CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become a massage therapist.
Is becoming a massage therapist right for me?
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Admission to massage therapy training programs generally requires a high school diploma or GED. Prospective therapists can prepare for the career in high school by focusing on classes in biology, anatomy, physiology, and business.
Postsecondary certificate or degree
Formal massage therapy education is a prerequisite for licensure in most U.S. states. Training programs are offered by both public and private career colleges, as well as massage therapy schools. Most certificate programs take 500 to 1,000 hours to complete, depending on state requirements. Some schools offer two-year Associate of Science degrees in the field.
The National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB) and the Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation (COMTA) both endorse education programs that meet basic curriculum and hours requirements. COMTA also offers more rigorous voluntary accreditation to schools that meet high quality standards.
Generally, massage therapy curricula include classes in:
• anatomy and physiology: function and structure of the body, progressing from the cellular to system level
• kinesiology: structure and function of the body’s muscles
• theory of massage
• health values of massage
• pathology: how to safely massage clients with a variety of health issues; massage techniques that promote healing and function
• hands-on training: opportunities to perform massages under the supervision of a licensed therapist
• professional ethics
• contraindications and limitations
• business and license procedure
• practice management: how to run a massage therapy practice, from business planning to managing staff
• self-care: how to stay healthy despite the physical demands of working as a massage therapist
After successfully completing a massage therapy training program, aspiring therapists are required to pass a licensing exam. In some cases, massage school graduates take a specialized state-specific exam. Most states, however, mandate completion of the Massage and Bodywork Licensing Exam (MBLEx). The MBLEx, which is administered by the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards (FSMTB), is a 100-question test that must be completed in just under two hours. Areas that are covered on the exam include ethics, client assessments, kinesiology, and the physiological effects of massage.
Certifications / Specializations (optional)
The National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB) offers a voluntary board certification credential for therapists who demonstrate a commitment to continuing education, practice excellence, and ethics. To become board certified, candidates must document 750 hours of formal training and 250 hours of work experience; pass an exam and a background check; and sign an ethics agreement.
NCBTMB also offers the following specialty certifications, which can be earned by completing an online exam and passing an exam:
• Massage therapy for integrative healthcare
• Sports massage
• Clinical rehabilitative massage
• Military veteran massage
These certifications last for a period of two years. To maintain the credential, NCB therapists must engage in 24 hours of continuing education every two years.
There are also organizations that offer advanced certifications in the field. Typical requirements include completion of a training course and passing of an exam.
Liddle Kidz Foundation specializes in therapeutic massage for babies, children, and teenagers. The Foundation offers these credentials and targeted training:
• Certified Pediatric Massage Therapist
• Certified Infant Massage Teacher
• Hospital-based massage therapy
• Touch therapy for children with a variety of conditions, including autism, trauma, and cancer
The Rolf Institute on Structural Integration uses deep tissue massage to release tension and realign the body. The Institute provides training in:
• Basic rolfing structural integration
• Rolf movement
• Advanced rolfing
The Rosen Institute promotes wellness through a combination of movement and bodywork. Its credentials include:
• Rosen Method Bodyworker
• Rosen Method Movement Teacher
The Compassionate Touch Certified Practitioner credential is often pursued by massage therapists who work with the elderly or in hospice or palliative care settings.
Consider starting an independent practice
In the past, the vast majority of massage therapists worked for themselves. Now there are several salaried jobs at massage treatment centers, spas, hotels, and other establishments. Still, many therapists opt to run an independent business. The process is similar to that required for other kinds of small businesses:
• Pick a business name and get it registered
• File incorporation documents with the state
• Apply for an Employer Identification Number with the IRS
• Get a small business loan to help launch your business
• Get liability / malpractice insurance
• Purchase required equipment
• Market your services
To keep their license and certifications valid, professional massage therapists must meet continuing education requirements determined by state boards and certifying bodies.
The American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) is one of the industry’s primary sources of continuing education classes.
How to become a Massage Therapist
To practise in the field, massage therapists need to complete a massage therapy education program after graduation from high school. Certificate programs and degree programs at the Associate’s and Bachelor’s level include classroom and hands-on clinical training in anatomy, physiology, kinesiology fundamentals, pathology, and professional ethics. Prospective massage therapists who seek to be self-employed often choose a curriculum that includes coursework in business, finance, marketing, and management. To ensure that their education meets the accepted level of quality training, students in the U.S. should seek out schools that are accredited by the United States Department of Education (USDE).
Following graduation from an accredited massage therapy program, students must earn a passing score on a national examination and apply for state licensure. Regulations vary from state to state. In general, however, to retain their license, massage therapists need to meet continuing education requirements.
Optional voluntary certifications are also available to massage therapy practitioners. These include sports massage, spa management, clinical rehabilitative massage, and palliative care.