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Interview with a Massage Therapist

Rick Smith, Massage Therapist
Founder of Parkland College's Massage Therapy Program and Licensed Massage Therapist

How did you first get interested in massage therapy and what has kept you interested in the field for the past 10 years?

I first became interested in massage therapy as a chiropractic patient, following some lower back difficulty. At that time I found some heretofore relief from muscular pain and was hooked. I continued as a client from then on.

I've stayed interested in massage therapy as a client, therapist, and finally a teacher because of the satisfaction I receive. There's no field quite as rewarding as this. When someone comes to me for help, I'm truly honored. In only a few sessions massage therapy can relieve, to one degree or another, physical stress and discomfort, muscular pain, emotional stress and tension, limited range of motion, and that overall feeling of malaise. And all without drugs or invasive procedures. Massage is a natural way to provide relief and comfort to someone and one of humankind's oldest medicines. When clients leave my office, both they and I feel better.

Why would you recommend the field of Massage Therapy to prospective students? What options await newly licensed massage therapists?

I'd recommend massage therapy to any student who is looking for a career in the complimentary health care field and one whose talents seem to be tactile in nature. Massage therapy can be a career in itself, offering a lifetime of satisfying work, or it can be a great stepping stone to other fields, such as physical therapy or nursing. The prospective student should above all else, be person-oriented, love working alone most of the time, and mature enough to accept the unique responsibilities of this career field.

There are many options open to the newly licensed massage therapist. While most will choose to work for another business, such as a salon or chiropractic office, many will begin their own businesses. Each will be required to continue their education throughout their careers and most choose to broaden themselves and their marketable skills. Many will find the technical fields of neuromuscular therapy (NMT) to their liking, while others may choose sports massage, medical massage or the Asian approaches. The opportunities to learn and practice are limitless.

How has massage therapy changed over the past ten years?

Only a few years ago, anyone could call themselves a massage therapist, with or without formal training. There was no regulation in the state of Illinois, so we found many in practice who really didn't know what they were doing. Now, Illinois is among the leaders in massage therapy regulation, requiring not only a license to practice, but passing the national examination prior to that.

Massage has become almost a household word in the last few years and the average American understands something about what we do. Research indicates that the rise of new clients, those who've never experienced massage before, is increasing every year. As specialties develop, such as myofascial release (MFR) or manual lymphatic draining (MLD), more people find a need for us.

How would you characterize the students who have enrolled in community college massage therapy programs?

Massage therapy students tend to be the most educated in a community college. About half are "returning adult learners" who are making a career change. Many are nurses of other health care workers. Many already hold bachelors or masters degrees. I've found that the average age of students in my past classes to be about 33 or 34, with several near retirement age. That isn't to say that a student fresh out of high school should not consider massage therapy as a career. They will find the work just as interesting and challenging as they prepare for their first career. In general, a student of any age who studies massage therapy will indeed be introduced to concepts and practices so new to them that at the end of their initial training, they'll be amazed with what they've learned.

What are some of the challenges of Massage Therapy as a career choice?

The major challenge to any new therapist is being patient. Everyone wants to build a practice immediately, but just as dentists, hairdressers or real estate sales people, clientele is built one person at a time. That takes both time and financial stability, especially if one wants to work independently as a sole proprietor. My advice for any new therapist is to keep expectations reasonable, work hard and rely on your skills to be your best advertising.

Men may face a few more challenges than women in the beginning, especially younger ones. Massage has traditionally been a female career field, and even today only about one in seven therapists is a man. Images and preconceptions are changing of course, so a male interested in massage therapy should not be discouraged, but know that their growth may be somewhat slower than their female counterparts.

Why is licensure important in the field of massage therapy?

Licensure guarantees the prospective massage client that the therapist they are with is well trained and free of any criminal history which would be contrary to the best interests of the public. It also guarantees that the therapist will remain well trained because continuing education is required. Lastly, it guarantees the client that the any preconceptions and hesitancy about massage therapy can be discarded, knowing that the therapist whose license is on the wall, is indeed a professional.

Why is massage therapy a vital component of America's approach to health care?

Massage therapy is natural and non-invasive. Massage therapists are partners in a person's overall wellness. Rather than be exclusively for the relief of aches and pain, massage is also important in preventing certain conditions from happening. Massage is good for every anatomical system in the body, from the skin to the heart, from the muscles to the connective tissue. As an athlete receives regular massage therapy to keep his or her body supple and ready to perform, so can we. We may not call on out bodies to the degree they do, but we indeed depend on our bodies to perform at their best every day.

What is one thing most people don't know about massage therapy?

I'm often asked by interested people, "How can it possibly take so long to learn to rub a person's back?" That question epitomizes what most people believe of massage therapy—that anyone can learn to do it in a weekend. Not so. They don't realize the extent of our study in such areas as anatomy and physiology, kinesiology, Asian and Indian theory, pathology, and business among others. They don't know we must pass a national examination or become licensed. And they have no idea of the wide range of techniques one learns in their preparation to be a massage therapist in the state of Illinois.