How Do You Become a Medical Massage Therapist?

medical massage therapist helping a client

Massage therapy is embraced by mainstream medicine as an effective, drug-free way to reduce stiffness, ease pain and heal injuries. It’s a benefit for patients and an exciting career opportunity for people with a passion for health. But there’s a difference between medical massage and the typical bodywork practiced in the community. Both are wellness-driven, but medical massage is a doctor-ordered intervention designed to complement an existing treatment plan for a health condition, it requires additional skills. Let’s take a closer look at what it takes to become a medical massage therapist.

What’s the Difference Between a Massage Therapist and Medical Massage Therapist?

Massage therapists work in a wide range of settings using bodywork to relieve stress. The techniques are similar and given that stress contributes to many health conditions, regular massage can improve a patient’s general well-being, but it’s not geared to treat a specific ailment.

Medical massage therapists partner with doctors, hospitals, and clinics to provide medically focused massage. Designed to improve function by relieving pain, healing injuries, and enhancing circulation, it complements other therapies from meditation to surgery and, in most cases, is covered by the patient’s insurer.

What Does a Medical Massage Therapist Do?

Medical massage therapists are trained, licensed massage therapists who treat physician-diagnosed conditions. Millions of Americans suffer from debilitating discomfort and associated symptoms related to other health conditions. Massage therapy, like physical therapy, is just one more treatment option a doctor can offer.

Combining traditional and complementary medicine is long overdue. This so-called integrative approach is more holistic, and it works. More doctors are emphasizing alternative treatments, like medical massage, and insurers are covering the costs. As a medical massage therapist, you’ll help patients heal by:

Improving Circulation

Good circulation is essential for healing, and massage enhances it in several ways, depending on the problem and the treatment goal. Kneading techniques, for example, can push nutrient-dense blood to injured tissue, providing it with the vitamins, minerals, and oxygen it needs.

But it can also reduce persistent fluid buildup caused by injury. When soft tissue is damaged, the localized inflammatory reaction is beneficial in the early stages of healing, but if it lasts too long, it causes pain and impairs further recovery. Pushing fluid away from an injury site can alleviate discomfort and restore normal range of motion, so patients can then exercise and regain their usual function. People with lymphatic drainage disorders also benefit from improved circulation. Excessive lymph fluid in limbs causes pain, immobility and skin ulcers that can lead to infections.

Since movement is the natural way to keep blood and lymph circulating freely, any treatment that eases discomfort and encourages exercise helps restore physical function. Many fibromyalgia patients who get massages report significant relief of muscle pain and better exercise tolerance.

Preventing Compensatory Injury

People with injuries often compensate for them by changing the way they move. A patient who’s had a hip replacement, for example, may develop pain in the lower back and opposite hip as they use those muscles more to avoid pain on the healing side. In combination with physical therapy, massage can ease discomfort in both hips. By intervening with massage soon after a procedure, patients are less likely to overuse, or under-use affected muscles in a way that impairs their range of motion or puts stress on other parts of their bodies. Quick management speeds the healing process.

Breaking Up Scar Tissue

Scar tissue at an injury site can cause pain by impinging on surrounding nerves and muscles. Collagen fibers form thick bundles, creating lumps that can be felt just beneath the skin’s surface. Medical massage can break up those fibers, relieving discomfort. Performed soon after surgery, it may minimize the formation of scar tissue.

Relieving Muscle Tension

Muscle tension can be debilitating for office workers. Sitting for long hours, their shoulders tend to hunch over, resulting in neck and shoulder pain. Medical massage not only relieves the discomfort, but it also makes relearning proper posture easier by loosening up the muscles used to sit up straight.

A medical massage therapist can use the same principles to treat performance athletes referred by sport’s doctors. A minor injury or overexercise can set a training schedule back for months, ruining the athlete’s ability to compete.

Managing Trigger Points

Trigger points are tiny tears in soft tissue caused by muscle injuries or repetitive stress. If they don’t heal in a timely manner, the muscle fibers form knots, known as trigger points, can impair circulation and cause pain. Muscles don’t relax as they should, impairing recovery from exercise. Painful trigger points may also compromise the delicate balance between opposing muscle groups, causing compensatory injuries and joint disorders.

Reducing Inflammation

How well we heal is partially genetic. Whether it’s after exercise or post-surgery, genes help control how quickly we recover. Massage may trigger an improvement in the genetic response, reducing inflammation and promoting healing at the cellular level. It’s proof-positive that as a complementary therapy, medical massage is effective.

Fighting Pain with the Brain

Our bodies manage pain naturally with endorphins, narcotic-like chemicals produced in the brain in response to physical and emotional stress. Medical massage has a similar effect, increasing endorphin production. Other hormones associated with pain, such as serotonin and dopamine, rise more during a massage. These substances not only affect how we perceive pain, but they also help muscles relax.

How Do You Become a Medical Massage Therapist?

With dedication and experience, any licensed massage therapist can enter the medical massage field by following these simple steps:

Step #1: Graduate from an Accredited Massage Therapy Program

The first step is to complete a vocational school massage therapy program. You can aim for a degree, but a certificate or diploma program will get you out of the classroom and into the field faster with the same qualifications. The diploma program will qualify you to take the MBLEx exam, used by almost all states for licensing applicants.

Step #2: Pass the MBLEx Exam

Most states require a license to practice massage therapy. It wasn’t always that way, but it’s a responsible way to protect the public. In response to complaints about unreliable operators with no qualifications, dozens of states met with leaders in the field to find ways to assess massage therapists’ skills. In 2005, the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards was formed and the MBLEx, the Massage and Bodywork Licensing Examination, was created.

Vocational school programs prepare students for the MBLEx. Once you’ve satisfied the education requirements, you’ll apply to take the test, so you can get your license. The exam covers seven key areas:

  • Anatomy and Physiology
  • Kinesiology
  • Pathology, Contraindications, Areas of Caution and Special Populations
  • Patient Assessment, Reassessment and Treatment Planning
  • Benefits and Physiological Effects of Soft Tissue Manipulation Techniques
  • Ethic, Boundaries, Laws and Regulations
  • Guidelines for Professional Practice

It assesses your understanding of what you learned in school, while no demonstration is required. Although the test doesn’t certify you as a “medical” massage therapist, it evaluates what you know about anatomy, pathology and other health concerns that will ultimately impact your future practice.

Step #3: Gain Experience

Most states don’t make a distinction between regular and medical massage therapists, the skills are the same, only their application differs. With a background in healthcare, even a new graduate could get into the field without much experience. But practically speaking, doctors expect a certain level of knowledge and skill before they’ll refer patients, something that’s proven only through experience.

Graduates with an interest in medical massage should look for jobs that provide a wide range of experiences and build soft skills. Medical massage therapists need to be as people oriented as nurses.

Not all experience has to be compensated. Connect with massage therapists in the field and ask about job shadow opportunities or volunteer to work with an interested physician, hospices always welcome help. Gaining a single patient can secure your future. Until you do, the most effective way to grow your career is to seek new experiences and never stop learning.

Step 4: Continue Your Education

Graduating from a vocational school is just the first step toward beginning a medical massage career. You’ll need to learn more about the conditions you want to help doctors treat. If you’re interested in sports medicine, enroll in seminars that teach those skills.

Each class contributes your general knowledge base and gives you a closer look at specialties you may be interested in. They also support you in the final step toward becoming a medical massage therapist, becoming certified.

Step #5: Become Certified by the American Medical Massage Association (AMMA)

The American Medical Massage Association offers a first-of-its-kind certification exam for medical massage therapy. Passing it demonstrates you have the knowledge to practice safely in a medical environment. It’s the culmination of all the hard work you’ve done to hone your skills. It’s the pat on the back you deserve and just what your resume needs to get your first job in the field.

Final Thoughts

The majority of visits to the doctor’s office in the US are for pain. Medical massage is an important complementary treatment that alleviates discomfort and promotes healing. It’s a growing industry that doctors and insurers are lining up to support because it works. It’s a ground-floor opportunity for wellness enthusiasts to train for a rewarding career.

Want to Learn More?

If you are interested in the healing powers of massage, you can begin your career in massage therapy at Minnesota School of Cosmetology. Our short-term massage therapy training program is designed to be completed in as little as 12 months. Our massage therapy training program is designed as a holistic program that will prepare students to focus on body mechanics of their patients as well as develop positive habits for the therapist. Together, those two areas will provide a foundation that can lead to longevity in the career field.

Contact us today to learn more about becoming a massage therapist and starting a rewarding career in the massage industry.

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