Hands-on Health Professionals Massage Therapy: A Rewarding Career At One’s Fingertips

Bernadette Della Bitta Nicholson says that, as a profession, massage therapy is in what she would call its “adolescence.”
The art of massage has been around about as long as mankind, she told The Healthcare News, but the notion of making a career out of the trade is a fairly recent phenomenon.

How quickly this profession reaches adulthood — and what that stage of life will be like — depends largely on how well massage is embraced by the public, the medical community, and the insurance companies that pay the bills, said Della Bitta Nicholson, assistant professor and chair of the Massage Therapy program in the School of Health Sciences at Springfield Technical Community Col-lege.

She said that at present, maybe one person in five gets a massage on anything approaching a regular basis. That number has been increasing steadily, but 80{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of the population remains to be sold on the concept. Meanwhile, some in the medical community remain skeptical about the value of massage as an effective form of alternative medicine, and most insurance companies will not pay for such therapy except in cases related to rehabilitation from injury.

But there has been marked progress on all three of these fronts that comprise the future of massage therapy, said Della Bitta Nicholson, enough to create solid opportunities for those who have graduated from STCC’s five-year-old program — the only degree program of its type in the Springfield area — and enough to prompt more people to enroll at the school over the past few years.

Indeed, while the public’s perception of massage is changing — in part because of the growing number of trained, certified individuals in the field — the medical community is also becoming more aware of its many benefits. Hospitals are bringing massage therapists on staff, said Della Bitta Nicholson, and wellness centers are incorporating massage among a number of therapies for the healing of patients.

Locally, massage students at STCC will soon be working in the Pain Management Center at Baystate Medical Center, using the art (and science) to help bring relief to patients, she said, adding that the collaboration is another example of the growing acceptance of massage.

Meanwhile, according to the American Massage Therapy Assoc. (AMTA), a recent study conducted by the State University of New York at Syracuse revealed that 54{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of primary care physicians and family practitioners said they would encourage their patients to pursue massage therapy as a treatment. Of those, 34{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} said they are willing to refer the patient to a massage therapist.

All this bodes well for the profession, said Angelle Aldridge, a 2001 graduate of the STCC program who now has her own practice — the Chicopee-based Wellness Massage Center — and teaches massage at the school part-time. “There are a growing number of opportunities for people in massage,” she said, “and there will only be more in the future as it gains more acceptance with doctors and insurance companies.”

The Healthcare News looks this month at the profession of massage therapist, and how talented individuals may have a rewarding career at their fingertips — literally.

Body of Evidence

Della Bitta Nicholson said the image of massage that many people still cling to is that of James Bond getting his shoulders rubbed while completing a mission at a resort in the Bahamas. What those in the profession want people to think about is wellness — both mental and physical, she said, adding that massage is often preventative in nature, and can do much more than relax an individual after a tough day at the office or gym.

Indeed, massage has become a very effective weapon in the war against stress, she explained, which has become a formidable enemy at a time when many people are working too much and struggling in their efforts to balance work and family.

“We all live under a high level of stress, so our sympathetic nervous system is overactive in our society … we put out a lot of stress hormones,” she said. “This shows up in diseases of stress — heart diseases, cancer, digestive disorders, high blood pressure, and others.

“Massage counteracts that by bringing out the relaxation response,” she continued. “This enhances the parasympathetic nervous function, so that the body can balance itself and go into a more healing mode.”

Saying this and convincing the public of it are two different things, she said, noting that there is an emphasis in the world of massage on research to validate such claims. “We want to prove what human beings have known forever — that massage heals.”

There are already millions of believers, however, and the growing acceptance of massage has spawned the establishment of more educational programs in the art, said Della Bitta Nicholson, who left the field of nutrition counseling to pursue a career in massage in the late ’80s, when the art was in what she called a “renaissance.”

She attended the Bancroft School of Massage Therapy in Worcester, and eventually established her own practice. She heard in late 1997 that STCC was creating a degree program in massage, and saw an opportunity there to blend her passion for massage with her interest in academia.

The two-year program at STCC, which was approved by the state Board of Education and opened to students in the fall of 1998, differs from the many concentrated massage programs offered at specialty schools such as Bancroft and the Massage Therapy Institute in Boston in that the course of study is longer and broader, said Della Bitta Nicholson.

She told The Healthcare News that STCC’s program involves students in a general health sciences curriculum that provides insight into other forms of alternative medicine, such as acupuncture and herbal therapies. The program also gives students real-world experience at an on-campus clinic that is open to the public two days a week during the fall and spring semesters; the clinic’s phone number is (413) 755-4844.

The STCC program currently graduates between 15 and 20 people each year, said Della Bitta Nicholson, and nearly all of them have jobs upon graduation.
Working Out the Kinks

Indeed, graduates of the program are finding opportunities in a number of settings, she told The Healthcare News. Some opt for private practice, as Aldridge did, while others are working in hospitals, chiropractic offices, wellness centers, nursing homes, beauty and hair salons, day spas, and cruise ships.

And the future of the profession appears exceedingly bright, she said, referring to the 80{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of Americans who report that they do not get massages on a regular basis. “The potential in this industry is enormous; as research verifies what people have been saying about massage and as more people experience it, the market is only going to grow.”

She said the STCC massage therapy program is attracting a diverse mix of students, although the vast majority of those entering the field are women. Some in the program are young, in some cases right out of high school, she explained, but most are older, non-traditional students who are changing careers.

Many who have enrolled in the program recently have backgrounds in health care, she said, adding that there are some former nurses, occupational therapists, and physical therapists that have been drawn into the massage therapy field.

And still others come from fields outside health care, she said, adding that some have entered the field because they have seen the benefits of massage firsthand or have become aware of its many professional opportunities.

Such was the case with Aldridge, who was working in restaurant management when she had an automobile accident that left her in chronic pain that required regular sessions of massage therapy. She became a believer in the holistic qualities of massage, and eventually decided to make it a career.

“As part of my rehabilitation from the accident, I was getting massage therapy on a regular basis for shoulder pain and numbness,” she said. “The therapist did amazing things to get me up and going.”

She said she chose STCC for a number of reasons, including location and cost, but mostly because of the broad nature of the academic program. She opened her practice, located in a chiropractor’s office, soon after graduation, and now sees about 20 to 25 patients a week.

Maryann Maurer, 20, is one of the younger students in the massage therapy program. She chose to attend STCC after high school and, after her first year, transferred into massage therapy because her research into various careers convinced that this one had potential.

“There are a lot of opportunities in this field … you can work in spas, chiropractic offices, doctors’ offices, hospitals — there are lots of options,” she said. “And massage therapy is getting more popular every year, and that’s going to create more demand for what we do.”

Both Aldridge and Maurer said that what they like most about massage is the opportunity to bring relief to people who are in real pain.

“I like the aspect that you’re helping people and can effect positive change in their lives,” said Aldridge. “You can see that what you’re doing is making a difference, and that’s important.”

Touching Sentiments

Aldrige told The Healthcare News that massage therapy has become a rewarding career for her — and she wasn’t talking about the money, although her practice is fairly lucrative. “The real rewards are the comments from clients … they tell me how massage has made their lives better,” she said. “It’s feedback like that that makes you want to stay in the field.”

If more people could understand the many benefits of massage — and appreciate how it can make their lives better — then this profession would move out of adolescence and into adulthood much sooner.

As Della Bitta Nicholson told The Healthcare News, “if everyone got a massage once a week, the world would be a much better place.”