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Mayo Clinic medical massage therapist treating a patient

What does a medical massage therapist do?

A medical massage therapist is a licensed massage therapist (LMT) who treats health conditions diagnosed by a doctor. Massage therapy in medical settings is growing because the practice of combining traditional and alternative medicine is increasing. More hospitals and medical centers are offering these types of treatments and more health insurance companies will cover the cost.

Medical massages help reduce pain and stress, especially for cancer or fibromyalgia patients or for patients in hospice.

Scope of practice

A medical massage therapist works closely with doctors to treat patients who are affected by pain, illness, or injury. Their typical day-to-day roles and responsibilities include:

  • Providing massages to patients for a variety of lengths
  • Using various massage techniques to manipulate muscles and soft tissue to treat chronic pain and injuries
  • Listening and explaining various aspects of medical massage to patients

Their work has the specific goal to alleviate pain and treat health conditions such as neuropathy, cancer, fibromyalgia, sports injuries, or even high blood pressure.

Medical massage therapist vs. general massage therapist

The work of a medical massage therapist differs from that of a general massage therapist. Medical massage therapists have advanced training and experience that allows them to provide care focused on healing injuries, improving function, or increasing circulation. They typically work in hospitals or clinics, may receive orders from a physician as to the type of massage treatment they should give their patients, and can even be paid through the patient’s health insurance.

On the other hand, general massage therapists typically work in spas with the main goal of providing relaxation for their clients. They may use similar techniques as a medical massage therapist, and they may even be able to alleviate some pain, too. However, a general massage therapist’s main goal is not treating a medical condition, but rather reducing stress and promoting relaxation for their client.

Work environment

Medical massage therapists typically work in hospitals and medical clinics. A medical massage therapist needs to be flexible to the healthcare environment, as there are some major differences between the work environment in a hospital or clinic setting and the work environment at a spa. For instance, you likely will be working at a patient’s bedside, navigating around medical equipment, IVs, and other obstacles. You will most likely be dealing with harsh lighting and may be interrupted frequently. This may be very different than the typical spa setting with a massage table in the dimly lit room with peaceful background music.

Another major difference between working in a spa or in a healthcare setting is that scheduling is often not as predictable in a hospital, clinic, or nursing home. You will need to work around the patient’s schedule and adjust to interruptions from the healthcare team or family members.

One major advantage of working as a medical massage therapist instead of as a massage therapist in a spa is that you will not need to worry about marketing your services or scheduling clients. Patients will be referred to you by medical staff, so you can simply focus on treating your patient and not worry about business tasks. Additionally, pay is often higher for massage therapists working in a medical setting versus working in a spa.

Becoming a medical massage therapist

Medical massage therapists will spend the majority of their day treating patients and therefore should have great communication skills and emotional resilience. They must be knowledgeable about alternative treatments and enjoy collaborating with traditional medicine to reduce pain and promote healing in their patients.

Higher education requirements

Someone interested in medical massage therapy must first pursue licensure as a massage therapist. A massage therapy education program may require 300-1,000 hours of training which prepares individuals to take the Massage and Bodywork Licensing Exam (MBLEx). After becoming a licensed massage therapist, you can receive board certification by completing additional training and passing the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCBTB) Exam.

Certification of a medical massage therapist

To receive board certification as a massage therapist, you must:

  • Be a licensed massage therapist
  • Complete an NCBTMB-approved program
  • Pass the NCBTMB certification exam

Career opportunities and outlook

Employment of massage therapists, including medical massage therapists, is expected to grow much faster than average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. One reason is due to advances in medical research related to the use of massage therapy for medical purposes. Secondly, patient and provider interest in health promotion has spurred a greater need for medical massage therapists trained and proficient in working in a healthcare environment.

As for opportunities for career advancement, some massage therapists transition into teaching or consultant roles.

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