Opinions and Issues
Insurance Reimbursement and the Profession of Massage
According to the ABMP 2007 Member Survey, just 14 percent of massage therapists and bodyworkers
submit claims for insurance reimbursement for their services. Nearly all of this is related to
disability or accident rehabilitation.
While most chiropractic and physical therapy treatments are reimbursed by health insurance, more
than 90 percent of massage therapy sessions are paid out of the client's own pocket. In some
cases, massage is covered only when prescribed by a physician, registered physical therapist,
chiropractor or osteopath.
A number of plans have tried to meet consumer demand for massage therapy without specifically
assigning medical criteria to its use. Some have assembled networks of approved massage
therapist providers who provide services to eligible clients discounted by 20 percent or
25 percent in return for the plans funneling clients their way.
To many practitioners, this is a source of frustration and indignation. Especially in
comparison with other treatments, such as chiropractic care and physical therapy, they
wonder why massage therapy is treated as a "second-class" modality. It seems to them that
the possible preventive-medicine and pain-relief aspects of massage therapy present an
opportunity for cost savings to insurance plans, as well as reduced discomfort to clients.
Although the hard scientific data is still less than optimum, the existing studies and
anecdotal information supporting the use of massage for such conditions as pain seem
enough to these professionals to warrant coverage.
Surprising to some is the fact that many massage therapists and bodyworkers don't seem
interested in gaining this form of reimbursement.
As a part of the proactive wellness approach to health, rather than a symptom-based model
of treatment, massage therapy is like many of its cousins in complementary and alternative
medicine (CAM) in that it is countercultural, even revolutionary.
ABMP studies and anecdotal information reveal some practitioners enjoy their status and
freedom outside mainstream medicine and wish to avoid the additional administrative work
associated with insurance reimbursement. They seek to ensure that the "art and heart"
of massage maintain important places alongside scientific and clinical research emphasis.
Some modalities incorporate a spiritual or philosophical aspect to their practice, and this
part of a therapy likely will never fit a Western-medicine paradigm.
Although the National Institutes of Health (NIH) developed a unit in 1999 to study many of
these therapies, the field is woefully underfunded and inadequately researched even today.
In relation to the number of Americans who use some form of CAM (nearly half the U.S. population,
according to a National Center for Health Statistics study), medical research and medical
interest lag far behind.
Consumer demand for these services, along with competitive pressure on employers in
attracting and retaining staff, seems likely to drive massage therapists and insurance
companies somewhat closer together. However, it is doubtful that of 250 modalities in the
massage marketplace today, sufficient research will ever be conducted to validate the
results of all or even most of these therapies.
The National Certification Examination
The issue of how to promote responsible and prudent regulation of massage therapy and
bodywork is a controversial one. On the one hand, appropriate credentials and training
are a means to greater respectability and acceptance for massage therapy, which has long
been hampered by a tawdry massage-parlor image. Great strides in overcoming this image
have been made, especially in the last 20 years; however, some prostitutes continue to
operate under the guise of massage, tarnishing the reputation of the legitimate massage
Some types of massage credentialing, in combination with scientific research, could lead
to greater recognition by insurance companies as a reimbursable expense. The National
Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB), established in 1992,
has these goals:
"To establish National Certification as a recognized credential of professional and ethical
standards; to promote the worth of National Certification to health, therapeutic massage and
bodywork professionals, public policy makers and the general public; to assure and maintain
the integrity, stability and quality of the National Certification Program; and to periodically
update the program to reflect state-of-the-art practices in therapeutic massage and bodywork."
Many practitioners and profession experts argue that the National Certification Examination is
far too rigid for the expanding and diverse field of massage and bodywork, reflecting a
westernized and overly scientific approach to massage therapy. Others find a state-mandated
requirement to pass the National Certification Exam superfluous on top of school program
assessment. It also is expensive — $225 — just when someone is beginning a career. As to the
National Certification supposedly offering a gateway to qualifying for insurance payments,
many practitioners feel that attempting to gain insurance reimbursement is an unrealistic
goal and have little desire to become part of mainstream medicine, despite the potential
for more income.
Following are four articles on the pros and cons of a national credentialing standard for
massage and bodywork practitioners. These articles are reprinted to stimulate thinking and
dialogue: Other than the selection by an ABMP officer, they do not necessarily reflect the
views of ABMP.
The National Certification Examination
Necessary to Evolution of the Profession
By Whitney Lowe
Note: Whitney Lowe is chairman of the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage
& Bodywork. Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, October/November 2002.
The National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB) is a
nationally recognized credentialing body formed to set high standards for those who
practice therapeutic massage and bodywork. It does this through a nationally recognized
certification program that evaluates and attests to the core skills, abilities, knowledge
and attributes expected of entry-level practitioners.
The National Certification Examination (NCE) is essential for the credibility of our industry.
In order for the NCBTMB to administer the NCE, it must uphold the responsibility and strict
compliance standards granted to any certifying organization "to evaluate the competence of
practitioners on behalf of employers, agencies and consumers who pay for or require the
services of the practitioners." While competency is a complex concept to define or measure,
by using state-of-the-art psychometric principles, a thorough job task analysis, a
structured prerequisite program and a well-designed examination in the formation of the
NCE, NCBTMB can test the competency of each individual at the time the individual takes the
exam. Maintaining competency is a lifelong challenge for every competent practitioner to
perform work accurately and in the best interest of the consumer.
The development of the NCE is in strict compliance with the accreditation guidelines
established by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies and the Standards for
Educational and Psychological Testing (American Educational Research Association,
American Psychological Association and the National Council for Measurement in Education),
as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Guidelines on Employee
Selection Procedures. Each of these organizations promulgates conventions that, in general,
suggest a professional examination must reflect the practice and be supported through some
type of research of the profession. From a competency standpoint, this is self-evident and
only naively contested.
NCBTMB's job analyses are conducted through the cooperative efforts of NCBTMB and experts in
the profession. These studies provide detailed descriptions of job-related tasks, the extent
to which they are performed and their importance for entry-level practice. During NCBTMB's job
analyses, a number of different methods are incorporated to maximize content validity for the
examination. The concept of content-validity has to do with whether or not an examination
accurately measures the appropriate domain of content associated with the inferences made
using its scores. In other words, "Does the test measure what is being practiced?" And
while we are not testing psychomotor skills, we are testing the skills actually needed to
perform in our industry and backing this up with both quantitative and qualitative activities,
which are conducted before, after and during the development of the NCE — e.g., focus groups,
survey questionnaires, structural equation modeling, so that we can assure the individual has
the basis to make important clinical decisions and provide safe, ethical practice to his/her
Massage therapy and bodywork, as with any health practice, effectively combines science and art.
The NCE does exactly what it needs to do by making sure all practitioners who take the exam have
a specific body of knowledge rooted in the science aspect of our profession. To suggest we should
systematize the "art" of massage therapy by testing competency in communication, business
management, or general rapport with clients takes away from each individual practitioner's
uniqueness and infringes upon the school's ability to prepare students for these aspects of
our profession. Furthermore, these issues are covered by NCBTMB by requiring practitioners
to uphold its Standards of Practice and follow its Code of Ethics as part of the credentialing
No recognized professional credentialing examination in any field (accounting, law, medicine, etc.)
can assure clients you have the best "bedside manner."
Rather, these examinations can assure clients the practitioner has met the highest standard available
in his/her profession by passing a competency examination rooted in the core components of his/her
field. Most programs also require professionals ascribe to the profession's code of ethics and
standards. It is this competency and adherence to ethics upon which many of us base our "buying"
decision when selecting a professional to provide services, not his or her communication or
business management skills.
In a world where there is still some mistrust and skepticism about the legitimacy of massage
therapy and bodywork as a health practice, having a national examination, rooted in the scientific
aspects of the profession, is more in tune with consumer needs and provides the right public value.
The public looks to the NCBTMB to provide this assurance and we take this aspect of our role in
the industry very seriously. In order to uphold this public trust, we must be able to assure them
that the NCE is rooted in the right balance of prerequisites. Requiring 500 hours of formal
therapeutic massage and/or bodywork education and adherence to the NCBTMB Code of Ethics and
Standards of Practice, is not to simplify things administratively, rather it is to provide
the assurance the public seeks from NCBTMB prior to getting massage or bodywork services.
By adhering to these strict standards, the NCBTMB can also assure the health care industry
that massage and bodywork professionals should have a place in the health care system and
that our industry practitioners' education and training is rooted in the scientific aspects
of our profession. By providing this evidence through the NCE process, practitioners who wish
to integrate their services within a medical model are well-trained, certified and capable of
doing so. Many spas and other "non-medical" employers are also looking for this level of
competence and assurance in the professionals they hire and the NCE equips practitioners
to perform within these settings, too. When faced between hiring one of two strong
candidates who have equal rapport with consumers, most employers will give the position
to the one who is nationally certified, because the certification demonstrates the
candidates' high level of commitment to the industry and his/her competency to deliver
services. The uncertified practitioner offers none of these assurances to employers.
Furthermore, the national portability of the NCTMB credential is extremely useful to
practitioners and employers making it all the more valuable for employment and career
NCBTMB's prerequisite and testing structure also assures states and local regulatory bodies
that use of the NCE in part or in whole for their state rules or statutes meets a rigorous
standard of competency for those practicing within their jurisdiction. These employers and
agencies are also relieved of the administrative burden of making their own evaluation that
is legally defensible.
Because the NCE is deeply rooted by psychometric principles, a thorough job task analysis and
a structured prerequisite program, it is legally defensible. This value of the NCE is extremely
important and is often overlooked. Today more than ever, courts are using certified guidelines
as the force of law. It is also the reason why the NCBTMB must continually update the NCE and
make sure new practices based on the best science available are incorporated into the NCE and
that this new science-based training becomes the guideline for certification to help protect
consumers, employers and practitioners.
In order to assure that the NCE accurately reflects the needs of the industry and maintains its
legally defensible position, the NCBTMB announced in June 2002 that it would be developing two
new credentials, one in entry-level massage therapy and one for advanced practice in massage
therapy. In addition, NCBTMB will begin researching the feasibility of developing a bodywork-specific
certification program for bodywork practitioners. Into 2003 and beyond, NCBTMB will continue to
offer its current combined entry-level certification in massage therapy and bodywork using the
NCE, for which it is conducting its third job analysis study.
The NCE is an important and necessary part of our evolving industry. By making sure the NCE is
rooted in the essential components to offer competency, the NCBTMB is uniquely capable to
provide the assurances the public demands and therefore the NCE serves exactly the purpose
it was intended to serve.
The National Certification Examination: "Credentialism" the Naked Emperor
By Keith Eric Grant, PhD, NCTMB
Note: Keith Eric Grant is the senior instructor and curriculum developer of the sports and
deep-tissue massage program at the McKinnon Institute in Oakland, Calif. This article first
appeared in Massage & Bodywork Magazine, October/November 2002.
I believe there are ways in which national certification can be helpful and also ways in
which it can be quite damaging. My writing this piece reflects my belief that the use of
the National Certification for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCTMB) should be based on
a solid understanding both of what it is and of what it isn't, rather than on adept
marketing of the NCTMB to state and local agencies.1
It also reflects my belief that state and local licensing laws requiring the NCTMB as a sole
path for qualifying to practice are contrary both to current educational understanding and to
good social policy. From my perspective, the uses for the NCTMB (or similar certifications)
should be as a voluntary demonstration of commitment to clients, as a means of meeting
employer requirements within the more medically oriented domains of massage practice, and
as a sufficient criterion for enhancing professional portability between states.2
Compared to most professions, massage and bodywork are unique in breadth of application and
the diversity of skills they draw into play. The foundations of massage are quite simply
touch with awareness and positive intent. The basics of application are skills of verbal
and nonverbal communication, empathy and rapport, trained processing and awareness of
sensory input, and application of learned motor skills to touch and move a client.
As the application changes from the nurturing to the orthopedic, more knowledge of anatomy
and assessment become important as do intervention planning and tracking. As the application
interfaces with medical practice and otherwise ill patients, knowledge of medical terminology
and protocol, as well as greater awareness of the implications of conditions and medications
In contrast, if we move from basic nurturing to working with those who have experienced severe
grief and trauma, understanding of how our touch and presence promotes healing and integration
takes the foreground, while details of anatomy and physiology fade from our concerns. What is
before us is not a single profession but a continuum of professions across a wide spectrum
of application. It is not surprising that practitioners should present a similar diversity
of orientations and inherent aptitudes. It is a diversity I believe we should protect within
our approach to setting practice requirements for massage.
While there are health care applications of massage that require more conceptual knowledge,
there are also entry-level applications almost purely based on awareness and touch. There
are also domains of working with touch, presence and rapport that are simply outside the
orientation and perhaps the dreams of those who created the NCTMB, yet are equally valid
directions for massage. Attempting to apply an inflexible, health care-oriented bandage
to massage governance has resulted not in quality but in credentialism, the promotion of
formal credentials beyond the training needed to successfully practice and create benefit
Such credentialism is, unfortunately, not free from side effects. To propose that an
academically oriented standard such as the NCTMB process should be the only path of
qualification for practice is to undervalue our diversity. We do not all live in the
same subculture and locale. The availability of positive touch is as important in an
inner city neighborhood, a community of immigrants, or a rural area, as it is in a
suburban or commerce zone. Credentials, however, may pose significantly higher hurdles
to those coming from the former regions than from the latter. The need to recover the
costs of pursuing credentials can also spur movement of professionals out of economically
disadvantaged or depressed areas to higher income potential communities, thereby lowering
availability of services in those less well-served.
We also are not all wired to learn and process information in the same manner. In his book,
The Unschooled Mind
, educational psychologist Howard Gardner captures the dual paradox of
those who can successfully take tests without deeper understanding and of those who
understand but are not adept at taking tests.
"Those students who exhibit the canonical (in our terms 'scholastic') mind are credited
with understanding, even when real understanding is limited or absent; many people— including at times the author of this book and his daughter — can pass the test but fail
other, perhaps more appropriate and more probing measures of understanding," Gardner wrote.
"Less happily, many who are capable of exhibiting significant understanding appear deficient,
simply because they cannot readily traffic in the commonly accepted coin of the
Educational pediatrician Mel Levine discusses the substantial diversity in the wiring of
our brains in his latest book, A Mind at a Time
It becomes clear from Levine's descriptions there can be great variations from person to
person in abilities to organize information, remember information and take in sensory
information to use for planning motor responses. We do not simply know something and have
its use or not know something. The realities of learning, knowing and using are far more
complex. What Levine has essentially done is to provide the neurological basis for Gardner's
What Levine and Gardner advocate together is that we view the ability to score well on tests
with less weight and provide other means to evaluate the competency of those less suited to
test-taking. The neurological and cognitive considerations imply there are simply cases for
which the statistical conclusions of psychometrics don't apply. In a massage context, there
is every reason to expect there will be individuals who are highly competent in interpersonal
and kinesthetic intelligences, yet fare poorly when forced unnecessarily into the
verbal-linguistic paradigm of the academic worlds.
Education can act as a filter, as well as a benefit. We will ultimately attract the
students who match well to what we explicitly value and discourage those less able to
jump our hurdles. We are well-advised to ensure that all we value in practice is equally
captured in what we value in assessment and qualifying to practice.
History and Prerequisites
A major impetus for creating the NCTMB was to facilitate greater access for massage in
interfacing with the U.S. health care industry, an area in which such certifications are
the traffic of the realm. I concur with Whitney Lowe that a certifying agency has more
credibility in these realms if, as is the case with NCTMB, it is accredited by the National
Commission of Certifying Agencies (NCCA), the accrediting body of the National Organization
for Competency Assurance (NOCA).
What follows from this is that the NCTMB had to match NCCA requirements for a
psychometrically valid certification exam based on job surveys in order to gain
NCCA approval. What also follows is that the NCTMB had to be administered by an
independent organization. Both of these requirements have had important side effects.
The National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCBTMB) did not
spring into existence based purely on concerns of educational quality and consumer
benefit. It came into being with an organizational history and agenda. The NCTMB was
created by the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), which then, under NCCA rules,
had to establish the NCTMB board as an independent agency.
However, the impact of its AMTA origins was cemented into the structure of prerequisites
for sitting for the National Certification Exam (NCE). The depth of this initial connection
is notable in that the AMTA immediately began using the NCTMB as a sufficient qualification
criterion for its own membership. The AMTA could not have tolerated less restrictive
prerequisites to sit for the NCE and still have taken this course — a course central to
ensuring the early economic viability of the NCTMB.
Stated more bluntly, the initial NCBTMB Board of Directors arbitrarily decided three things:
1) A massage practitioner cannot take the NCE unless he/she completed at least a 500-hour
massage school program or its equivalent.
2) The test would be positioned to state agencies as a fair measure of entry-level skills,
therefore being a reasonable measure of qualifications to practice massage.
3) The NCE would be marketed to practitioners and the public as a useful discriminator between those
well-qualified and those not so well-qualified to practice massage, independent of any
practitioner's choice as to type of massage practice.
Partly as a result of this history, the NCE is not a competency exam open to challenge
by any with a reasonable basis for taking and passing it. The NCE test gives an applicant
no opportunity to demonstrate techniques or client relations skills. A highly gifted
graduate of a 300-hour program isn't even eligible to take the NCE. The NCTMB process
leaves the determination of kinesthetic competency to the schools (with highly variable
success), while motivating those schools to place heavier stress on memorization of the
conceptual material needed to pass the almost redundant NCE.
The pattern is quite analogous to the recent fashion in public schools of standardized,
statewide skill-testing, with considerable resulting pressure on teachers to "teach to
the test." Ironically, despite the motivation for a massage certification exam to
facilitate participation in mainstream health care, the NCE is notably lacking in rigorous
concepts of orthopedic assessment, medical terminology and working with ill patients that
might be expected for these pursuits. For these more advanced practices, a voluntary
certification with an orthopedic/medical focus would have been of better service while
leaving the entry-level alone.
While marketed as an entry-level exam, the requirements of the NCTMB are of limited benefit
to those entering massage only to do stress-management and spa work.
Contrary to persistent beliefs, memorization of content relevant to passing the NCE is not
necessary to protect the public from harm. There are no medical reports or liability
insurance statistics showing any pattern of significant harm to clients from lack of
practitioner training. To the best of my knowledge, the 500-hour requirements that NCTMB
inherited from the AMTA were never based on the time needed to teach specific course
content determined by a detailed analysis to be essential to competent practice. The hour
requirements rather seem to have been taken from the minimum course length for which a
program was eligible for federally guaranteed loans and grants. As federal minimums have
increased (to 720 hours for Perkins grants), schools relying on this assistance have also
had to increase their program lengths.
Also ironic, although it is contrary to efficient management of federal financial assistance,
most people learn best in small chunks with real-life experience in between. Requiring more
education up-front does not make for better massage practitioners, just more expensive ones.
No corporate training manager would demand his or her employees take courses they couldn't
use in the near future. Requiring this of massage practitioners just codes bad educational
and business practice into law. It does, however, facilitate the taking of a comprehensive
exam at the end of an extended period of study.
I believe the NCTMB suffers from a disconnect of being motivated by health care considerations,
while being aimed at entry-level work. The cause is simple economics. The NCTMB has been
organized, marketed and lobbied as an entry-level certification simply because the pool of
those whom it would most benefit (those interested in advanced orthopedic and medically
oriented massage work) was insufficient to sustain the costs of creating and operating NCTMB.
The NCE, in fact, is neither fish nor fowl; it lacks the rigor to truly separate those desiring
to demonstrate advanced, medically oriented skills, yet it poses an expensive, largely redundant
barrier for those deciding to do entry-level work.
The NCE and Psychometrics
The idea of the psychometric validity of a test essentially boils down to two concepts: a
test should be both valid and reliable. Validity means the test measures the area of
knowledge it claims to be measuring. Reliability means a person sequentially taking
different variants of the test would obtain much the same score each time. Although
ensuring psychometric validity is not as simple as it sounds, it is a well-established
process leading to a test for which scores are considered to be defensible in courts of
law. Well and good, perhaps, but still not a definitive statement of the limitations of
what the NCE actually measures.
Given its format of being a multiple-choice exam, the NCE can only measure the ability of
applicants to recognize correct answers to questions within the academic framework of the
test. It is well known in educational literature that this is a pattern-matching skill that
uses the clues and cues inherent in the academic test context along with the ability to
successfully commit a multitude of unorganized facts to short-term memory. Success on the
test indicates exposure to the information and the ability to retrieve it from memory
(according to Levine, a hard-wired neurological function) but often has little relationship
to the ability to use this information in actual practice. The disconnection from ability to
use comes about from two cognitive features of the human mind. First, facts memorized without
being well-connected to a framework of experience are forgotten quickly. Second, learning is
most effective when done in a situation as close to that of actual use as possible. These
considerations are less important in professions such as accounting, which actually requires
near memorization of rules and regulations. Massage, however, is a different kind of craft
Although the NCE is a valid reflection of responses to job skill surveys, that does not imply
it is free from biases of orientation, question wording or of sampling and response. As an
example of orientation bias, the NCE focuses on questions of anatomy, physiology, basic
ethics, business practices and overt bodywork techniques. In contrast, the NCE does not
address conceptual content of verbal and nonverbal communication essential to establishing
professional rapport with clients, issues of working with those experiencing grief or
trauma, or the entrepreneurial issues of running a one-person business. These are not side
issues. Having an understanding in these uncovered areas will have at least as great an
impact on the success of those entering the massage profession as do the areas covered.
Even the concept of entry-level is open to interpretation, one definition being the minimum
level of training at which a practitioner can consistently provide a benefit to clients, a
level the NCTMB well overshoots. Another definition is the level of training at which a
majority of practitioners are entering practice, a definition that can become circular and
result in an ever-raising level of entry.
To sum up, I believe the NCTMB can be useful to practitioners as a voluntary seal of
accomplishment. It also provides for some portability of practice between states, a
potential partly ruled out by states such as New York, Maryland and Nebraska, which
either have liked another zero at the end of their requirements for round hours or have
added extra stipulations such as college requirements.
I differ from the proponents of the NCTMB in viewing that, where included in statutes, it
should be a sufficient rather than a necessary requirement. There should always be another
path for those less adept at jumping academic hurdles, whether due to early environment or
brain wiring. While I have no argument that the NCTMB is psychometrically valid and legally
defensible, I don't agree that its underlying assumptions are well formed from an educational
perspective. I also believe the NCTMB was created and applied as a health care-oriented bandage
to a touch-oriented craft. As such, it was implemented without care for the whole system of
possibilities and effects.
Lastly, we as a culture currently love credentials and certificates. Partly, given the
diversity of massage methods and successful histories of practice, what the NCTMB is about
is a type of gentrification of massage practice. By tying certification of massage to the
entry level, rather than the advanced level, we in effect move that entry level from being
a blue-collar craft into being a white-collar profession and call it gaining credibility.
There's something about exclusion in that process that, as a bottom line, has never sat
well with me.
1 The NCBTMB, for example, customarily has a booth at the League of Cities conventions.
2 This concept appears in the educational literature under the terms "situated learning" and
Arbitrary Rules Hurt Profession
Bureaucracy Serves Itself, Not Constituents
By David Lauterstein, co-founder, Lauterstein-Conway Massage School in Austin, Texas.
Note: This article first appeared in Massage & Bodywork, June/July 2004. The new rules
described in this article became effective for practitioners June 2005. David Lauterstein
is the former editor of Massage Therapy Journal.
Am I going crazy? Or has the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and
Bodywork (NCBTMB) lost its way? You decide. Recently the NCBTMB launched a "National
Massage Safety Week." The dubious and self-serving implication was that anyone who was
not nationally certified was not "safe." I can scarcely imagine a more ill thought-out
I recall when former American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) President Elliot
Greene began talking to me many years ago about national certification. He had, as many
of us did, a desire that the standards in our profession have some consistency from
state to state. Now, however, the NCBTMB is actually promoting certified people over
non-certified as more likely to be safe — we have the makings of a self-promoting
bureaucracy advancing its agenda to the exclusion and detriment of the field.
In early April, my co-director and I learned from one of our students that the NCBTMB
also plans to change its curriculum requirements to take the National Certification Exam.
Even though we are school owners, we did not receive any type of advance notification.
Unpleasantly surprised, I immediately went to the NCBTMB website, which says the plan is
to change the requirements in late 2004, or in 2005.
The new requirements supposedly will be that, of the 500 hours national certification
requires as a minimum (with 100 anatomy and physiology hours currently required), schools
must now add an additional 40 hours of pathology and 25 additional hours of anatomy,
physiology and kinesiology than are currently required. This means that schools with
500-hour programs will have to replace massage training hours with pathology and A&P
hours or raise their hours and likely the tuition of their programs.
This decision, which I hope is overturned or at least modified, encapsulates the
misguidance of so many trying to steer our profession these days. This editorial is
an appeal to all school owners, teachers and therapists who feel as we do to contact
the NCBTMB with a request to cease and desist from tunnel vision and poor timing.
Following are some of the realms of concern in connection with this decision.
The NCBTMB, the Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation (COMTA) and AMTA all claim
to be holistic in their orientation. Unfortunately, this assertion has increasingly
become mere lip service. There is no mention of any increase in training hours or
emphasis of subjects pertaining to the art of massage. By adding pathology and A&P
requirements exclusively, these organizations are contributing to the medicalization
of our field.
Recent history gives no basis, other than sheer defensiveness, to these groups' claims
to holism. The holistic emphasis of massage includes scientific competence, but goes
beyond it, into the development of creativity, sensitivity and the evolution of massage/bodywork
as a true health care modality. Massage is not primarily a medical treatment. Most state laws
explicitly state so.
Nonetheless, the NCBTMB, COMTA and AMTA persist in the medical orientation and are
selling out our most precious birthright — massage as a unique health care modality. Although
there has been quite a bit of emphasis these days on the clinical, I have yet to teach a group
of students who, when presented with a holistic vision, didn't heave an enormous sigh of
relief. It's like waking from a spell. Virtually everyone in massage, when presented with
a clear vision of holistic practice, prefers its scope and heart to the exclusively medical
model of massage.
To be perfectly clear, I have nothing particularly against pathology and anatomy hours
being required — only that hours in those subject areas be appropriately balanced by
hours pertaining to the realm of health and the refinement of the therapist's sensitivity.
This approach might include important subjects such as what is health; what is care;
quality of touch; energetic as well as physical assessment skills; creative session design;
looking more deeply at issues of pressure, rhythm; what to leave in or out for whom;
how to combine modalities appropriately to address the individuality of the client; and
deeper exploration of the inspirational and aesthetic dimensions of massage.
Reduction of the Diversity of Educational Approaches
The current requirements allow for 100 hours of anatomy/physiology, a minimum of 200
hours of massage and/or bodywork and the remaining hours in whatever the school chooses
to complete one's massage and/or bodywork study. The new requirement will, if programs
remain at 500 hours, reduce the discretionary hours by nearly one third. Currently, these
hours clearly allow for a variety of approaches and diversity of education. That is not
progress; this is a step backward.
Ethics and Poor Judgment
I was told by the NCBTMB that this decision was announced to the profession in January.
I immediately checked with three other leaders in our field and not one of them knew
about it. I had received an elaborate NCBTMB orientation box in February — the change
was not mentioned. So how was this announced? It was on their website. This would be
like billing my students for a new tuition while telling them it had been announced
somewhere on our website.
I have also been told that schools don't have to adopt these new requirements. However,
when the National Certification Exam is required by 23 states, can the NCBTMB be so naοve
as to say we're free not to comply?
Our students alerted me to this decision. Reading the website, they were panicking at the
published timing for the new requirements going into effect. Many schools have students
enrolled in programs that do not finish until 2005. And most well-run schools plan their
overall curricula and schedules at least a year in advance. This timing and the confusing
language of the announcement is flabbergastingly insensitive with respect toward schools,
students and therapists. It is ironically in line with the lack of heart in the new
I issue a call to the massage and bodywork profession:
- Our profession must rise up and refuse the top-down micromanagement by the NCBTMB,
COMTA and AMTA and any other organization that threatens the precious diversity within
- The NCBTMB must withdraw its decision to add pathology and A&P hours without a
corresponding strengthening of the health-promoting, right brain, imaginative and
heartful side of massage. It is time our profession begins to walk again on two feet,
honoring art and science, instead of just hopping on one, increasingly to the tune of
insurance companies. It is time to walk the walk, not just talk it.
- I recommend the formation of a task force to explore how the profession can proceed
on both feet — emphasizing the art and the science of massage and bodywork.
- I call upon the NCBTMB to declare a moratorium on curriculum changes mandated until
this task force has been convened to explore how the profession as a whole can proceed
and with the precious legacy of holism intact. It certainly can be more difficult to
test people on their sensitivity than on their knowledge of anatomy.
This difficulty is perhaps our greatest challenge as a profession. Without the resolution
to develop both the art and science of massage and bodywork, we will develop only the
science. And, shortly, we would be little different in philosophy or practice from the
allopathic health care fields.
This is our birthright — to facilitate a higher level of health in the body, mind and spirit.
Massage and bodywork do go beyond the medical. That is largely why people seek it out as an
alternative, and why we need to further develop and protect it in every way we can. We hold
the future of our profession in our hands. As a professional therapist and educator with more
than 25 years of experience, blood, sweat, tears and joy in this profession, I urge you to
stop the NCBTMB from attaching the shackles of the medico-industrial-academic complex on our
profession. Returning to the issue of National Massage Safety — it may be critical at this
time that the profession as a whole works together to keep itself safe from the current
tendencies dominating the NCBTMB.
Massage is a freedom-loving profession. To keep it that way, let your opinion be known.
Let's keep our freedom in our hands. And, by every means possible and necessary, let us
keep the beautiful dream of healing through the science and art of touch alive in our hearts.
National Certification Exam Has Little Professional Credibility
By Bob Benson, ABMP President
Note: This article first appeared in the December/January 2004 issue of Massage & Bodywork
magazine. Run as a publisher's note, the piece was originally titled, "Lost in Translation— The Soul of Massage Competence."
When 90 percent of respondents in a profession say your test is not reliable, it suggests
that the soul of massage competence has been lost in translation.
The National Certification Exam (NCE) emperor has little credibility or support within its
own profession. That's the only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from two recent
data points. A resounding 90 percent of the more than 3,300 respondents to an October 2003
online Massage Today
poll answered "NO" to the question, "Do you think the National
Certification Exam for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCETMB) is a reliable tool
to evaluate the knowledge and skill of a massage therapist."
That's a thunderous vote of "no confidence" from the profession being evaluated. The
National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB) touts that
more than 70,000 massage therapists (Note:
in May 2006 this figure is 80,000) now possess the NCE credential, inferring that
those large numbers validate the credential's appeal and relevance.
A recent analysis by Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals, however, usefully
segmented that number. In the 21 states (27 in May 2006, including the District of Columbia) requiring licensed massage practitioners to
take and pass the NCE (or, in some states, an equivalent exam), 77 percent (53 percent in May 2006) of licensed
massage practitioners have secured an NCE credential (grandfathering provisions or
selection of an alternative exam account for the remainder). By contrast, in the other
29 states (20 in May 2006), which don't require the exam, only 22 percent (14 percent in May 2006) of practitioners have passed
Where there is a choice, in other words, massage therapists aren't flocking to sign up
for a voluntary NCE credential. Does it matter that only a small portion of the
profession believes the NCE fairly assesses knowledge and skill and is valuable to
If the original purpose of the NCE — to offer a consistent national voluntary
individual certification — remained its sole purpose, then it wouldn't much matter.
Those selecting a realm of massage practice for which they felt securing an NCE
credential was valuable could choose to pursue it. The problem is that the NCE has
perversely evolved into a barrier to entry into the massage profession.
Now 21 out of 33 licensing states (see notes above) require massage practitioners to pass the NCE or an
equivalent exam to obtain license. As additional states add massage licensing, recent
history suggests they also are likely to require the NCE. If states want a test, it's
both administratively simpler and cost-free to require the NCE as opposed to creating
and administering their own. The NCE shoe doesn't fit. A one-size-fits-all approach is
ill-suited to the diverse massage and bodywork profession.
One or more properly constructed exams, available on a voluntary basis, may well benefit
massage therapists who choose to work in close relationship with doctors and other
medical professionals. Such a credential can be helpful to consumers and other health
professionals in identifying massage therapists with particular credentials and skill
sets. Those therapists are an important segment of the massage and bodywork profession,
but hardly the only one.
The NCE is poorly matched with skills needed by an individual electing to perform
basic, restorative Swedish massage, chair massage in health food stores or law offices,
energy work, Asian bodywork or numerous other specialties. New variants of the NCE for
basic and advanced massage may help improve fit, but still won't match the full
diversity in the profession and won't address the involuntary utilization of the
credentials by states.
The particular weaknesses of the NCE are well addressed by comments accompanying
poll answers. Some of the major themes are: a test of massage competence
which does not include an assessment of hands-on skill is an empty test; one-size does
not fit all; many questions are tossed unjustly to make sure each special interest group
gets a nod ...
NCBTMB should stick to therapeutic massage and leave Asian modality certification to the
American Organization for Bodywork Therapies of Asia (AOBTA); great massage therapists are
more likely right-brained; tests are for the left-brained ... the NCE discriminates against
- Skills such as intuition, depth of touch and an ability to listen to a client are
important aspects of being a competent massage therapist; the NCE test doesn't get at
listening skills or other client relationship/communications abilities.
- The art of massage requires sensitivity to the subtle energies that surround the
physical palpations of muscle and flesh and the rotations and flexions of joints; the
NCE doesn't assess this sensitivity.
- Instead of helping massage therapists, it has become one more obstruction to being
treated fairly and equitably in the work place.
NCBTMB's Board of Directors has heard similar complaints for years. Their response?
Defensive, head-in-the-sand denial ... claiming more fiercely that their exam measures
"competence" because it is based upon job content analysis, psychometric test question
assessment and all the other formal steps required by their rule-setting body, the
National Commission for Certifying Agencies. The problem is that, while they have done
everything "by the book," as a current movie title suggests, something has been "Lost
in Translation." When 90 percent of respondents in a profession say your test is not
reliable, it suggests that the soul of massage competence has been lost in translation.
Massage & Bodywork
and its ABMP parent organization support professionalism, sound
core curricula and skill assessment at massage schools. Every practitioner should secure
education appropriate to the work they subsequently choose to provide. Schools should
only graduate students who are ready to begin practice.
We also encourage first-rate continuing education, whether through study of the contents
of a professional magazine, refresher courses at a school or seminar participation.
Voluntary standards and credentials also have a place in the field — a panoply of them
to mirror diversity in the field. We would like to see additional organizations develop
credentials for different parts of the massage and bodywork profession (much as the AOBTA
constructively did working with the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and
Perhaps organizations with assessment expertise in other fields can be encouraged to
partner with a new cadre of knowledgeable massage instructors to develop more reliable
voluntary tests for this profession. The key word is "voluntary." Preserve flexibility
and diversity in the massage profession. Respect choices individual practitioners make
about types of work and how much work per week they elect to perform. Remember that a
minimum required standard to obtain a massage license is quite a different matter from
a voluntary certification evidencing higher-level skills. Keep licensing standards at
a level sufficient to assure safe practice, but low enough to avoid screening out those
individuals who choose to perform basic work. Sustain for consumers an ability to access
a wide diversity of therapists whose one common bond is genuine caring for each client's
health and welfare.
Do We Need a Massage-Only Credential?
By Darren Buford
Note: Darren Buford is managing editor of Massage & Bodywork magazine. This selection
was originally published in Massage & Bodywork, October/November 2002.
Shakespeare wrote, "That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."
In the same vein, would touch from anyone with a different moniker than "massage
therapist" feel as good?
That question arises as massage and bodywork gain public currency and the public is
confronted with a bewildering array of treatments, techniques and titles. Because all
professionals in the field usually are deemed "massage therapists" by government
officials, the press and certifying bodies, there is little room for distinction under
this title. Seated massage may well require more modest training and still provide immense
benefits, but "better-than-thou" attitudes have understandably developed from those with
more and different levels of training, because they see an MT-only designation as not
representative of or even demeaning to their skills, knowledge and quality of touch.
Currently, massage professionals, movement reeducation specialists, energy therapists
and Asian bodyworkers all adhere to the same moniker. Though our profession's problem is
much more complex, imagine the myriad, disgruntled lawyers if paralegals were also suddenly
called "lawyers." Though massage, bodywork and somatic therapies may all have similar end
goals in mind, the vehicle and underlying preparation required are often very different.
Not only has this issue wounded some egos, but another, even larger problem exists because
of the same-name designation. Consider that the public is probably often misled into
believing anyone with the title "massage therapist" is a trained professional? How wrong
that assumption is. (Think of how some unsavory types use the namesake to mask unethical
practices.) Most members of the public aren't even aware there is a difference among
therapists regarding education and modalities practiced. Should it then be the client's
responsibility to decipher such a thing? For the public, going to a MT can be like a
blind "touch" test: which is better, Massage Therapist A or B?
To say the situation is convoluted is an understatement — it's downright confusing.
Perhaps, however, there is a silver lining to this cloudy horizon: tiered designation.
But to get there, we must first understand how this problem came to be.
Issue of Self-Governance
Fifteen years ago, regulation of massage and bodywork through state and local
governments seemed to some in the profession like the right thing to do. It was
thought establishing certification and licensing of individuals and accrediting
many of the massage therapy schools could help separate the profession from then
public enemy No. 1 — prostitution. Second, it also could help legitimize the
profession in the eyes of those in the health care field, such as physicians and
insurance companies — where being accepted could help the profession get a piece
of the referral and insurance reimbursement.
Among other outcomes, this avenue resulted in the creation of the now independent
organization National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork
(NCBTMB) in 1992 to "foster high standards of ethical and professional practice
in the delivery of services through a credible, recognized credentialing program
that assures the competency of practitioners of therapeutic massage and bodywork,"
and to promote the "worth of national certification to health, therapeutic massage
and bodywork professionals, public policy makers and the general public."1
Seeking regulation, the massage field was an anomaly at state houses. Regulation of
health professions is normally brought about by politicians as a way to protect the
public from harm from charlatans (ie., protecting the public from untrained or improperly
trained physicians). However, in the case of massage it was the opposite, because any harm
massage could cause is minor compared to, say, the unguided work of an orthopedic surgeon.
Therefore, legislators rarely took the initiative. Instead, regulation was sought by the
profession to distinguish itself from the adult entertainment profession and the old
massage parlor mystique. It became a self-governance issue (how will the field deal
with itself, not how will the public deal with the field).
This issue presented another problem, however — how to package massage and its
related modalities to policymakers. If regulations were to be pursued, what
parameters should be set on dimensions such as scope of practice, amount and type
of education, and demonstration of competence?
Because most legislators' knowledge of massage is limited, the shades of gray within
the field meant very little to them. From their perspective, it's a profession problem
that needs to be resolved internally. So, instead of hindering their chances at
legislation, the profession took the quick route of accepting the "bait" of cramming
all modalities under single standards, labeled "massage therapy," thus improving the
chances for passage of legislation.
Unwittingly, regulation created a large umbrella under which everyone was forced to
operate. This umbrella included everything from reflexology to Oriental modalities,
from movement therapies to somatic therapies hardly one and the same, as the
variety of depth and breadth of each modality is great.
In turn, what was presented to those outside the massage field, namely the public, was
that we were in fact one and the same, when we most definitely were not. This single
set of standards for the different types of practice has recently led to re-examination
of a tiered system of massage regulation by the NCBTMB that addresses (at least) an
entry-level massage designation and an advanced massage designation.
Ray Siderius, president of the Oregon School of Massage, described the licensing and
regulation that occurred in the past as uninformed decision-making, or a "dumb system."
"Often we're getting involved in designing curriculum and regulatory measures where we
don't have those lengthy conversations about what it is we're regulating and for what
purpose, and it doesn't get discussed. Thus we have a system that's less than intelligent,"
he said. "A 'dumb system' doesn't address the diversity within the constituency that it
purports to regulate."
Siderius added, "Intra-professional discussions and development of communication models
about who we are and how our various components relate to one another are needed."
Interestingly, Siderius was not the only school owner, nor the only pioneer in the
profession, to express like concerns.
A Question of Semantics
The first objection from within the field came from those who did not agree with the
"'Therapy' and 'therapists' are words used in the healthcare
profession to mean 'treatment' or 'people who treat'," said David Palmer, owner of
the TouchPro Institute in San Francisco, Calif. Palmer doesn't advocate completely
dismissing the moniker altogether, but to include at least one other title which
emphasizes an entry-level credential, such as "massage practitioner." "A massage
therapist does massage therapy (treatment). A massage practitioner is someone who
simply does massage," he said. Palmer compared this distinction to the American
Massage Therapy Association namesake before 1984, when the association was called
the American Massage & Therapy Association. "Then, they took out the 'and'," said
Palmer. "Prior to that, there was massage and there was massage therapy. After that
time, there was one thing: massage therapy. They did it for a number of seemingly
innocuous reasons, however, the net effect was to make massage therapy the entry-level
of our profession, and that's been a problem we've been fighting ever since."
Palmer argues the name change took the focus off touch and placed it on treatment.
Instead, he is a proponent of a more preventive approach to massage, suggesting the
best strategy is to keep little problems from becoming big problems rather than taking
a clinical-level pathology and treating it. "It's the difference between having the
ambulance at the bottom of the cliff versus having a guard rail at the top of the cliff," he said.
With those who wish to align themselves with the treatment side of the profession,
Palmer advocates requiring more hours of training, basing his idea on the Ontario and
British Columbia, Canada, models of 2,000 hours of training for massage therapists.3
"The idea of training someone to do medical massage in 500 hours is nothing short of
absurd and irresponsible," he said. "What the massage schools are selling is self-esteem
— that you'll be a junior physical therapist, that you'll be health care practitioners.
The healthcare community looks at us and thinks we're a big joke because of that. They
know 500 hours of training is not enough to create a competent therapist, and most
people I've talked to who have graduated from 500-hour schooling know they're not competent."
Palmer is quick to state that he's not demeaning massage therapy's efficacy. "To
the contrary, I think there should be whole hospitals that do nothing but massage
therapy, like there are in China. I think massage therapy is incredibly efficacious
and can be utilized for a broad range of conditions. My only complaint is that I'm
conservative on this issue of training, and I don't think you should be presuming
that level of knowledge without an equivalent level of training and experience, and
500 hours is not the equivalent level."
For Palmer, there is another solution to the problem: chair massage doesn't presume
to define itself like massage therapy as a treatment and it is an obvious example of
the first tier of his proposed profession. "Does it require 500 hours to create a
chair massage practitioner?" asked Palmer, considered the "father of chair massage."
"No. And that's one of the problems we've gotten ourselves into with this freight
train of making massage therapy entry-level, because most states now have laws that
require 500 hours or greater of training." Currently, if you wanted to practice chair
massage or relaxation massage in New York or Nebraska, you would still need the 1,000
hours of training required by those states to do so. "What they've done is prevented
the general public from the most accessible form of bodywork by forcing chair massage
to be the specialty you take after getting your basic 500-hour training in table massage,
rather than the other way around. It should take you 150-300 hours to learn chair massage
(without any prior training), and do this first, then specialize in table massage and
massage therapy after that, if you choose."
While the mainstream massage community wanted to make massage acceptable by making it
a health care profession, Palmer's solution was to try to make massage accessible by
lowering the cost, making it convenient. "My idea about social change is to start
from the bottom up. If you can make something accessible to the broad majority of
the public, then the acceptability will follow along naturally." Palmer believes the
public image of massage, whether it be in a recent Time
or in the
, is that of chair massage making inroads into corporations, conventions,
trade-shows, fitness centers, etc. "Chair massage offers an alternative approach and
strategy," said Palmer. "I don't think massage therapy as a treatment will ever be
mainstream massage. It's simply too expensive."
Dropping the Ball — Holism
David Lauterstein, owner of the Lauterstein-Conway Massage School in Austin, Texas,
suggests two levels of designation would prolong dualistic thinking in the massage
profession. "I think going to a two-tiered system would be a step backward rather
than forward. For a long time there has been the idea that massage is either a cosmetic
luxury or it's something you do for pain. What distinguishes modern massage is it really
is a unique health modality. It lives up to the words 'health care.' Namely, it gives
people the direct experience of health. It presupposes a good therapist's abilities
to work with musculoskeletal tension and injury — but goes way beyond."
According to Lauterstein, massage used to be represented by the people working in beauty
parlors or those who wore white coats. "That was where it was when I started in the late
'70s, nationally," he said. "Unfortunately, today we have what I call 'the return of the
repressed,' that it seems to be going back to that instead of stepping into the future."
Lauterstein advocates three levels of bodywork: a basic wellness level for relaxation,
a medical/clinical level, and a holistic level which includes relaxation, but at a much
deeper level, "where you're talking about how to work with the individual." For him,
this involves moving beyond treating disease to really amplifying the health of the
person. "A lot of massage schools have dropped the ball on understanding what holistic
means, that a person is more than anatomy or tissues, but has emotions and thoughts,
which are equally integral to health."
Lauterstein decries the current state of massage as almost one of "mass hypnosis,"
because so many people are using the word "treatment," when most of the state laws
prevent professionals from using that word. "I've considered it a blessing that most
massage therapists are forbidden to diagnose or treat. It means they are free to go
the higher road, which is to work with the person."
Relating an anecdote about illustrator and writer Ann Kent Rush and her experiences
at the Esalen Institute in the '70s, Lauterstein said, "She had mentioned what
distinguished the institute was they were not doing it (massage) for pain, they
were doing it for pleasure, which really steps out of the European model and the
allopathic model that says, 'No Pain, No Gain.' They were instead saying, 'No
Pleasure, No Gain,' which is still quite revolutionary for Americans to hear.
However, Rush said a shift occurred when Ida Rolf came to the school. It was a
step backward, she brought pain back into the equation." Today, said Lauterstein,
we're still dealing with a similar conceivable setback. "Instead of really
exploring the correlation between pleasure and health, many massage trainings
and COMTA (Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation) are aiming at mere
State by State Approach
Deep in the Heart
Because the state of Texas only requires 300 hours of training to become a massage
therapist, Lauterstein understands this is only adequate for relaxation/wellness
massage. "If a client comes in needing someone to have problem-solving abilities,
I don't think 300 hours is enough, so that's why we offer a 550-hour program. And
then we have an additional advanced 200-hour semester that goes into craniosacral
work, zero balancing, psychology of bodywork and advanced clinical work."
Imaginatively, Lauterstein said he could go far beyond this 750-hour program, but
as far as he's concerned, with that much training the student is educated enough
they may want to specialize in medical massage, postural work, energy therapies
or Oriental medicine. In addition, Lauterstein suggests another avenue for the
profession could be to formulate a wide-ranging program, where one can gain a
basic 600-hour training, then rotate residencies in various programs, resembling
a liberal arts education at most universities around the country. "After a good
basic education, people have the right to specialize and not be hoarded into some
advanced curriculum that kind of cookie-cuts us out of the variety of approaches.
Any education that reduces this richness and diversity is a step backward."
Because the test far outreaches what many of their therapists are capable of passing,
Texas doesn't recognize the National Certification Exam (NCE), which is designed for
a student with at least 500 hours of training. Therefore, the state has developed its
own testing board and exam.
The California Model
Another state with an alternative approach to a 500-hour national certification
embedded in state massage regulation is California. Within the state, which currently
does not have statewide massage licensing, there are a large number of schools offering
100-200 hours of training. Instead of seeing this as a hindrance to the profession,
Deborra Clayton, administrator and instructor at the San Francisco School of Massage,
sees it as a true benefit. The school's program offers a 608-hour program in a tiered
format, comprising four courses of study, two of which are 102/103 hours and then two
advanced courses that are 201 hours apiece.
"What we find is that for some students, the 100-hour courses are used as [background
for] a part-time career, so they may stop their studies at this point and go to
continuing education workshops for further training," said Clayton. "My sense is
these people use their training to work on their friends and families, or they
might get a job in a spa or with a chiropractor. Most often we find that people
who stay with massage, we see them again in six months or one year, and they then
take either the other basic course or they go into the advanced course."
Clayton explains the value of the shorter training is to get people interested and to
begin developing their skills. Her objection to a non-tiered system is there are people
who should be in the massage and bodywork field who have an extraordinary value in their
quality of touch and personal presence. But if regulation is set at 500 hours, it puts
training beyond the reach of people who do not have the time or the finances.
Programs offered throughout California not only offer a way in for many, but it's a way
to "test" the field — weed out those who are not cut out for the work. Unlike other
states, California also offers a way out without being financially destroyed by a program
that says "once you've entered, you must finish the 500 hours." Clayton also emphasizes,
and without them having to feel like a personal failure. Students leave because they
discover after 100200 hours into the training, this is not for me."
As for regulation and multi-level designations for the profession, Clayton said that in
California what's changing minds is not what we call ourselves or even how long people
train, but the changing perceptions of the profession. "It's not what we say, or call
ourselves, it's the impact, the effect on the people we work with that is providing
inroads with the medical community."
If regulation in a single-point 500-hour education requirement were to be introduced in
California, the question arises whether or not this would cause the closing of many of
the 100-hour programs across the state. According to Jocelyn Olivier, owner of Alive &
Well in San Anselmo, Calif., the answer is no. "The 100-hour courses would simply shift
to introductory courses for the public, participants just wouldn't become certified."
Olivier believes her enrollment numbers wouldn't change drastically because there would
still be a large percentage of the public only interested in the intro classes.
From a consumer standpoint, Olivier said she appreciates the 100-hour programs because
it's made it easier for people to become introduced to the field. However, from a
business standpoint, she understands a 500-hour program serves the school best economically.
Her major concern with regard to regulation is instead with what she calls the "narrowing
of the field." "The person who gets to define what our programs look like can restrict
the breadth and scope of the practice of massage in California," she said. Olivier
feels California is responsible for much of the growth in the field over the past 30
years, and regulation might deter more growth. "In the past, there's been a
proliferation of modalities, approaches and knowledge about the human body, and
how to work with it has expanded so much because of the openness here. If you have
a clinical approach like they do in New York, it has no consciousness to it. This
type of thinking narrows the field, narrows the scope, narrows how we develop, and
what we think this work is about."
Times, They Are a Changin'
Much of the above discussion about which stratagem to take may soon be moot. The NCBTMB
recently released a statement saying it will begin developing two new credentials, one
for massage therapy and one for advanced practice in massage therapy. Christine Neiro,
executive director of the NCBTMB, said, "We are currently offering the Nationally
Certified Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork credential which we've offered since the program
was implemented in 1992. Since then, there have been a lot of changes and developments in
the whole profession. The board really pays attention, listening to its various
stakeholders — schools, practitioners, certificants and customers. We were hearing
there was a need for a more advanced credential."
The board determined an advanced credential in massage therapy would meet several needs:
those of the practitioners who hold the current credential and who want to go to a next
level, and those who need to have a higher credential for the type of work they are doing
or for the setting in which they are practicing. "Practitioners are looking to increase
their own body of knowledge as well, and a level of competency as they grow," said Neiro.
Certification under the current credential will continue to be good for four years.
"After that time, we're hoping practitioners demonstrate continued confidence and they've
built on where they were four years ago when they passed the entry-level test."
Based on the new plan, it seemed only natural to the board they should also create a
massage-only credential, to be developed at the entry-level. The board is also considering
the feasibility of developing a bodywork specific credential for bodywork practitioners
not defined by the entry-level or advanced certification. Ultimately, there could be as
many as three or four levels of credentials, depending upon whether or not the board
will phase out the current massage and bodywork certification.
Critics of the approach argue it's an example of top-down decision-making and again a
"dumb system" because, though the profession itches for some change, the new credentials
could fall short of accomplishing the desired goals of reflecting the broad diversity
within the profession. Other critics express frustration that these new credential
proposals have once again been announced without prior broad consultation of rank and
file practitioners within the profession.
Another, harsher review of the new credentials goes as far as calling what the NCBTMB
wants to create a "cash cow," because, as practitioners advance within the field and
want a higher credential, they have to pay to take a second test, further tapping into
practitioner's already limited budgets.5
On another note, the NCBTMB did state its willingness to work alongside state
legislators, saying its new credentials "will offer more options to states that desire
to separate regulations for massage and bodywork by providing more specific entry-level
These new NCBTMB plans raise a host of questions. Will the proposed new
credentials affect the shape of potential upcoming legislation in the 20 states that
remain unregulated? Will states that have regulation already on the books want to amend
current standards? And will states and schools have to change their standards and
curricula each time the NCBTMB introduces more credentials, such as certification for
movement and posture specialists and somatic therapies? It looks like the motivation
to defeat or champion such alterations will have to come from practitioners within
the field after they get their first "taste" of the new credentials NCBTMB aims to
implement by 2003.
Which raises an interesting point: We've spoken to school owners, to profession pioneers,
to certification executives, but what about the little guy in all this — Sally Q.
Therapist from Des Moines, Iowa? Do she and her peers really care about the use of
monikers to distinguish the profession? Students, in theory, have a vested, non-agenda,
interest in schooling. What are their feelings about the number of training hours chosen
by their school and/or required by local and state governments?
In these matters, the strength of the profession is also its weakness. Many massage
practitioners are attracted to the field by the prospect of helping people improve
their well-being. They bring kinesthetic skills and positive emotional involvement,
but don't have much interest in standards and regulation. They cede this domain to
others. However, without their input, will changes continue to be made in a top-down
manner by the few in power positions or can we believe that all voices in the field
are, and will continue to be, heard provided an opportunity? Only time will tell.
1 NCBTMB Press Release, May 14, 2002.
2 Geoffrey Maitland's article titled "What's In a Name," featured in the Fall 1994 Massage
, addresses the profession's difficulties at that time in considering a
3 Palmer, David. "The Case for a Two-Tiered Profession." Massage
. March/April 2000. 18-20.
4 Luscombe, Belinda. "Massage Goes Mainstream." Time
. July 29, 2002. 48-50.
5 An August 2001 Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals' survey found that the mean income
of massage practitioners was $20,063 per year (Note: See
Massage Profession Metrics for 2005 income information
6 NCBTMB Press Release, June 25, 2002.
Massage, bodywork and somatic therapies constitute a broad spectrum of techniques.
Legislators often fail to appreciate the nuances and differences along this spectrum.
As a result, they may develop legislation that subsumes all these modalities under a
single regulatory scheme for touch modalities. It is probable today that probably more
than 90 percent of the work performed primarily includes Swedish, deep tissue and/or
neuro-muscular techniques. Nonetheless, voices representing other techniques deserve
to be heard. Many such modalities merit exemptions from state massage licensing laws
(and largely have been successful in gaining such exemptions). Here follow several
voices from these communities.
Overbroad Licensing Wrong Fit for Bodyworkers
By Karrie Osborn, Contributing Editor, Massage & Bodywork
Note: Reprinted from Massage & Bodywork
magazine, October/November 2002.
In the world of massage politics and governance, there are voices fighting to be heard.
Pockets of therapists, falling across a wide spectrum of modalities, oppose the "unfair"
legislation of bodywork and believe strongly that the issue of legislation is largely
driven by money and a desire for control.
Mani Abreu, a licensed massage therapist, tai chi instructor, and founder of the Freedom
for Bodywork online discussion group, is one of those voices. He believes the movement
toward licensure is philosophically far removed from the very nature of the work he and
other bodywork therapists practice. "I have discussed the issue with those on both sides
of the fence more times than I can remember and have yet to see or hear any concrete
evidence that would alter my belief concerning licensure — it is a movement whose primary
philosophy is simply financial, having little to do with those who practice the trade."
Abreu said massage legislation is a combination of restrictive practice guidelines requiring
continuing education credits at "approved" schools and a means of preventing non-licensed
practitioners from exercising their skills.
"Massage legislation should concern only those who practice massage," said Abreu. "By
including those who practice modalities other than massage only reinforces my belief that
the primary concern of the licensure movement is simply financial in nature."
Sharon Benoliel, a Maryland shiatsu practitioner, would agree. Benoliel helped form a
coalition in her state to exempt shiatsu, and eventually other forms of energy work, from
the regulation recently enacted there. "I was certified in shiatsu, was well-trained and
had been making a living at it for 17 years. All of a sudden, this law comes in and says
to continue practicing legally, I have to take $6,000 worth of training in the totally
irrelevant area of massage. I don't do massage, yet it was the injustice I was faced with,"
she said. Instead Benoliel chose to fight and was largely the impetus for shiatsu and other
energy therapies being exempted from Maryland law.
Is it about the almighty dollar? "It's totally about money," said Benoliel, "and keeping the
competition down." She said massage schools and existing practitioners are the ones who
profit from all-inclusive massage regulation that doesn't take into account the variety
of bodywork therapies being practiced or the educational requirements of those other therapies.
The bottom line for Benoliel is that the regulation in her state did a disservice to her and
other practitioners: "It didn't honor our scope of practice."
LaRose Daniels, past president of the American Polarity Therapy Association (APTA) and current
legislative coordinator for the group, said polarity therapists want title exemptions from
massage governance bills, plain and simple. "Massage definitions are so broad, and they leave
so much up to interpretation, that if you even touch the body you can be considered 'massage
and bodywork.'" Daniels said the polarity scope of practice is very different from massage.
"We feel we belong in energy medicine, not massage."
So why is it a bad thing to be included under the massage umbrella? "It's bad to be included
because our education requirements are not being honored. Under many state laws, in order to
ethically practice polarity, people have to go to massage school first."
She also believes special interests are often at work.
"Sometimes school owners are sitting on massage boards. It's to their financial advantage
to include us. If we have to go to massage school before we can practice anything else,
those school owners fill up their classes."
Daniels agreed money was at play in the issue of regulation. "The main thing is we don't
want to be unfairly regulated, or be required to have an education we don't need, because
we've been pulled into someone else's scope of practice. Money has a whole lot to do with it.
Schools and continuing education — that's where the money is going. We just don't want to be
pulled into it."
As massage legislation makes its way into more states, so does the opposition. "I don't have
numbers, but in recent discussions I have heard that the AMTA (American Massage Therapy
Association) could account for less than 25 percent of all active practitioners in the
United States," said Abreu. "Does that give those folks the right to restrict my ability
to practice massage simply because I don't want to be a card-carrying member?" Abreu speaks
specifically of the AMTA because of that organization's early involvement with licensure and
As for fighting the big machine, Abreu said sometimes it simply takes an activist willing to
become part of the machine in order to know the direction it is heading. "In those cases,
where proposed legislation has been defeated, it has often been because those in the fight
were forewarned and had sufficient time to present their own arguments to the legislative
body." He said, above all else, to fight the fight, "you need people who are committed to
the idea of equitable opportunities to practice our skills, whether we support the
'organization' or not."
Massage Therapy Research and Education
While the last decade has witnessed an awakening in massage-therapy research, there is
still much to be done. One barrier to further gains in public and medical community
acceptance is the relatively modest base of research on the efficacy of massage therapy.
Intuitively, many users find massage helpful, but some non-triers continue to wait for
proof of scientific effectiveness.
According to Dr. Janet Kahn, a massage therapist and author of the article below, "very
few people were thinking or speaking about research on therapeutic massage and bodywork
ten years ago. Three institutions have emerged
to change that picture. The first was
Touch Research Institute (TRI), founded in 1992
at the University of Miami. Researchers
at TRI have conducted more than 80 studies on a wide variety of potential massage applications.
Most of these investigations are relatively small pilot studies. While not establishing
definitive effects of massage, they have identified many areas in which massage shows
potential and should be further investigated."
She notes that the 1999 convening of the Massage Research Agenda Workgroup provided a way
for massage therapists and bodyworkers who may not have the training or the inclination to
conduct research, to nevertheless influence the types of research being done. Kahn also
notes the contributions of The National Institutes for Health Center for Complementary and
Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).
Research Key to Future of Massage
By Dr. Janet Kahn, Massage Therapist, Senior Partner, Integrative Consulting, Burlington, Vt.
Note: This article first appeared in Massage & Bodywork magazine,
October/November 2002. At the time of publication, Dr. Kahn was a member of the National
Advisory Council for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of
Birthdays are great opportunities for self-reflection, for dreaming and for goal-setting.
As we mark the 10th birthday of Massage & Bodywork
, I have been asked to look at the field of
massage research and reflect upon where our profession might hope to be 10 years from now.
Ten years. What is its meaning? My dog is not quite 10 years old yet and the vet referred to
him yesterday as early geriatric. I cringed. Sailing with my dad last weekend, I realized we
had bought our boat almost four decades ago. It seems like yesterday. Time is a funny thing.
One can imagine that 10 years might not amount to much in the life of a profession, but for
the field of therapeutic massage and bodywork in general, and research specifically, the past
decade was developmentally critical. I think the next decade will be at least as important. To
help us understand what 10 years can mean, I will take a brief look backward, then offer some
suggestions and predictions about the coming decade.
An Idea is Given Form
Ten years ago, very few people were thinking or speaking about research on therapeutic
massage and bodywork. Three institutions emerged in the last decade to change that picture.
The first was Touch Research Institute (TRI), founded in 1992 by Tiffany Field at the
University of Miami. Researchers at TRI have conducted more than 80 studies on a wide
variety of potential massage applications. Most of these investigations are relatively
small pilot studies. While not establishing definitive effects of massage, they have
identified many areas in which massage shows potential and should be further investigated.
These studies have helped massage therapists around the globe understand the potential of
research to inform our own practices, to answer our own questions and to inform others about
our work. I think it is fair to Dr. Field and TRI have done much to put research on the map
for massage therapists, and to put massage on the map for health care researchers. Making
massage research a destination site, now that it is on these maps, is our job for the coming
The American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) Foundation was established in 1990 with
the mission of bringing the benefits of massage therapy to the broadest spectrum of society
through the generation, dissemination and application of knowledge in this field. The
foundation began offering research grants in 1993. It has provided seed money to massage
therapists and university-based researchers, allowing them to gather the kind of
preliminary data needed to apply for larger grants from other sources. The AMTA
Foundation has brought research closer to home. By launching the Massage Therapy
Research Database (2001) it has made massage research findings more accessible to therapists.
And in convening the Massage Research Agenda Workgroup (1999), the foundation provided a way
for massage therapists and bodyworkers who may not have the training or the inclination to
conduct research, to nevertheless influence the types of research being done.
The third organization that warrants attention is the National Center for Complementary and
Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Established as the
Office of Alternative Medicine in October 1991, and reborn as NCCAM in 1998, this organization
was created by legislative mandate, reflecting the public's widespread use of alternative
medicine, and their demand that it be investigated as an aspect of contemporary health care.
This is an important organization by virtue of its resources and its location. With a
budget of more than $100 million per year and growing, it has the potential to fund
significant research (although it has other responsibilities as well). The very existence
of an institute devoted to alternative medicine has drawn and will draw many more conventional
researchers into the field.
NIH is considered to be the pre-eminent health care research center in the world. It will
likely be considered an important authority on complementary medicine, including massage.
To date, therapeutic massage has not gotten its share of funding or attention from NCCAM.
That is, given the number of Americans who use massage, NCCAM is not funding many studies.
The responsibility for this is not all NCCAM's, since there are not many massage research
proposals being submitted. In the coming decade, an important task for the field of
therapeutic massage and bodywork will be to learn more about NIH, and about NCCAM in
particular — to learn what funding mechanisms are available and how to successfully
utilize them to advance our profession.
The past decade has also seen a nascent interest in massage research arising in this country
outside of the three organizations mentioned. Where 10 years ago very little was said in our
professional publications about research, today each of the three major massage periodicals
covers massage research in every issue. And 10 years ago, I could not name a single massage
school that taught research methods or even made reference to the massage-related research
that existed at the time. As a final measure of the past decade, there are now health care
administrators and practitioners who want to know what the research indicates about massage.
They want to know what it is good for, what it is not good for, when they should refer, what
deserves reimbursement, etc. In short, a massage research audience has begun to appear in the
past decade. So where do we go from here?
Courage, Curiosity and Collaboration
Three watchwords will help us get the most out of the next decade in terms of massage
and bodywork research. The words are courage, curiosity and collaboration, and the three
of them must go hand-in-hand. Courage is required because we are stepping into a new arena.
The mainstreaming of massage and other complementary health systems and modalities brings
increased opportunity for us to be of service to more people, and it brings increased
scrutiny as well. Increasingly when we make claims about the benefits of massage we are
being, and will be, asked how we know that, whether there is any data to support our
assertion. We must have the courage to let our work be assessed in many ways. We must
have the courage to enter new contexts and work with new kinds of colleagues.
Curiosity is at the heart of research. Research is designed to answer questions.
We begin with hunches, clinical observations, public health needs and wonderings.
We begin with curiosity about whether massage really moves fluids, can help alleviate
depression, is better than surgery for people with carpal tunnel syndrome, etc. We begin
with curiosity about why the premature babies in Field's studies gain more weight when
they are massaged, and about what aspect of therapeutic massage treatment leads to its
effectiveness in relation to persistent low-back pain as demonstrated by Cherkin and his
colleagues. What is the contribution of the specific soft tissue work itself? Of generalized
relaxation? Of the extent to which the client and practitioner connect? Of the client's belief
in massage? Of the homework suggestions for exercise or ergonomic improvement the therapist
offered to the client? Curiosity will drive the research to improve our work.
While courage and curiosity are instrumental to research, collaboration is the most important
of the watchwords. Collaboration is the key to our own participation in naming the kinds of
research that should be done and to mustering the resources to see it is done.
In October 1997, NCCAM awarded a $2.5 million grant to Palmer College of Chiropractic to
establish the Consortial Center of Chiropractic Research (CCCR). Five chiropractic colleges
joined forces to provide the infrastructure to the CCCR, offering training, database
development and research opportunities. Since that time, five more chiropractic schools
have joined this effort. An advisory committee composed of nationally known scientific and
chiropractic experts directs the CCCR on programmatic aspects, sets research priorities and
makes final decisions related to the support of selected research projects. In 2001, NCCAM
gave an award to Bastyr University to establish The North American Naturopathic Medical
Research Consortium with the initial goal of developing a prioritized research agenda.
Again, while Bastyr is listed as the lead organization, this is a consortium that involves
all five of the major accredited naturopathic colleges and universities in the United States
In accordance, there will be a massage research consortium established in the next 10 years.
It will be created by a small group of courageous and curious individuals, many of them
representing exemplary massage schools. Since massage schools do not have the kinds of
research experience and orientation, nor the faculty and financial resources of a Bastyr
University or Palmer College, I believe this consortium will include an academic or medical
center. In order to create this massage research consortium and serve our profession and the
public, we will have to compete less and collaborate more. It is time for us to take on
something bigger than one massage school can handle and bigger than one professional
association can handle. Research doesn't exist in a vacuum. It is conceived and conducted
by researchers who in turn require resources such as money, office space, access to patients,
laboratories, imaging equipment, computers and the like. To be utilized, research requires an
audience and vehicles through which results are made available to that audience. In the next
10 years, we need to purposefully build this infrastructure.
The Educational Role
While the creation of a consortial massage research center will be important, it is not
by any means the whole picture. Massage schools are central to building the infrastructure
research needs. It is their job to create massage professionals who understand research and
its role in professionalization, who know how to locate and critically read the research
literature, and who can adapt their practice based on research results. In 10 years time,
I hope all of this will be taught in many massage schools. A smaller number of schools will
also provide students who are interested in research experience — through their clinics or
through internship placements at medical centers and academic institutions. All of this will
require support from the faculty. In some cases, new faculty with research skills and experience
will need to be hired; in other cases, faculty will need to be supported as they retrain to
meet these needs. The schools should also be using research to answer pedagogical questions
like how best to teach palpation, or for tracking changes in the student body, client
population and treatment contexts, which could have implications for what should be taught.
We already see some students relocate to attend a massage school they believe offers superior
education. In 10 years time, massage education which includes an introduction to research, at
a school that has formed a partnership with a local university or medical center, will be seen
as worth matriculating to. These schools will grow in size, length of program, tuition level
and more. We have more than 900 (Note: In 2006 this number has grown to 1,500.)state-approved massage schools in the United States today. In
10 years time, perhaps 2030 schools will have emerged as those offering significant research
exposure. The growing number of massage programs being created in colleges will be logical
sites for this education. I hope some of the established, free-standing massage schools also
take on this challenge.
It is wonderful and appropriate that our magazines now report on research. It is also
appropriate that we have no peer-reviewed massage journal. At this stage of our development
it is important not to isolate research findings on massage, but rather to put them in the
professional journals already being read by the researchers, administrators and practitioners
who need to learn about our work. But in 10 years, we will be ready for a journal of massage
and bodywork research. By that time, we should be generating enough research activity and
audience to warrant a bi-monthly journal. And if in 10 years we get this entire
infrastructure in place, what is the research we should actually be doing? There
are three major categories of information a profession needs to generate in order
to understand itself. The first is socio-cultural information — that which helps us
to understand who we are, how we are regarded and so forth. The second arena of inquiry
is information about what effects our work has. And the third is information about how
that happens. This is traditionally called mechanism studies, but for now we'll refer to them
as avenues of effect. Your imagination and your clinical experience will be beneficial in terms
of conceiving the kinds of studies that could be done.
Socio-cultural studies could look at the demographics of student and client populations,
cost-effectiveness, client-practitioner relationships, practice philosophies, regulatory
issues and more. If you have any doubt about the importance of this kind of investigation,
consider the impact of David Eisenberg's surveys on Americans' use of complementary and
alternative medicine. When Eisenberg alerted the medical community and the public at large
to the fact that more than 40 percent of Americans (Note:
By 2004 a National Center for Health
Statistics survey was estimating this figure at 62 percent.) were using some form of CAM every year,
and that few of them were discussing this with their physicians, our field received the kind
of attention it had only dreamt of before. For the field of massage, it was incredibly helpful
to know that more than one-third of American adults — more than 100 million (Note: In 2006, an estimated
120 million to 135 million.) visits per year— were paid for out of pocket.
In terms of safety and efficacy studies, our attention should be steered in four directions.
First, let us conduct research on the kinds of conditions we are treating. The National
Alternative Medicine Ambulatory Care Study by Dan Cherkin found 63 percent of visits to
massage therapists were for musculoskeletal complaints, but there is relatively little
research on these conditions. Neck pain accounted for 17 percent of visits, but I know of
no studies on massage for neck pain. Secondly, whereas massage research in the past 10 years
has investigated at the surface level a wide range of possible applications, I encourage us
to spend the next 10 years going deeper in a few areas. Consider that in the early 1990s when
the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research (AHCPR) issued their consensus guidelines for
Acute Low Back Problems in Adults, they recommended chiropractic care based upon the research,
but could only say too little data existed to make any recommendation about therapeutic massage.
We have begun to remedy that situation with multiple studies on massage and both acute and
chronic low-back pain. We need to identify other areas — workplace stress or neck pain,
perhaps — for which we will systematically build a body of research literature to really
help us understand the potential of massage to treat these issues.
The third focus I would give to our efficacy studies is to think in terms of both primary and
secondary prevention. Most of us believe that by alleviating stress, regular massage helps
people avoid a whole host of conditions generated by stress. We need to design studies that
can test that hypothesis. That is primary prevention. Secondary prevention means we need to
conduct research that looks at the potential for massage to help people who are already
diagnosed with pathologies; for instance, how to avoid a worsening of that condition.
Finally, I want to suggest efficacy studies based on what practices are best for various
conditions. The field of therapeutic massage and bodywork is filled with name brand treatments,
but the public finds this confusing. Most names tell little about the treatment and more about
the person who named it (Hellerwork, Rolfing, Alexander Technique, etc.). We need, whenever
possible, to move to generic descriptors for our work and then to be willing to see whether
certain kinds of bodywork are better than others for certain conditions. Are Swedish massage,
myofascial techniques and neuromuscular techniques equivalently effective in relation to
migraine headaches? Is there some combination of framework and techniques that is optimal?
Or does method not matter because the key is the relationship between client and practitioner?
We should look at such questions because when the time comes to compare massage with usual
medical care, surgery, acupuncture or ayurveda, we want to make sure we are putting our best
treatment forward. This search for best treatments will require the kind of courage,
curiosity and collaboration discussed earlier, and I hope will lead to greater use of massage
and enhanced massage education.
The next 10 years will be exciting for massage and bodywork research. As a profession we will
be finding our comfort with this new enterprise. Where we have spent much time in the past
decade watching, hoping and praying, in the next decade we will learn how to take the reins
and see that our research agenda is being pursued.
The watchwords of courage, curiosity and collaboration apply to us as individual practitioners
as well. Demand of your continuing education providers they offer opportunities for you to
learn the research literacy skills that will be offered to the next decade's students in
their basic education. Read the literature, think about your own practice, the questions
that arise from it and might prompt a study. When you have an idea, be willing to reach
out to local resources. The college or hospital nearest you may well have folks with
research skills willing to collaborate with you on a study you can name, but can't design.
Let it be an exciting decade for you.
1 Eisenberg, D.M., and Davis, R.B., Ettner, S.L., Appel S., Wilkey S., Van Rompay M.,
Kessler R.C. "Trends in alternative medicine use in the United States, 1990-1997.
Results of a follow-up national survey." Journal of the American Medical Association
2 Cherkin D., et al. "Characteristics of visits to licensed acupuncturists, chiropractors,
massage therapists and naturopathic physicians." Journal of the American Board of Family
. November 2002.
As for education, the number of schools offering massage therapy training has accelerated
and there has been explosive growth in the rate of new students entering massage training.
There is more variety in the educational institutions that have either added massage to their
curriculum, or are start-ups in massage-related training. ABMP surveys indicate more than
1,500 state-approved schools provide massage and bodywork training today.
The massage school industry continues to grow and the pie is being divided into more pieces.
Massage training institutions, formerly the province of stand-alone massage-only proprietary
schools, are now facing increasing competition from career (vocational) schools, and public
community colleges and technical schools. Larger schools dominate the field — one fourth of
schools account for more than 70 percent of graduates. One problem schools are facing is an
insufficient number of qualified, experienced teachers to meet student demand.
Click here for more details from the ABMP 2004 survey of state-approved massage schools.
The State of Massage Education
By Shirley Vanderbilt, Staff Writer, Massage & Bodywork
First published in Massage & Bodywork
, October/November 2002.
Note: Much has happened since 2002 when the following was published in
Massage and Bodywork magazine. The number of schools offering massage therapy
training has accelerated at an even faster clip. One of the dramatic trends in the profession
is the explosive growth rate for new students entering massage-therapy training, and the
variety and number of educational institutions that have spruced up their offerings or
sprung up as independent schools to meet the demand. ABMP surveys indicate more than 1,500
state-approved schools provide massage and bodywork training today.
The massage school industry continues to grow and the pie is being divided into more pieces.
Massage training institutions, formerly the province of stand-alone massage-only proprietary
schools, are now facing increasing competition from career (vocational) schools, and public
community colleges and technical schools. Larger schools dominate the field — one fourth of
schools account for more than 70 percent of graduates. One problem schools are facing is an
insufficient number of qualified, experienced teachers to meet student demand.
(Click here for more details from the ABMP 2004 survey of state-approved massage schools.)
Before the age of structured classroom settings, national exams and governmental standards,
massage therapists learned their craft simply by apprenticing with a master. The healing arts
were handed down from mother to daughter, father to son, or elderly shaman to some younger,
tribal member possessing an extraordinary sensory perception or marked for training by
surviving a cataclysmic event, such as a lightning strike. Apprenticeship, in the ancient
way, was a lifetime commitment with the apprentice learning at his or her master's side for
many decades before taking on the title of healer.
The growing popularity of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in our stress-laden
society has heralded a concomitant growth in the number of massage schools — now more than
a thousand in the United States alone. These schools offer a wide variety of training, from
basic massage therapy to specialized modalities. Today, the opportunity to contribute to the
field is open to anyone willing to pay for classes, successfully complete the required hours
of training and hang out a shingle. For many, this will also include passing the National
Certification Exam (NCE) or some other exam to meet requirements of state regulations.
Is apprenticeship a lost art? Is our current 21st century approach turning out well-qualified
healers with the necessary hands-on experience? Does the structured classroom setting address
the great diversity in learning styles of students? Does our current training system place
more emphasis on passing the NCE than on preparation for actual practice? And, are students
being prepared psychologically to handle the emotional and practical demands of a business?
In an effort to take a closer look at the current state of massage and bodywork education,
these questions were posed to massage therapy experts across the country. The responses reflect,
in a sense, the struggle of an emerging profession to fine-tune its approach to an art that has
slowly made the transition from apprenticed entitlement to a legally sanctioned, legally
controlled occupation of modern commerce. How the industry has handled this transformation and
the proper future educational direction is the subject of much debate.
Dr. Keith Eric Grant, head of sports and deep tissue massage at McKinnon Institute in Oakland,
Calif., recently wrote a white paper titled: "A Review of Issues in Massage Governance." Grant's
doctorate in applied science, physics and mathematics combined with his massage-training background
has earned him respect not only as an authority in massage physiology, but also as a major voice in
massage politics and education. In his paper, Grant addresses a number of issues, among them current
and proposed educational requirements to practice massage therapy. He wrote: "Proposals for
regulation often contain entry criteria that are arbitrary in terms of educational basis and
public benefit — essentially a syndrome of requiring some number of 'round hours' without
basis of needed content or ultimate benefit to the consumer. These do not constitute
standards in that they neither set particular performance criteria for practice nor provide
a necessary and sufficient means by which criteria could be implemented and measured."
Of education itself, he wrote, "Much of what is considered to be improving the quality of massage
education flies contrary to recent concepts of optimum educational methods. Cognitive research
indicates that learning occurs most effectively in contexts of formal learning interspersed with
practical experience and in situations of apprenticeship and mentoring."
It was, in part, Grant's writings that inspired Massage & Bodywork
magazine to bring
this discussion to the forefront — to examine the way things are and to ask if we can open the
door for change where needed. This discussion will of necessity flow into issues of competency,
regulations and requirements, but its intended focus is more on the very nature of learning
itself. For Grant and others in the field, the present system doesn't exactly work for everyone,
especially those whose educational backgrounds or learning styles are not compatible with
empirical, textbook academics. Some students are adept at memorizing and spitting out answers
on a test, but does that knowledge transfer to the massage table, especially once they are out
practicing on their own? And what of the gifted massage student whose hands work like magic,
but whose brain virtually freezes when faced with questions on an exam? Who we are teaching and
how we are teaching is, in a sense, as vitally important as what we are teaching. As Grant noted
in his paper, "Foremost, we should remember that massage, like musicianship, is primarily a
kinesthetic skill coupled with supporting skills of communication, rapport building, observation
How We Teach, How We Learn
In February 2002, Massage Today
published results of a reader poll.
The question, "How would you rate the training you received in massage school?"
brought a response from 328 therapists. Nearly half (45.4 percent) rated their
education as poor, with another 9.8 percent rating it as fair. These numbers may or
may not be representative of those practicing massage across the country. And certainly
they would not apply to every school. But the question has been raised, "Are we
teaching students well?" Self-examination is not always easy, but it is often a
necessary step to growth.
"Within the academic setting," wrote Grant, "students can learn to be successful
with short-term memorization and use of 'right-answer' cues. In contrast, actual
practice requires very limited memorization of facts. The massage practitioner must
have the deeper understanding required to find information as needed and then to be
able to use it to make therapy decisions in the face of ambiguity. Research indicates
the environment that seems best able to foster the understanding leading to usability
has much in common with traditional apprenticeships. In the modern cognitive apprenticeship,
however, it is not just the tasks, but the thinking underlying them that must be made
'visible' and reflected upon. Such apprenticeships can be created within the context of
traditional schools. A modular, tiered program can move the student into early practice,
while providing resources for the ongoing training and dialogue that passes from
teacher/mentors to increasingly skillful practitioners. There should be a progression
of successively more difficult tasks within the conceptual scaffolding and coaching
provided by mentors. Testing should not be concerned with memorization and regurgitation
but with the student's ability, on being presented with relevant data, to choose among
conclusions that can be drawn from it. Within the profession of massage, it is time we base
our training requirements on 21st century insights into how people learn."
So we start with apprenticeship, a time-honored technique. Has this approach been lost in
the shuffle of massage curriculum? Rose A. Gowdey, an organizational consultant and former
director of Potomac Massage Training Institute in Washington, D.C., thinks not. "It looks
different," she said. "But in any schools that continue to do practical testing where the
students are working on instructors, I would call that apprenticeship, although it's not
exactly precisely so. With small (student to teacher) ratios, you're doing a variation on
apprenticeship. It begins to communicate what can be learned from a person when one is
standing next to each other, rather than one in front of the other," said Gowdey.
On the other hand, said Pat Benjamin, dean of the Chicago School of Massage Therapy in Illinois,
"It's not practical or desirable to go back to apprenticeship. There's something to be gained by
an institution that has a lot of people involved in it. In an apprenticeship, you are limited by
working with one person." Students get a broader view being exposed to a greater number of
teachers. If the class size is small enough, the student can get individual attention.
Benjamin said the predominance of schools versus apprenticeships has shifted. "Licensing has
had a big impact on that, but also the expectations of the general public about what massage
therapists should know. The public is more savvy about what a good massage is," she said.
Benjamin said the Chicago School has an externship program. Students get practical experience
through the in-house clinic where there is a small ratio of teachers to students, as well as
working in external massage therapy settings. "That's nearer an apprenticeship. By having a
more personal relationship, you do incorporate aspects of that in training."
Jack Brownfield agrees with the concept of more is better when it comes to numbers of
instructors. As director of education for integrative massage and deep tissue therapy
at the Atlanta School of Massage in Georgia, Brownfield is a supporter of having standards
for training. "The student doesn't necessarily know what is missing when working with one
person. That one teacher could have great skills or could be weak in some areas," he said
recently. By offering a variety of instructors, the school provides a collective experience
and creates a more well-rounded education. But, he added, "Apprenticeship is very much needed
after graduation." Borrowing from the fields of psychology and counseling, Brownfield advocates
a form of apprenticeship in the guise of supervision, whether individual or in a group. "It's an
idea that's getting established as the profession matures."
According to Deborra Clayton, administrator of the San Francisco School of Massage in
California, supervision can take the form of post-graduate coaching. "In every other
physical art, coaching is such an acceptable thing," she said. "Ball players and vocalists
wouldn't go without a coach, for instance. It's not about learning new things, but having
someone with mastery observing from the outside." Aside from her teaching role at the school,
Clayton offers private coaching services to former students. Within the school setting,
students are also afforded a type of informal apprenticeship if chosen by the faculty to
provide teaching assistance.
Whether we use the term apprenticeship, mentoring, or supervision, the concept of
"hands-on" experience guided by an expert is essential to massage therapy training.
How much of that experience students receive in their curriculum is determined by each
individual school. For some students, this is a critical matter. As a kinesthetic art,
massage naturally attracts many kinesthetic learners. So the question arises, are
students who would otherwise emerge as highly skilled therapists being weeded out by
massage school curriculum geared toward passing a national certifying exam?
Grant emphasized this issue: "There is every reason to expect that there will be those
who are highly competent in interpersonal and kinesthetic intelligences yet fare poorly
when forced unnecessarily into the verbal-linguistic paradigm of the academic world ...
In continuing to unnecessarily push massage entry requirements into areas of psychometric
testing and increased hours of book-based anatomical and physiological training to satisfy
a medical model of massage, we are likely doing untold harm to those who would otherwise be
highly competent practitioners from a more kinesthetic, experiential approach."
As an educator and researcher, Grant has done his homework on learning styles and the process
of learning, documenting information from such leaders in the field as Howard Gardner and Mel
Levine. Gardner's work points to "multiple intelligences," the brain-based differences in the
learning processes of individuals. Levine's nonprofit institute, All Kinds of Minds, provides
help to students, parents and educators in identifying, clarifying and working with these
differences in brain wiring and learning abilities. Levine's book, A Mind at a Time
outlines this approach and identifies the eight neurodevelopmental systems involved in
learning: attention control, memory, language, spatial ordering, sequential ordering,
motor, higher thinking and social thinking.1
For each individual learner, there may be
strengths or weaknesses in any of these areas, and yet our formal education system has
typically taken a "one size fits all" approach to classroom instruction.
Are massage schools addressing this great diversity of minds? Some schools are. At Lifestyles
Learning Center in Chicago, owner Dr. Jerry Blackburn has made a point of it. A self-taught
proponent of learning styles education, Blackburn has instituted a profiling process for his
students to determine their learning type. He then adapts the instructional approach to address
those differences. "I use it in application to myself more than anything else, techniques I
have tried that actually work. It's so simple. What it does for people who have been caught
in the educational problem of not being able to learn is to change their whole outlook on
While not all massage schools can claim this achievement, the idea of addressing
learning styles is rapidly gaining momentum in the industry. At Atlanta School of
Massage, a learning skills-style inventory is used to help students understand their
own learning style. "They can then take greater responsibility for their learning
within the classroom," said Brownfield. In fall 2002, the school was also planning
to implement a learning-styles inventory developed by Shelley Loewen called the
TIPP system. "It has to do with what the person values," said Brownfield, "not
only how they process information but also their character, how their personality
is structured. We want to see if that yields more information." The school's
instructors have also taken the inventory to gain understanding of their own learning
styles, which ultimately affects how they teach. Brownfield noted that as an auditory
learner tending toward verbal instruction, he also has to remember to add visual aids,
to round out his approach. He expressed excitement, not only about his own school's
forward movement, but that of others. "I've been going to (massage school) conferences
for five years. No matter how long the schools were open, all were very interested in
how to improve their schools — how they could teach better and how students could learn
better. I think the majority of schools have their hearts in the right place."
Ray Siderius, president of the Oregon School of Massage, offered his take on the current
state of massage education and his school's attempts for improvement. "What we found in
our program was that a portion of students, those younger and/or less experienced, need
more structure or guidance going through training — more focused integration. For example,
they can take 100+ hours of electives (in addition to basics) in their program. Some take
things that interest them and give them specific skills, but they may not be packaging their
skills appropriately. Some students need the pieces woven together. Part of that is personal
growth and maturity, as in any group. Has he or she been in an environment where they've had
experiences developing their learning skills? Do they know their own emotional state and
tensions? Maybe they can learn and not have a sense of how they've learned.
"For those of us involved in it," he asked, "are we interested in education on enough levels
to recognize the diversity of cultures we work with and deal with that effectively so we can
support the learning and development of our students? There are some people who work better
under the apprenticeship system, who are not as adept at negotiating more formal education
requirements. That's something those of us in the profession need to pay more attention to."
These school leaders recognize the diversity of ways that individual students learn most
effectively and are trying conscientiously to tailor educational programs to reflect this
diversity. Unfortunately, not all massage schools are so thoughtful. Too many do adopt a
"one size fits all" stance, pushing students through a standardized experience, focusing
laser-like on the book knowledge which must be mastered to pass the National Certification Exam.
Few school directors seem willing to challenge "the system," to ask whether our gatekeeping
criteria for entry into the profession focus on the right skills and qualities. If we did,
Grant would say that NCBTMB job surveys would uncover success characteristics that more
effectively get at kinesthetic, observation, communication and entrepreneurial dimensions
involved in establishing a practice and serving clients. And more school programs would
effectively accommodate and support individuals gifted at touch but less comfortable with
book-learning and test-taking.
Beyond the Academics
"I tell my students there are two kinds of massage therapists: those with clients and
those without clients," said Dennis Simpson of the Colorado School of Healing Arts in
Lakewood, Colo. "My question is, what makes those with clients successful? Is it the
quality of education? Is it the quality of their touch? Or is it a genuine understanding,
sensitivity and insight into the human condition?"
Learning to successfully apply touch for healing, and then marketing that skill goes
far beyond the textbooks and classroom lectures, and even beyond the hands-on practical
experience. Becoming psychologically prepared and business-savvy to practice on one's own
is an issue affecting many students. Are schools doing a good job with this as well?
"I see a tremendous lack of attention to the teaching of business basics for massage
therapy practice," said Blackburn, who has a marketing background. He teaches 70 hours
in business and business practice plans. "I don't know any others offering so many
hours. There's far too little literature and it doesn't really address the client and
therapist relationship and how it's used for business." Knowing how to present oneself
when the client comes through the door is important, not in a mercenary way, he noted,
but in the sense of expressing pure intent to help the client.
Siderius sees variations throughout the country, depending on whether therapists
gravitate toward working as an employee or establish self-employment. "There's a
world of difference in being successful along those two paths," he said. "As a
school leader, I think we need to evolve our ability to assess needs a little more.
It has started to happen here. There's a lot of overlap, but also an additional
different set of skills needed by someone with a free-standing massage practice."
Gowdey also noted a variation among schools in addressing psychological and business issues.
"There are some that have it down pat and others are still building it. I see the
membership associations beginning to do some work in that area."
While some schools consider psychological issues to be a built-in part of curriculum,
others deal with issues as they arise, without a systematic approach.
Despite the massage schools' best intentions, not all newly created therapists will
survive the rigors of the real world. "People don't realize the work that lies behind
or between the sessions," says Grant. "You have to be willing to get out there and
market yourself, have self-confidence and self-esteem, and be willing to ask for advice."
There's also the need for outside social interaction and non-professional relationships.
"How to develop that should be touched on in schools."
Serving and Being Served
Grant points out that the question remains as to who is being served in our current
educational approach. The verbal/linguistic ability to memorize information and recognize
answers on a test, said Grant, "is a separate set of skills from being able to organize
that information, use it in actual practice and be able to apply kinesthetic and interpersonal
skills. So I think that hurdle tends to eliminate people who could be competent practitioners."
What he terms the "gentrification" of massage closes the door to some. "It's almost an issue of
white collar versus blue collar, making it white collar academics, while the public just wants
In his white paper, Grant wrote, "In insisting on long monolithic school-based programs,
we are ignoring the opportunities to use massage for community outreach and self-help."
He envisions a system in which the door to massage would be open to the economically
depressed or disadvantaged. "There are people who don't work well with higher education,
but can learn experientially to provide touch," he said during an interview, referring to
a program now being offered through McKinnon Institute's Touch Health Association. As a
community service agency, the association has established a new infant massage program,
based on the successes of the Touch Research Institute in Miami in working with low-income
and high-risk mothers. Through this introduction to massage, it is hoped some of these women
will want to continue their study through McKinnon scholarships and be placed in nonprofit
organizations to provide services to those who otherwise could not access massage treatment.
The concept not only addresses those who are currently deprived of massage for financial
reasons, but also conquers the financial blocks for those who show potential as healers. As
Grant noted, this approach could have significant impact on our current family problems with
violence and inability to nurture.
In reviewing this article, Massage & Bodywork
publisher Bob Benson notes that,
"Most of the school leaders interviewed who see the value of internships view those as
logically being capstone experiences — either the final part of school curriculum or a
post-graduation experience. Perhaps the profession might benefit from a bit more openness
to Gardner's and Levine's insights and to potential value from providing an internship
experience perhaps half or two-thirds of the way through a structured program."
Agree to Disagree and Move On
In the final analysis, the experts all agree that cooperation is needed in determining
he future of massage education and regulation. "I feel a real strong need," said Blackburn,
"for associations to put their differences aside and start working on a national direction
and policies so we can go forward with leadership that will take our profession in a direction
that will include everybody from all types of disciplines, and not exclude anybody because
of point of view."
Simpson said a colleague once told him at a convention that getting massage
therapists together is like trying to herd cats. It made him laugh, but he also
wondered if there might be some truth to the statement. He pointed to the many
opinions on issues that face the profession. "None of the people I spoke with like
the suggestive ads — that's something we all agree on." But when it comes to all the
other issues, there are disagreements. "I always start out by asking: what's broke
that we're trying to fix? I sincerely hope the profession moves forward in a positive
manner," he said.
While speaking to national assessments and how the industry is approaching education,
Grant brought up the old story of the man who was looking for his keys under the lightpost.
That wasn't where he lost them, but the light was better there. Are we searching for answers
in well-lit, familiar places while solutions are to be found by probing the dark unknown?
The future of massage therapy education, as well as the industry itself, will be determined
by the willingness of all participants to embrace self-examination and sound debate, and
then to move forward with positive change.
1 Levine, Mel. "Eight Systems." Library Excerpts: A Mind at a Time
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