Massage Therapist Job Description: What You’ll Do

smiling woman at spa front desk

It’s an exciting time to begin a career in massage therapy. Not only have the job opportunities for massage therapists rapidly expanded, but the types of workplaces have as well. Massage therapy jobs are available in franchises, fitness centers, spas, resorts, and with self-employment, but careers are also growing in a variety of healthcare settings.

“I’ve seen an explosion in the field,” says Taffie Lewis, director of membership outreach at Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals (ABMP), a national massage therapy association. “Massage has become mainstream. More and more consumers are using massage through franchise memberships on a regular basis and making massage a part of their lifestyle.” 

In the last decade, massage therapy has gained traction as a legitimate adjunct to traditional medical services.

“In the last decade, massage therapy has also gained traction as a legitimate adjunct to traditional medical services,” adds Lisa McNeil, M. Ed, CFSS-M, a licensed massage therapist at the Wisconsin-based Momentum Movement Clinic, who also provides manual therapy for U.S. Olympic team athletes and consults for wellness clinics and massage programs.

As a result, massage therapy training programs attract a variety of students from all different backgrounds.

“But the core reason people most often choose this career is because they want to make a difference,” Lewis explains. “There are so many studies showing that massage can help our human condition far beyond relaxation.”  

The changing perception of massage therapy has created a wide range of opportunities for professionals in the field. Between 2008 and 2018, the number of massage therapists increased by 25%, according to the American Massage Therapy Association’s (AMTA) 2019 Research Report. And with job growth predicted at 22% through 2028—with more than 35,000 new jobs—massage therapists can expect to see continued high demand for their skills.


What Kinds of Jobs Can a Massage Therapist Do?

A massage therapist helps people manage a health condition or enhance wellness by using touch, pressure, and movement to manipulate the body’s muscles and soft tissues. Different techniques, also called modalities, can achieve different goals, such as relaxation, pain management, injury recovery, stress reduction, and relief from muscle tension.

Most massage therapy programs are designed to provide students with the core knowledge and experience they need to qualify for employment as quickly as possible. As you gain professional experience, you can work toward specialization. “I tell my students to use your massage program to gain the license but take continuing education to create your identity as a therapist,” says McNeil. 

As a massage therapist, you may choose to practice in a number of fields:

Aesthetic


Aesthetic massage includes some of the most common types of massage therapy techniques. These techniques are aimed at toning tissues, releasing tension, and encouraging relaxation. All massage therapy students graduate with the ability to perform relaxation and self-care massage therapy, credentials that typically qualify them for jobs in franchises, gyms, and some spas without further specialization, McNeil says.   

Common aesthetic massage techniques include Swedish massage, hot stone, aromatherapy, and chair massage.

Medical


Massage therapy is especially experiencing a renaissance when it comes to medical applications. Many doctors, physical therapists, chiropractors, and other medical professionals are incorporating massage into a patient’s treatment plan to address pain and specific conditions with massage modalities such as deep tissue, trigger point, neuromuscular, myofascial release therapy, and other techniques.

“Because of the opioid epidemic, for example, you are now seeing more medical referrals to massage therapy and it is now starting to become more recognized for pain relief,” says McNeil of the growth in medical massage. “I believe you will also be seeing more pediatric massage therapists blazing trails with children living within the autism spectrum. With the right training, massage students can position themselves as medical providers and build a reputation within the medical community.”

To pursue this path, she recommends choosing more science-based continuing education programs. “Because massage therapy is such a diverse field, you’ll find a lot of new age, esoterical specialties, but that’s not what the medical field is looking for. Precision neuromuscular therapy, NeuroKenetic Therapy—these are more science-based and in demand.”

Other massage specialties


Massage therapists can also pursue a wide range of other specialized techniques. Some of these treat a particular type of client, such as prenatal massage or sports massage, while other specializations concentrate on unique and related applications, such as Reiki, Tui Na massage, Trager therapy, or the Feldenkrais Method. Specialized massage can be performed in a wide range of environments, including spas, wellness centers, and onsite at a client’s home.


What Education or Certification Will I Need to Become a Massage Therapist?

Most massage therapy programs award a diploma, certificate, or similar technical degree upon completion, which typically meets the education requirements for state board licensing when it’s required, though you can pursue an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in massage. No matter which type of program you choose, McNeil says it should have a solid focus on anatomy and physiology, especially if you want to focus on modalities that are more medicinal and therapeutic. 

With the right training, massage students can position themselves as medical providers and build a reputation within the medical community.  

If you live in the District of Columbia or one of the 46 states that regulate massage therapy professionals, you’ll have to meet your state’s requirements for licensing. This typically includes completing a minimum number of education hours (between 500 and 1,000) and passing a national exam like the Massage & Bodywork Licensing Examination (MBLEx).

Once licensed, you can earn board certification through the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCBTMB), a designation that indicates you’ve achieved a level of professional knowledge and expertise beyond basic competencies. You can also prove that you’ve mastered an area of specialization by earning a certificate in one of board’s eight specialty areas of massage. Keeping up to date on industry trends is also an important part of your ongoing education.


Where Can Massage Therapists Work?

Massage therapists are employed in a wide range of work environments that include spas, resorts, gyms, medical offices, and private practice. However, given the part-time nature of the job, 19% of massage therapists reported working in more than one practice arrangement, according to the AMTA.

Here are some of the most common work environments for massage therapists:

In 2018, 33% of massage consumers received a massage at a spa, per the AMTA research. This means that working in a spa gives you access to one of the largest pools of massage clients, so you’re more likely to stay busy in one of these settings.

Working in a spa can also give you the chance to learn how to provide scrubs, wraps, and other spa services if allowed by your state’s regulations. It’s also likely that you’ll see repeat clients in these settings. However, you’ll have little control over your schedule in a spa and, as a result, you may be subject to physically intense days with back-to-back appointments and short breaks between clients. 

Massage therapy in healthcare settings has increased as more medical professionals and consumers recognize the physical and emotional value of massage for pain management and rehabilitation. According to AMTA research, 41% of consumers reported having had a massage in 2018 for medical reasons.

Depending on the type of massage therapy you provide, you’ll likely need specialized training (or at least, choose a program that has extensive anatomy and physiology instruction) if you want to practice in a healthcare setting. You can also expect to work collaboratively with physicians and nurses to help patients achieve specific benefits based on their medical conditions.

While you may enjoy helping clients improve pain or rebound from injury, working in a healthcare setting will likely have a more clinical feel than typical massage therapy work environments. You should also consider whether you can handle the emotional aspects of working with people who may be critically ill or suffering from chronic conditions.

Working as a massage therapist for a cruise ship, hotel, or resort gives you the opportunity to treat a wide range of clients. Working on a cruise ship can allow you to travel for free while earning money, though it’s important to understand how this type of environment affects the way you perform services, especially when working on a moving ship in rough seas.

You’ll likely experience the same client variety by working in a hotel or resort, where you’ll meet a wide range of clients seeking massage therapies for many types of conditions or merely just relaxation. That said, working in the hospitality industry can require taking back-to-back sessions, especially on weekends and holidays when these facilities tend to be most crowded.

In 2018, 19% of massage consumers visited a franchise, according to AMTA research. Since franchises typically only offer massage therapy with limited or specialized services, this can allow them to increase access by providing massage at the lowest price point. Franchises specializing in stretching techniques are particularly on the rise.

Employment with a massage franchise means you’ll be working with a locally owned business, though the franchise can be part of a larger regional or national chain. These may offer access to benefits packages that are more typical of larger companies. Similar to working in spas, massage therapists who work in franchises typically perform back-to-back massages often with short breaks between clients.

Since the franchise model is attractive to owners who have little business experience, working in a franchise may lead you to eventual ownership of your own business in the chain.

Working in gyms and sports centers allows you to provide massage therapy to a client base that may be more aware of their bodies and have different demands for services. You’ll likely need experience or certification in sports massage as well as an understanding of the specific sport in which your clients work. Your workplace may also extend to the venues where your clients play or perform.

As a massage therapist at a fitness center or gym, you’ll have the chance to work with a wider variety of athletes in more controlled environments. However, you may often work in shorter sessions to treat targeted conditions such as pain in a particular muscle group. If you prefer providing a more holistic massage experience, it’s important to consider this difference.

If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, you may enjoy working for yourself in private practice like the majority of massage therapists. In 2018, 74% of massage therapists reported working as sole practitioners in AMTA’s 2019 professional survey.

Working alone gives you the freedom to decide when to work, what to charge, and where to provide your services. Some solo practitioners provide mobile services onsite at a client’s home, while others work in studio spaces in their home or a wellness center.  

While rewarding, running your own practice can be a challenge if you don’t have business experience. Professional organizations like the AMTA can help you stay connected and provide tools and support for handling a wide range of issues such as marketing and practice management.

Wondering what work environment suits you best?

Take the AMTA Massage Therapist Career Path Quiz to identify the work environment that aligns with your interests, preferences, and work styles.


What to Expect on the Job

Whatever type of work environment you pursue, most massage therapists report that they feel rewarded by their career. In a survey of nearly 1,200 licensed massage therapists, 88% of participants said they were either “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their careers.

You’ll enjoy this type of satisfaction if you’re prepared for what’s involved. Delivering massage therapy can require standing for long periods and repeatedly putting your body in awkward positions to apply a specific technique. You’ll have to work to maintain your personal fitness to build physical strength and prevent on-the-job injuries. You’ll also need to build stamina so you can provide the same level of professional attitude and communication to every client, from the first to the last.

You’ll have to work to maintain your personal fitness to build physical strength and prevent on-the-job injuries.

A career as a massage therapist likely means working part-time, with hours that can vary based on client demand. “Full-time for a massage therapist is technically less than 40 hours per week because of the nature of our job,” says McNeil. In her experience, a busy massage therapist typically has an average of 19 clients a week; however, the AMTA survey reports that therapists treat an average of 46 clients a month.


What Can I Expect to Earn?

Your earning potential as a massage therapist depends on a wide range of factors that include your geographic location, years of experience, and area of specialization.

If you work for a massage therapy provider, your employer sets your rates and number of clients, though you may have access to benefits like professional liability insurance, medical/dental insurance, or paid time off. If you operate a private practice, you can set your own rates and choose the number of clients you take on, but you’ll have to cover costs for all operating expenses and supplies.

Find out more about what you can expect to earn as a massage therapist and how you can optimize your earning potential.

  • Is this page helpful ?
  • YesNo

Ready to Get Started?

Whether you’re a high school graduate or a midlife career changer, find a massage therapy school to gain the knowledge you need to work in this growing industry.