What Does It Mean to Study Massage Therapy?
While it's easy to assume that massage therapy entails little more than learning how to rub shoulders, that couldn't be further from the truth. The average massage therapy degree program focuses on the human body and form, how muscle groups interact, and ways that the internal workings of human anatomy can cause tension, muscle aches and cramps. Once students understand how this pain and tension is caused, they can begin learning how to fix it. With the proper application of massage skills and techniques, massage therapy graduates can help patients to overcome pain, tension, injury or illness.
Keep reading to learn more specifics about what a massage therapy degree entails, why this field involves more than meets the eye, and how you can start on the path toward a career as a massage therapist.
Types of Massage Therapy Degrees
If you don't know what you're doing, it can be easy to accidentally cause another person pain with an inexpert massage. This is why learning the ropes of the field is so important, and one of the ways to do this is through an online program. However, you can't give someone a massage through an Internet connection, so how can you learn how to give a massage online? The answer is a hybrid approach: students may complete certain massage therapy courses online, while addressing the hands-on portion of courses in a more traditional, on-campus fashion.
If you plan on completing a massage therapy degree program, you may be aware that there are several different degree paths available in the field. Which one is right for you? Before you become a massage therapy major, let's discuss these different paths so you can make an informed decision.
Online Certificates in Massage Therapy
Completing a massage therapy certificate program can be an efficient way of learning what you need to enter the job market as a massage therapist. These programs typically involve instruction that can be delivered via distance education, paired with an externship or some other method of hands-on training. Furthermore, they usually only take approximately a year of education to complete.
Students earning a massage therapy certificate are expected to learn the basics of human anatomy and body structure, along with popular massage techniques such as Swedish massage, deep tissue massage and aromatherapy. Courses you might take during a certificate program include:
- Anatomy & physiology
- Deep tissue massage basics
- Using massage for pain reduction
- Massage and injury recovery
- Using massage for relaxation and stress reduction
Online Associate Degrees in Massage Therapy
An associate degree program in massage therapy touches on many of the same skills as a certificate program in the same field. However, students who devote the two years of study generally required by associate programs can learn additional massage techniques and treatment methods during this time. Many associate programs in massage therapy cover sports massage, prenatal massage, hydrotherapy, and massage for the geriatric population, for example.
During an associate program, a student is often expected to complete their core education as well. This might cover courses in business, psychology or ethics, all of which can help to round out the student's learning experience. Massage therapy-oriented courses you may encounter at this level could include:
- Anatomy & physiology
- Quantitative reasoning
- Pathology and massage
- Ethics and massage management
- Medical terminology
Online Bachelor's Degrees in Massage Therapy
Students looking to pursue a well-rounded education while earning a massage therapy degree may want to consider a four-year bachelor's program. A bachelor's in massage therapy program dives deeper into the realities of the human body and the conditions that make our muscles sore and cause injury. If you have already completed an associate degree program, you may be able to transfer some of your credits into a bachelor's program, hastening your program's completion.
Four-year massage therapy students frequently study topics such as sports and rehabilitation therapy, biomechanics, deep tissue massage, nutrition and neurology. Common courses at this level include:
- Clinical biomechanics
- Therapeutic exercise
What Can You Do With a College Degree in Massage Therapy?
If you're on the fence about becoming a massage therapy major, it may help if you consider the careers this degree could lead to. A massage therapist is the most obvious result, but believe it or not, there are actually several related career trajectories you could consider as a massage therapy graduate as well. Here are a few options:
Massage therapists use physical touch to help their clients relax and/or overcome pain and joint stiffness. They consult with their clients to learn their symptoms and medical history, evaluate them to find their pain points, and manipulate muscles and tendons to stimulate relaxation and healing.
Various techniques are used by massage therapists, including deep tissue massage, Swedish massage, and sports massage. Massage therapists usually try to master several different techniques so they can treat patients with a wide range of symptoms.
- Most massage therapists complete a postsecondary massage therapy program that includes at least 500 hours of study and hands-on learning.
- Massage therapy is regulated in 45 states and the District of Columbia. These states require you to become licensed to work as a massage therapist, while some also require you to pass a background check, buy liability insurance and learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
Athletic trainers use their knowledge of the human body to help athletes become stronger and avoid injury or illness. These professionals plan and develop exercise programs that can help athletes strengthen specific muscles or master certain movements required in their sport. They also apply bandages and preventative devices to avoid injury during sports activities, administer first aid as needed and develop rehabilitation programs alongside physicians.
- Athletic trainers usually have a bachelor's degree in exercise physiology or a related field.
- Nearly all states require athletic trainers to be licensed. The Board of Certification for the Athletic Trainer offers the standard certification test in most states.
Exercise physiologists help patients recover from chronic diseases or improve flexibility and stamina. Typically, they achieve this goal by developing and implementing patient exercise programs tailored to a client's specific needs.
Since exercise physiologists often work with patients who are injured or ill, they must assess their health to determine what type of exercise they can do. This can involve multiple kinds of fitness and physical ability tests. Analyzing the results can help these professionals to tailor their programming to their client's needs. Most exercise physiologists work closely with a patient's physician with the joint goal of improving the patient's overall health.
- Exercise physiologists typically need a bachelor's degree in exercise physiology, kinesiology, exercise science or a related field.
- While states may not require exercise physiologists to be licensed, many pursue professional certification. The American Society of Exercise Physiologists (ASEP) offers the Exercise Physiology Certified (EPC) certification. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) offers the Certified Exercise Physiologist (EP-C) for graduates with a bachelor's degree and the Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist (RCEP) for graduates with a master's degree.
Physical Therapist Assistants
Physical therapist assistants work under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist. While a physical therapist diagnoses and develops treatment for PT patients, it is often the assistant's responsibility to help a patient put the therapist's plan into action. They may assess patient health and physical ability, help patients to complete exercises in their physical therapy plan, treat patients using massage, and/or use special equipment to help patients walk or improve their flexibility.
- Physical therapy assistants need an associate degree from an accredited program.
- All states require physical therapy assistants to become licensed or certified, although exact rules vary. Most students become certified by taking the national licensing exam offered through the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.
Physical Therapist Aides
Physical therapy aides work alongside physical therapists and physical therapy assistants to help patients who are experiencing pain or lack of flexibility. However, these workers focus most of their efforts on keeping the physical therapist's office in working condition.
While physical therapy aides occasionally work with patients on their treatment plans, they may also do laundry, set up therapy equipment, help patients move to the appropriate areas of the office or clinic, and complete administrative tasks.
- Physical therapy aides usually need a high school diploma and on-the-job training.
- Physical therapy aides do not need to become licensed to work in the profession.
Associations and Organizations
As you work through your program as a massage therapy major, it can be helpful to stay on top of changes within the industry. The following massage therapy associations and organizations offer information on laws, licensing, research, resources and more.
- American Massage Therapy Association -- The AMTA features various opportunities for networking, online courses, research and career openings for massage therapists. They also offer liability insurance, mentorships and other benefits to their members.
- Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals -- The ABMP offers resources for massage therapists, employers, and students in pursuit of a massage therapy degree. They even have an online practice test that can help you study for the Massage & Bodywork Licensing Examination (MBLEx exam).
- National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork -- The NCBTMB aims to improve standards and advance the massage therapy profession. In addition to continuing education and free tools, they also offer a Board Certification credential for massage therapists.
- Rhythmical Massage Therapy Association of North America -- The RMTA offers resources and support for massage therapists using rhythmical massage. This organization offers educational and membership opportunities for massage therapists who use anthroposophy and other natural methods as part of their massage technique.
- Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation -- COMTA sets the industry standards when it comes to accreditation of massage therapy programs. They also host online training and specialized accreditation opportunities for massage therapists.
- Athletic Trainers, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/athletic-trainers.htm
- Bachelor of Science in Massage Therapy, National University of Medical Sciences, http://www.numss.com/BSc(MT).html
- Clinical Massage Therapy Certificate, Harrison College, https://harrison.edu/programs/school-of-health-sciences/Clinical-Massage-Therapy-Certificate
- Exercise Physiologists, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/exercise-physiologists.htm#tab-1
- Massage Therapists, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/massage-therapists.htm#tab-1
- Physical Therapist Assistants and Aides, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapist-assistants-and-aides.htm
- Therapeutic Massage Associate Degree, Ivy Tech Community College, https://www.ivytech.edu/therapeutic-massage/index.html