The Decision to Become a Licensed Massage Therapist

This is the first article in an ongoing series about massage school,
the issues of being a massage student, and the many difficulties and joys
of entering a wellness profession.
Look for more in this series from student &
blogger extraordinaire, Charles Roe!

Does learning about the human body in extensive detail sound really exciting to you? Does using your fingers, hands, forearms, and elbows to loosen knots, adhesions, scars, and tight muscles for someone else sound like a way you’d like to spend your days? Then a career as a Licensed Massage Therapist (LMT)[1] might be right for you.

Before you dive into a massage program, though, it’s best to be aware of the many challenges of being an LMT, since much of the job is not necessarily the fantasy of soft Zen music, scented oils, cherubs playing golden violins, and enormous financial windfalls that many people assume it to be. It is hard work – physically, mentally, and emotionally – and if you are also running your own business, there are the tests of taxes, bookkeeping, advertising, and so many other commercial concerns beyond the “idyllic” occupational reality of making a living as a bodyworker.

Going to (or back to) School

Every state has different laws in regard to becoming an LMT. In Oregon, the minimum educational requirements are 500 hours, of which at least 200 must be in anatomy, physiology, pathology, and kinesiology (the health sciences), with another 300 hours in practical and theoretical massage. Most massage programs offer many more hours than the minimum, and the Lane Massage Program is about 630 hours. Lane also offers many continuing education courses, some of which can be taken during pre-licensure schooling.

If we take a closer look at those requirements, the first wake up bell that should sound to anyone considering massage school is the 200 hours of health sciences. To become a health practitioner you must gain a comprehensive understanding of general chemistry, cell biology, tissue structures, and the many systems of the body; and you must become knowledgeable about myriad possible pathologies that you could face in your clients on any given day. These courses are the academic side of massage school, and while they do not match the level of difficulty of, say, medical school, they still demand an academic focus that is new to many students.

Massage school is a college-level education. It will take considerable time to prepare for classes, complete homework each week, give practice massages, write papers, prepare presentations, and fulfill a wide-ranging host of other requirements. It can be a full-time job, and when you layer it upon functional necessities, like working an actual job, plus taking care of families and hoping to have some semblance of a life, it can be a major undertaking.

Massage Therapy is Demanding Work

It turns out that giving a professional massage is not exactly like rubbing your grandfather’s shoulders. It is physically difficult, and the average life span of an LMT is only about 5 years. Clearly, being a massage therapist requires that you take excellent care of yourself; and this, probably more than anything else, determines your longevity in the profession. If you let your own sore forearms or back pain worsen without care, then it follows that working on other people will become physically impossible.

The same goes for how we care for our own outstanding emotional issues. Massage therapists are not psychologists or counselors, but as touch practitioners they spend more time with clients than most others in the medical field, and sometimes those clients bare their souls while on the table. After all, massage has profound effects not only on the physical, but also on the mental, emotional, and spiritual energies of people, and massage therapists must skillfully maintain safe boundaries without stepping outside their scope of practice. As massage students, we must learn to care for ourselves on both physical and meta-physical levels, so that our personal challenges do not hinder our ability to hold space for our clients. Such self-care includes keeping physically fit, mentally aware, and spiritually centered; and all of these things take work, but must be attended to – even if we are tired, even if we are depressed – for, we need to help ourselves in order to help others.

The Outlook

There’s no doubt that massage therapy is a rewarding job; how could it not feel good to see the results of helping people along in their quest for wellness on a daily basis? And it’s not often you hear people complain about their massage therapist, for whom they usually only have smiles, warm feelings, and gratitude. It can also be a financially fulfilling career, with the 2011 median salary estimated at around $40,000 per year and job opportunities expected to continue growing far into the future. Massage is now increasingly recognized as an essential element of healthcare, many insurance companies now offer massage coverage, and massage has become a valued practice in many hospitals, chiropractic offices, retirement homes, spas, and fitness centers.

Though it may not be the purely blissful path that many people believe, massage therapy is nonetheless a calling that will continue to attract many of us. In order to provide tranquility for our clients, massage must be both demanding and truly fulfilling work. Like a duck that looks calm above water, but is paddling like heck below; a good massage therapist offers a serenity and safety to clients that is built on the hard work of learning science, gaining wisdom in one’s hands, and seeking sometimes painful self-growth.

[1] Different states use different terminology to refer to massage therapists who are trained and licensed. In Oregon, the legal term is Licensed Massage Therapist, but others use Licensed Massage Practitioner, Certified Massage Therapist, and more.