Category Archives: student experience

The Palpitations of Palpations: Was that Coronoid or Coracoid?

This is the third 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.

The first day of a hands-on kinesiology class (in our program, Introduction to Palpation) features many students full of excitement, anxiety, wonder, and a little fear. While some students might have an idea of what to expect, the realities of what it means to learn an entirely new language –  the Greek and Latin of science – elude most students until they’ve actually begun taking classes. For, before you know it, you are thoroughly involved with bony landmarks such as the olecranon process and the occipital protruberance; you find yourself dreaming in the transverse and saggital planes; and you spend your showers reciting the biomechanics of how the pectoralis minor and serratus anterior oppose each other rotationally to stabilize the shoulder girdle in abduction for a push-up. So, it is not surprising that the first confusion many students encounter is related to vocabulary.

And so it is that many students quickly come to appreciate the relationship (and difference) between two very similar sounding words. Palpation means to examine by touch and is among the foundations of hands-on work such as massage. Palpitation is when one’s heart beats strongly and rapidly. Palpitations, incidentally, are what occur for most students during practical exams in a palpation class. These are very different words, and burgeoning massage therapists should know the difference.

Embarking on, what is for most, a completely new journey into the uncharted waters of the Latin and Greek terminology that comprises the language of the body is not an easy one. The human body contains some 640 muscles and 206 bones, though there are always exceptions – some people don’t have a 12th rib, for instance, and some have an extra lumbar vertebra; and around 14 percent of people don’t have a palmaris longus muscle at all! Massage therapists do not have to be experts in every one of those muscles and bones, but you will learn about many of the most significant of them while in school.

Trying to learn a new language is always easier with repetition, so regular quizzes and practical exams actually make memorization easier, since students are forced to review content multiple times. Ultimately, though, students much each create their own systems to clarify and understand terms so that they not only memorize, but know, the body. What exactly is the coronoid process? How does it differ from the corocoid process? Is an epicondyle bigger or smaller than a condyle? How do you distinguish between the two (especially with your instructor standing next to you during a practical exam)? These questions and many others will slowly pull the cloak of confusion away, and luckily, students get a lot of practice during class and have access to expert advice from instructors and other students. So, somehow, in a few short months, students learn to answer with confidence when an instructor says “please show me the origin, insertions, and actions of the sternocleidomastoid, along with two endangerment sites.” Somehow, it becomes doable, even easy, to point to the brachial plexus and subclavian artery, and reel off the attachments of sternocleidomastoid (and pronounce them all!). And suddenly, one realizes they are becoming fluent in this strange language of the body.

Touching & Being Touched: The First Days of Massage School

This is the second 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.

The skin, the largest organ in the human body, protects us from external hazards, regulates our temperature, stores fats and liquids for later use, and is our primary somatosensory organ. Other structures of the integumentary system include hair, follicles, nails, fat tissues, fluids, and other structures that help to maintain homeostasis in the body, and the skin itself is packed tight with numerous microstructures, such as sensory receptors and glands. In only one square inch of human skin there may be over 600 sebaceous (sweat) glands, 50,000-60,000 cells that produce pigment (melanocytes), more than 1,000 nerve endings, dozens of blood vessels, and some 50 million bacteria.

Humans depend vitally on touch – it is touch that compels a newborn infant to let out their first cry and binds children to their parents from the first moments of life, it is touch that soothes the nervous system and lowers blood pressure, it is touch that reduces depression and decreases levels of stress chemicals, and it is touch that serves as a crucial aspect of our communication. Touching also releases the neuromodulating hormone Oxytocin, which is responsible for cervical distension during childbirth, sexual reproduction, orgasm, and the human social interaction-recognition response; and which brings contentment, lowering of anxiety, and other behavioral controls, such as the sense of security we feel around those to whom we are most closely connected, including romantic attachments.

As massage therapists, touch is the primary sensory medium with which we work. While massage therapists also rely on other forms of communication and perception to create feelings of wellbeing and trust with their clients, it is through touch that most of the healing occurs. Still, the first day of a Massage I class is a surprise for many students. For, whether you’ve never experienced a massage or have spent many years as a consumer of various bodywork modalities, touching your classmates and receiving their touch in return is the cause of inevitable transformation.

One classmate of mine remarked that “my first day of class was a real eye opener. I’ve given and received massages for years, but sitting there with a stranger I’d never met before and palpating their forearm extensors was both exciting and uncomfortable.” Another student expressed astonishment: “I wasn’t really prepared for so much touching on my first day of class. I thought it would be like other college courses where you just get the class introduction and then go home. We actually got under the sheets, took off our clothes, and massaged each other on the first day. It was fun and everyone seemed to be really excited about it, but it also felt really strange.”

Any feelings of strangeness are quickly overcome for most students, though, and an eagerness to learn takes over. Those first days of class spent massaging the arms, then the back, and then the legs while learning the basics of Swedish massage turn out to be a real delight. As students add more strokes to their “toolboxes” and practice integrating them in new ways each week, the excitement only increases and that initial discomfort at being unclothed beneath the sheets while someone massages you – sometimes with all of your classmates watching and taking notes – disappears, and this massage school reality comes to feel commonplace. Trust grows within the classroom; and much of that trust results from touch.

For students who continue to feel discomfort, the decision to leave massage school is often an important consideration, but for most people, a real enthusiasm ensues. Massage class becomes a place not just of practice, but of healing. Students look forward to each next lesson, getting to practice new strokes on different areas of the body, working with different partners and experiencing a new classmate’s massage yourself. Over time, it no longer matters to you that you’re massaging someone’s uncovered gluteus maximus, or their upper chest, or their foot. Self-consciousness is replaced by good-humored focus.

Massage students are learning to become professional bodyworkers whose primary medium is touch. With this learning, transformation occurs. There is really no way it could not. After all, touching is crucial to the human experience, and going to school to become a touch therapist means opening oneself to a deeper relationship with touch than most people ever consider. Touch takes on new meaning in your life as you recognize the meaning it has for all life; and during those long breaks between terms, you really start to miss massage exchanges with your classmates, and look forward to getting back to that process of exploration and growth.

Look for more in this series from student &
blogger extraordinaire, Charles Roe!

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.