Massage Therapist: Your Licensed Bodyworker & Massage Expert

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What is a massage therapist?

A massage therapist specializes in applying various types of manual therapeutic pressure to muscles and other soft tissues. Massage therapists help people of all ages improve physical and emotional health and boost their immunity with massage therapy. Massage therapy provides pain and stress relief for a variety of conditions, including migraines, chronic pain, depression, and cancer.

As part of the care they provide, massage therapists typically:

  • Conduct client interviews to learn about a person’s physical aches and pains, stress levels, and relevant medical conditions<

  • Perform various types of massage including deep tissue massage, Swedish massage, shiatsu, and Thai massage

  • Provide treatments that complement and enhance massage, including hydrotherapy, aromatherapy and reflexology

  • Educate patients about self-massage practices they can use between professional treatments

  • Support the body’s natural ability to heal and restore itself to health

A massage therapist may also be known by the following names: bodyworker or certified massage therapist (CMT).

Who should see a massage therapist?

Anyone interested in achieving relaxation, reducing stress, and relieving sore muscles and other soft tissues should consider seeing a massage therapist. Many people see a massage therapist to prepare for surgery and manage chronic pain, stress, and other symptoms of chronic or acute medical conditions. Others see massage therapists to promote general wellness and strengthen their immune system.

Athletes, pregnant women, the elderly, and infants may especially benefit from massage therapy. Always make your massage therapist aware of any special conditions you have, as he or she may need to tailor your massage therapy accordingly.

It’s important to understand that massage therapy should not replace medical treatment and is best used as complementary care. If you have pre-existing or chronic conditions, tell your doctor you are considering massage therapy so you can discuss any risk factors. Also  keep in mind that while massage therapy is generally safe, it is important to work with a licensed and certified massage therapist.

When should you see a massage therapist?

You may benefit from seeing a massage therapist if you develop any of the following symptoms or conditions:

  • Chronic fatigue and sleep problems

  • Chronic pain or headaches

  • Muscle or joint pain, aches, stiffness or swelling

  • Stress, anxiety, and other mental and emotional problems

You may also want to seek care from a massage therapist under the following situations:

  • You want to use massage therapy to keep yourself healthy and improve your overall wellness.

  • You want to complement traditional medical treatment for an acute or chronic condition.

  • You are pregnant and have some discomfort with your changing body, and you have already consulted with your obstetrician-gynecologist or family doctor about massage therapy.

  • You are about to have surgery, or you have recently had surgery, and you would like help reducing your stress, becoming more relaxed, and boosting your immune system to help promote healing.

  • Your infant has trouble sleeping, cries excessively, or seems very distressed, and you have already consulted with your pediatrician or family doctor about infant massage therapy.

What conditions and diseases does a massage therapist treat?

A massage therapist provides massage and related therapies for conditions, diseases and symptoms that affect several body systems. It’s important to work with a licensed and certified massage therapist to avoid aggravating a problem or injuring your body. In some cases, your massage therapist will need to work closely with your medical team to manage a disease or condition appropriately. Massage therapists care for people with conditions including:

What tests does a massage therapist perform or order?

A massage therapist can order or perform a variety of tests including:

  • Muscle exams including postural analysis, flexibility tests, and range-of-motion tests

  • Neurologic exams including tests of your movement, gait (walk), balance, reflexes, sensations and coordination

  • Pain surveys to understand the type, duration and location of your pain

What treatments does a massage therapist perform?

Massage therapists are often trained in many types of massage, as well as complementary treatments such as aromatherapy and reflexology. However, your massage therapist may provide referrals to other healthcare providers if they discover conditions that require different or additional care.

While there are dozens of different massage techniques, common massage therapy treatments include:

  • Acupressure or reflexology uses different types of mild manual pressure on key body points to focus and stimulate healing

  • Aromatherapy uses a wide variety of essential oils that are diffused into the air, directly inhaled, applied topically, or applied through massage

  • Deep tissue massage relieves chronic aches and pains and promotes healing by accessing deeper muscles and fascia, which is connective tissue that lies underneath your skin and wraps around your bones, nerves, muscles, blood vessels, and organs

  • Hydrotherapy uses hot and cold water applications, whirlpool baths, and body wraps

  • Infant massage helps relieve stress and discomfort in babies, and encourages muscular and neurological development

  • Prenatal massage helps relieve pregnancy discomfort and promote relaxation

  • Shiatsu involves applying pressure to specific points on the body in order to promote healing and relieve pain. Shiatsu is a form of Japanese massage that is similar to acupressure.

  • Sports massage focuses on revitalizing and healing athletes’ muscles and connective tissues between sports activities

  • Swedish massage uses a variety of basic strokes and focuses on the more superficial muscles and tissues. This type of massage is common in the United States.

  • Thai massage combines yoga stretches with more traditional manual manipulation of the muscles and connective tissue

What education and certification does a massage therapist have?

In the United States, massage therapy is regulated by the states and regulation varies considerably. Currently, most, but not all states regulate and license massage therapists. It’s important to familiarize yourself with your state’s licensure requirements and verify a massage therapist’s licensure if needed.

While licensure is the legal requirement to practice massage therapy, professional certification is a voluntary process that recognizes a provider’s expertise. Certification is one way to verify a provider’s competence. In states that do not require licensure for massage therapy, certification is an especially helpful consideration when selecting a qualified massage therapist.

A massage therapist certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCBTMB) has:

  • Completed 500 hours of instruction and coursework in massage therapy

  • Passed either the National Certification Examination for Therapeutic Massage (NCETM) or the National Certification Examination for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCETMB)

  • Completed continuing education requirements as necessary

When considering massage therapy, be sure to ask a therapist about the details of his or her training, education, licensure and certification.

Was this helpful?
  1. Massage Therapy Industry Fact Sheet. American Massage Therapy Association.
  2. Massage for Health Conditions. American Massage Therapy Association.  
  3. Massage Therapists. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  
  4. Massage Therapy for Health Purposes. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health.  
  5. What are Certification, Licensing, and Accreditation? American Massage Therapy Association.  
  6. Why certify? National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork.   

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2017 Nov 2
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.