  • Sports Massage

As you learn about what you like, you can decide to specialize and earn specialty certifications to work as part of a medical team, in pain management, as a Feldenkrais practitioner, and more.

Work Environments

Workplaces can vary greatly for massage therapists, but here are a few examples of where you might consider practicing:

Spas:

You can usually work in a spa setting with a basic massage therapy education and certification. According to Lisa McNeil, M.Ed, LMT, CFSS-M, a therapist at the Momentum Movement Clinic in Brookfield, Wisconsin, aesthetic massage includes some of the most common types of massage therapy techniques, including Swedish, hot stone, aromatherapy, and chair massage. These modalities release tension and encourage relaxation. Here, the schedule is predictable, and the focus is on setting a relaxing mood.

Fitness Centers:

For those who have an interest in clients who are active, working in a fitness center could be a great option. A sports massage background is helpful here, where therapists work on keeping muscles pliable and speeding recovery between workouts.

Hospitals:

In a hospital setting, massage therapists are bedside and need to have an awareness of the patient’s limitations, what medications they’re on, and any medical devices they may be using. Here, therapists are working with a healthcare team, including nurses, physical or occupational therapists, and social workers. The environment is not entirely predictable, and therapists will need to be able to adjust to interruptions as well as work around medical equipment and other obstacles.

Doctors’ Offices:

In some ways similar to a hospital, work in a doctor’s office will often require specialization as a medical massage therapist. The schedule is more predictable and you’ll get referrals from doctors, so you won’t need to market your skills to find more clients.

Patients’ Homes:

Therapists can either work for themselves or an organization to make house calls. Flexibility is key here, since you’ll often be working in unfamiliar environments. You’ll also need to be able to cultivate a relaxing atmosphere wherever you go so the client can relax. You’ll need to be able to travel with all your essential equipment and consider travel expenses and time in figuring out how many clients you can see daily or weekly.

Am I a Good Fit for this Role?

Your personality can help determine whether massage therapy is the right career fit for you. Exploring massage specialties as well as the different kinds of environments it’s possible to work in can help with that.

You’ll most certainly need to enjoy people and be willing to spend a good deal of your day in the immediate presence of your clients. While you probably won’t be holding conversations the entire time a client is on the massage table, you will be greeting them, discussing a care plan, and checking in with them throughout the session to ensure their comfort and satisfaction.

You’ll most certainly need to enjoy people and be willing to spend a good deal of your day in the immediate presence of your clients.

Massage therapy is also a physical job. While your classes will teach you techniques that optimize your efforts, you will be on your feet most of the time and using your strength to apply pressure. Your physical stamina will play a role in how well you are able to perform your job—and how much you enjoy the work.

Becoming a massage therapist also requires a little business and marketing know-how. “Acquiring and maintaining a healthy client base takes work,” says McNeil, who has provided massage therapy to many professional athletes. When she started, she says, “I honestly thought as long as I was good at my job, I would stay busy. But, just like any small business, you need to be constantly learning to take care of the needs of your clients. You need to remain in touch to remind them how important you are for their quality of life, and you need to remain pliable as the profession evolves.”

A Day in the Life of a Massage Therapist


A flexible schedule is important to be able to satisfy the scheduling requests of your clients. But because massage therapy is so physically demanding, it’s important to know what your physical limits are as well.

For McNeil, a typical day means an early start, around 5 a.m., because her client base has a more predictable start to their day compared to the end. “It makes sense to allow them the opportunity to easily integrate sessions into their lives.”

While McNeil is typically done with her day by 3 p.m., she says, “there are some scattered 12-hour days in there. I try to limit myself to three days per week, but often find myself squeezing clients in because of their level of pain.”

Education

Massage therapy programs are available in different settings, which include career training schools, community colleges, nonprofit programs, single-owner private schools, and chain schools that have multiple campuses. 

These programs vary widely but typically offer a diploma or certificate—essentially a technical degree—in massage therapy. Both usually take about six months to a year or longer to complete.

Every state has different rules around massage therapy, but most require a basic license to practice, obtained when you complete a certain amount of education (usually between 500 and 1,000 hours) and then take a test such as the Massage and Bodywork Licensing Examination.

Depending on your program and how heavy a class load you decide to take, massage programs generally take about six months to a year to complete.

McNeil has a few tips on what to be aware of as you begin your massage therapist training: “Massage schools don’t prepare new therapists for the real working world,” she says. “They tell us how much we make per hour but don’t explain expenses and the number of clients in a typical week. They don’t tell us how physically demanding the work is, and they don’t prepare us for working with a big box massage chain, chiropractic office, or gym.”

Licenses and Certifications: Required or Optional?


Most states have a licensing requirement for practicing massage therapy—and McNeil says that’s a good thing. “I love that more states are requiring licensing and continuing education to maintain a license,” she says. It elevates the profession and ensures practitioners are meeting safety and educational standards You’ll need to check with your state on exact requirements and to keep on top of any changes.

Depending on their interests, many massage therapists pursue voluntary board certification through the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB). It’s not required, but it is preferred by many employers, and it demonstrates your dedication and expertise.

Massage Therapy Specialties

McNeil’s niche as a sports rehabilitation therapist started when a client asked her about fascial work. “It grew from my love of rehab and curiosity about how to integrate multiple body systems for better outcomes,” she says.

Fascia stretching—a technique that uses sustained pressure on the connective tissue throughout the body to increase tissue flexibility and joint mobility—is just one of many areas in which massage therapists can specialize, and often people specialize in more than one. Some of these specialties include:

Palliative:

Palliative care deals with pain and often is for clients with cancer. The NCBTMB program includes a 60-hour hospital internship and two units on oncology massage.

Prenatal:

According to the American Pregnancy Association, prenatal massage therapy can help reduce anxiety, decrease depression symptoms, relieve aches and pains, and even improve labor outcomes and newborn health. Swedish massage is one technique commonly used for this.

Reiki:

Reiki is an energy healing technique that originated in Japan in the early 20th century. In reiki, practitioners place hands lightly on or above the client’s body, channeling life force (chi) to activate healing energy within receptive points on the body.

Sports:

Designed to enhance athletic performance and recovery, sports massage is important in several contexts: pre-event, post-event, and injury treatment. Pre-and post-event massage is usually on-site, often through clothing with a goal of either preparing or recovering from the activity. Injury treatment works to speed and improve healing.

Reflexology:

This type of massage therapy stimulates organs, circulation, and lymphatic fluids via application of pressure to areas in feet, hands, and ears that correspond to other parts of the body.

Massage Therapy Salaries

There are many factors that affect salary, including which city and state you work in, where you practice, and your particular focuses or specialty certifications. Becoming a massage therapist—especially those running their own businesses—also involves some marketing savvy. Getting clients and keeping them is part of the job.

While the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) cites an average workweek of 26.6 hours, other parts of the job—like the day-to-day of running a business —often go uncompensated.

Job Outlook

Massage therapy as an occupation has an extremely strong outlook. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the field could grow 32% between 2020 and 2030—much faster than average for all occupations.

The BLS predicts that the field of massage therapy will grow 32% between 2020 and 2030—significantly faster than the national average for all jobs.

Part of the growth is credited to recovery from pandemic-related shutdowns and recession, as well as more people recognizing massage therapy as a way to treat pain and improve wellness. Many healthcare providers are now including massage in their treatment plans.

In addition, many sports teams hire massage therapists to help their athletes recover from injuries and to relieve or manage pain, a trend that should increase demand for these workers, according to the BLS. As a therapist who works with high-level athletes, McNeil says professionals with post-concussion and neuro training are becoming more the norm.

“As a whole, we see healthcare and society looking for alternatives to opioids and management of chronic pain,” she says. “Therapists will need more understanding and training on how to deal with various conditions. While relaxation has its place, most clients ask for some therapeutic work to be done. If therapists want longevity and a strong client base, they will need to learn how to care for these clients.”

Resources

There’s plenty of information available to serve as resources and guides to current massage therapists, as well as those aspiring to the profession.

  • MassageTherapy.com (an extension of Associated Bodywork and Professionals) has articles, a glossary of terms, directory of massage professionals, and more.
  • True Massage & Bodywork, based in Florida, has a collection of YouTube videos by owner Ayana Truesdell explaining some techniques and offering professional advice and insight on topics that include “How to Become a Massage Therapist” and “5 Things I Wish I Knew About Massage Therapy.”
  • Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation (COMTA) is the accreditation program for massage therapy and bodywork and offers insight on choosing a program or school that’s right for you.
  • The American Massage Therapy Association is a non-profit professional association that publishes articles, offers continuing education, and provides additional resources to help you with your career
niki stojnik

Written and reported by:
Niki Stojnic
Contributing writer

lisa mcneil

With professional insight from:
Lisa McNeil, M.Ed, LMT, CFSS-M, Structural Integrationist
Momentum Movement Clinic