One of the fascinating things about being a massage therapist is that it’s a health career with so many diverse avenues you can get into. Today’s guest is Whitney Lowe, the Director at the Academy of Clinical Massage, who has been a massage therapist for over 33 years. In this episode, Whitney joins Richard Marn, MD, in a discussion about what it’s like to have massage therapy as a profession. There’ll be discussions regarding the certification and licensing processes and the many misconceptions due to the media’s inaccurate portrayal of massage therapists. Join in the conversation and learn how you can educate yourself as a massage therapist, how licensing varies across states, and why massage therapists don’t want to be referred to as a masseuse.
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What You Need To Know If You Want To Be A Massage Therapist With Whitney Lowe
This is going to be an awesome episode for you to read. We’re going to talk with a healthcare professional who you may not think of as being in the healthcare profession. We’re going to learn how this profession is very useful. It can have a profound impact on patients, sometimes quite immediately. They work with other healthcare professionals such as orthopedic doctors, rehab doctors and physical therapists. We’re going to learn about what it’s like to be a massage therapist. That’s the career we’re going to be talking about, a massage therapist. The person that I’m going to talk to is Mr. Whitney Lowe.
Mr. Whitney Lowe is an educator in health therapy. He used to be a clinician doing a lot of it intensely and heavily. He sent transitioned more into the educational aspect of educating massage therapists. He’s very involved in this profession. He’s created a wonderful website educating massage therapists or someone considering to be a massage therapist. There’s a lot of valuable information on his website but also he has a podcast and forums. He’s been involved in a lot of the certification process and the licensing process of this profession. He’s trying to elevate the standard of this profession and he’s been trying to do that for a number of years. He has a real in-depth understanding and perspective that maybe other massage therapists don’t have.Hands-on care is something that people are craving tremendously. Click To Tweet
We’re also going to learn a little bit about misconceptions people have about massage therapists. Even I was educated that a lot massage therapists don’t like the words masseuse and masseur and we’ll learn a little bit why. If you liked this episode or even other episodes, I encourage you to please check out my website, and give me a five-star rating if you think it’s worth it. If you have any comments that could be helpful then send me an email through my website or drop a few comments in the blog site. That’d be very helpful to help bring attention to this show and this episode to other readers that might be looking for this information. I’m looking forward to your help there but without further ado, let’s jump into this episode.
I’d like to welcome you to another great episode. I have Mr. Whitney Lowe, a massage therapist all the way from Oregon. Thanks for joining me, Whitney.
It’s good to be with you. Thank you very much for the invitation.
Let’s dive right into it. Can you give us a short bio of yourself?
I am a massage therapist and predominantly a massage therapy educator. I’ve been doing a lot of work in the teaching realm. I’ve been a massage therapist since 1988. I’ve been involved with the field quite a good bit. I was studying psychology in graduate school and got interested in some of the mind–body connections. That’s how I got involved with massage therapy. I went to a massage therapy school. I got trained in Atlanta, Georgia. I went through a number of other training programs and things there in the massage world.
I went back to graduate school one more time for a Master’s degree in Sports Medicine and Biomechanics. I interrupted that graduate degree to take another opportunity that I had in the massage world that I was unable to pass it up. It was too good of an educational opportunity. I’ve been a perpetual student in and out of places for a long time. I moved out to Oregon in the mid-’90s, written a couple of textbooks and have been involved with both seminars and training programs around the country in online education for a good number of years. A number of different pieces of the pie that I’ve had my fingers in the massage therapy world.
We’re going to jump into a few quick-hit questions here to give us a real taste of your profession. Massage therapists, what do they do in healthcare exactly?
One of the most fascinating things about the world of massage therapy is there are so many diverse avenues for people to get into. It runs the gamut from people doing palliative care with geriatric patients or working in hospitals with cancer patients to the very common group of people that are working with all musculoskeletal pain and injury problems. Maybe they’re working in chiropractor’s offices, physical therapy offices, in conjunction with other health professionals or many of them working independently in their own clinics or other types of places. There are a lot of different avenues. There are massage therapists working and traveling with sports teams or dance troupes. There’s a tremendous number of a variety of situations massage therapists may find themselves in.
We’re going to dive into that. What are the usual steps to achieve the professional certification of a massage therapist?
The big thing is that massage therapy training requirements vary significantly and I’ll speak mostly to the United States because that’s what I’m familiar with but it also differs quite a good bit around the world. Here in the United States, training varies by state. There are credentials that are statewide. We still have a few states that don’t have licensure for massage therapists. We’re about 4 or 5 of them that still don’t have licensure for massage therapists but most of the states have training programs that run somewhere between about 500 to 600 hours up until maybe 1,000 hours or so on some of the other programs and a couple of different states have requirements that are high. That’s about the average and those are clock hours of training. That divides up into various different ways by months or how the programs are set up.
What is the best part of your career?
I would have to say without qualification, the best part of this profession or this career is the capability to walk into a room with somebody and interact with them and change their life by nothing more than what you do with your hands and your interaction with them. I’ve had many instances where people were taken out of very significant long-term pain problems or felt like what you did with connecting and working with them with hands-on care is something that people are craving tremendously. It’s rewarding to be able to be a part of that process with people.
Is there a least favorite part of your career?
The least favorite part perhaps is the physical demands. Massage therapy is a very physically demanding thing and it can get lonely for people as well. You are sometimes seeing 4 or 5 people a day maybe for an average practitioner. Some people will see more if they’re working on shorter duration sessions but you’re in a room with those individuals by yourself and oftentimes quite isolated from people. That can get to be hard sometimes after a while.
I’ll dive into some meatier questions if you will. Some of what you refer to as the credentialing aspect of being a physical therapist. There’s both licensing and credentialing. It varies by state. If someone is interested in this career, what do they have to do to learn about that? I’m in Georgia, do they look up how to become a massage therapist? Is there a credentialing body that helps steer people in the right direction to make sure they get the right credentials and licensing?
We’re coming out of a Wild West situation in massage therapy education in our country. To give you some perspective about this. When I went to school for massage therapy in the late ‘80s, there was somewhere around the neighborhood of 50 massage therapy schools in the country. By 2005, there were over 1,500. Now, the big part of that is we didn’t have enough qualified faculty to staff all of those massage therapy schools. Unfortunately, we see a lot of decline in the quality of what’s happening in massage therapy training because of the number of training programs that are out there. Finding a good training program is important. Each state has a state that has licensure for a massage therapist, has a licensing board but that’s not going to be the best place to identify where to get good training. The best way is to ask around for people who are already in the profession. “Where did you do your schooling? What was your experience of that school and why?” Ask around on social media, there are a number of massage therapy forums. Ask what people felt like in terms of the quality of training of their different programs. You can get a good sense of the very wide variety that is out there.
Massage therapists are everywhere. They’re in airports or shopping centers. They could be having their own private office or they’re an affiliate with medical practices. The question is, if you have an interest in the field, how do you separate yourself from these other massage therapists that we’re not even sure if they are massage therapists?
This is a big challenge that we’ve had throughout our profession. When I got into this in the late ‘80s and this is still a problem is changing the public’s perception about what massage is about. From detrimental associations with sex workers over the decades prior to that and lingering perceptions with terms like massage parlor and things like that, which doesn’t give a sense of working in a healthcare arena. Even the term masseuse has been considered a denigrating term. It has some other historical contexts. If you’re talking to somebody who does massage therapy for a career, they probably don’t want to be referred to as a masseuse.Massage therapists are spinning almost exclusively in terms of what they do with their treatment. Click To Tweet
The other thing people don’t realize is it’s a gender–specific term so I will not be a masseuse. God would have been a masseur in the earlier way in which those terms were used. We tend to prefer the use of that term but here’s the other dilemma. Massage therapy as a profession is a split personality. We have the one aspect of this profession that focuses more on what we like to refer to as maybe a wellness model or a personal wellbeing model. This is massage therapy performed at spas, cruise ships, resorts, hotels and private practice for, “I want to go to feel good. I want to relax and de-stress.” There is a massage therapy that is done in more of a medical context to address what we say may be compromised health conditions. This is a massage for cancer patients, in a hospice, for sports injuries, dealing with athletic teams or physical therapy clinics for chiropractic patients. The distinction is a big problem. We don’t have a good way to make a strong distinction because there is no national credential that distinguishes those two very divergent training tracks. One of the things that we’re working on a great deal is to try to see if we can find some way to do that better.
If someone wants to be a massage therapist, do they need a high school degree?
Generally, most schools will require a high school diploma as a basic entry-level requirement. A high school diploma, GED or something like that as is almost always a requirement.
You don’t even need to go to college or community college at all?
You don’t need to go to college. It’s considered more like a trader vocational school which is great in terms of ease of entry into the profession, meaning you can get into the profession with a relatively low barrier or low bar. The flip side of that is when you come out, you have the capability to see anybody that you want to. They can make an appointment walking off the street and see you. When we say you can enter school with just a GED or a diploma, you can have an 18 or 19-year-old kid being a direct access healthcare provider with inadequate training to be in that role. In our profession, continuing professional education or coursework becomes a crucial aspect of the professional development of those people who are going to work in a more medical or healthcare–oriented environment.
After finishing the 500-plus hours to get credentialing and licensed, are there programs that people can go into like residency to get that training?
Most of that training comes in the form of weekend workshops, traveling teachers who travel around the country who’ve developed reputations or have built programs. There aren’t many long-term programs where students would go back to school, for example, or do something in a more supervised capacity like a residency. Most of that training comes in the form of continuing education or professional development courses that are done in a series of maybe weekend or 4 or 5-day crash course, the way I look at it. Having focused and learned a lot about education, I do recognize that there are some serious limitations to that model of learning because it forces you to try to cram a whole bunch of stuff in a very short period of time. Lots of times you don’t come away with anywhere near what you need to from those educational experiences.
It sounds like the profession is very fractured a little bit. It’s not centralized that a lot of people are doing this on their own. There’s a lot of isolation in terms of even just educating themselves and not a sense of comradery doing this together, “Let’s get this done as an organization.”
The other thing is that for individuals that decide they want to pursue more serious education, you’re left on your own to design your curriculum and determine, what do I need to learn? It’s liberating to a certain degree because it allows you some freedom to explore the things that you’re interested in. It’s also detrimental because there isn’t as much guidance to tell you, “You may not be that excited about this but you need to learn this stuff. These are the things that are important about being a healthcare professional,” for example. You’re like, “I don’t think anybody who gets up in the morning is excited to go to learn the HIPAA course,” but it’s important that people understand those things.
Let’s pull back a little bit about the licensing, credentialing. In terms of the work, what does a massage therapist typically do after completing the training? Are you working with the actual patients?
This is very dependent on the environment that you end up working in but for the majority of them, they will probably see people somewhere around an hour–long appointment time each day. That may depend on where they’re working. For example, I worked in a physical therapy clinic where it was very busy and we were seeing patients on the half–hour so it was a quick turnaround. I was not working at all in the way in which I was trained because the way I was trained to do massages, we spend an hour with people with this long and relaxing environment. This physical therapy clinic was a different structure and setting. What that did is it forced me to learn how to accomplish things in a relatively short period of time. Most of the time, that’s the setting where people will be doing one-on-one individually with people trying to be in an environment that is conducive to relaxation. Soft music, dim lighting, pleasant smells, quiet room, all those things that help settle the nervous system down but also were a significant part of having a great massage and relaxation experience.
What is a day like for a typical massage therapist?
It’s so difficult to talk about the typical massage therapist because there are many different avenues. As a general guideline, most massage therapists in a general workday would be seeing somewhere between maybe 4 to 7 people a day for a full hour–long session. Here’s one of the things, there’s a lot of people who work in our profession part-time, meaning they’re not doing this all day long, every day, five days a week. One of the reasons is it’s very physically demanding. People don’t realize how much this takes a toll on your body doing this physical work especially your hands, upper extremity, fingers, thumbs, elbows and everything. It does take quite a toll. It’s physically demanding work but most people who are working close to full-time will see somewhere between 4 to 7 or 8 people a day. A lot of people like to come in for their session late in the day or maybe even weekends. You might end up working non-typical hours sometimes especially when you’re getting started and trying to build up a clientele. You’re trying to fit into other people’s schedules.
Since it’s so physically demanding, I would presume over time people pull back from being full-time. They start doing part-time work or doing something else. What are some other things massage therapists can do besides doing directly hands-on work?
A lot of people do have changed the way they work. Also, they can cut down on the physical demands. For example, maybe you were trained to do a lot of work with your thumbs and that has caused you to have a lot of wrist and hand pain in your thumbs. People will change the type of work they do and still be very effective. They’re doing lighter work and using more broad contacts with their palm and the whole base of their hand, forearms, elbows or things like that. They’ll use massage tools. Oftentimes, things can also get beneficial results without having to put so much stress on their individual joints. That’s one thing that people can do.
Another thing is there are a lot of other avenues that people may venture into doing stretching–type work and movement–oriented things. There’s a lot of crossover with yoga, Feldenkrais, Trager practitioners, and people who are doing other types of body movement therapies. For example, I got very interested early on in education and going back into teaching. There are a lot of people who go back and spend part of their time in the clinic and part-time teaching doing things to help share things with other practitioners. There are a good number of other avenues for people to pursue.
A massage therapist has a lot of similarities with a physical therapist. How do you separate the two? They are very different professions. In your words, how do you see them as different or complementary?
First of all, they’re very complementary with each other. I’ve worked in a number of physical therapy clinics over the years and we found a lot of great success with the patients that we were working with doing things together with the physical therapist, focusing a lot on education, movement, and rehabilitative exercise. The massage therapist is focusing predominantly on the experience of decreasing musculoskeletal pain and discomfort from soft tissue manipulation for a long period of time.
Most physical therapists don’t do that much hands–on soft tissue work with each individual patient because they’re usually seeing a lot more people for a shorter duration of time and they’re supervising exercise. Massage therapists are spinning almost exclusively in terms of what they do with their treatment. It’s all about working with manipulating soft tissue with each individual and enhancing that experience that people are having during that long period of time that they’re with them.
I know you do more educational work than direct hands-on. Is there a particular case that you remember that stood out or stands out to you when you were doing massage therapy on a patient?Our job as a profession is to start encouraging people to learn more about what massage therapists do. Click To Tweet
There have been quite a number of them that have happened over the years that were very impactful for me not only for recognizing what massage therapy can do but also for connecting with people in a fascinating way. One that comes to mind is I had a person that I was working with and this was all probably relatively soon into my career. It was back sometime around the late 1980s. She had been in an automobile accident and they were in a pickup truck that was carrying some large drums of battery acid or some caustic acid. They had an accident and the acid spilled on her. It caused severe skin injuries and serious nerve pain from the injury over time.
She had been to multiple practitioners and trying to find some soothing thing that would help her and nothing had been beneficial with her. She came in and somebody had referred her to trauma massage. Oftentimes you’re in these situations like, “I don’t know what to do here. I didn’t learn about how to treat a battery acid-injured person when I was in massage school.” You have to use that clinical reasoning of thinking like, “What would be physiologically appropriate to do with them?” I’m not going to work on this area of skin, which is hypersensitive but I can recognize that there is value for settling down her whole nervous system experience through what we can do with massage. I did some soothing types of massage things with her throughout the rest of her body.
She got off the massage table after that first session just crying. I’m like, “What did I do to you?” She goes, “I‘ve never had this sensation of relief that you gave me. This has been such a miracle for me.” Recognizing at that point the incredible power of what that directed therapeutic intervention can do with somebody with that hands-on care made me recognize that there’s a lot more going on here than I realized at first.
What are some of the misconceptions people have of massage therapists?
The biggest one is how massage therapy is portrayed in the media. Those of us in the profession groan every time we see these pictures of the very attractive white woman laying on a massage table with her head turned to the side, hot stones on her, a beach in the background and flowers maybe draped on or something like that. That’s not how it works and that’s rarely ever you in that situation with somebody doing things. There are a lot of misperceptions about massage and it’s treated pretty poorly in television images and references to what massage therapy is and does. I’ve seen some poor depictions of what we do. That bothers us the fact that’s the perception of what’s out there.
That’s our job as a profession is to start encouraging people to learn more about what we do. That’s the hard thing about it too because what we do happens behind closed doors. You don’t see a lot of the real massage therapy things happening in a therapeutic environment where you’d often see other kinds of treatments being done by other health professionals. This is an interesting story. I remember when I worked at an orthopedic clinic with Emory University back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, this was unique the fact that they brought in a massage therapist to work in this brand new, state-of-the-art orthopedic clinic. At the outset, there was a lot of hesitancy amongst a lot of the staff members there about, “What is this massage behind doing here and everything?”
They put me in this room at the very far back into the hall and I went and talked to him. I said, “Can we do something different in this room like not have the bright fluorescent lights on? I wanted to try to create a conducive relaxing environment.” They sent people to me. First, it started as people couldn’t figure out what to do, “Send them to the massage guy.” It’s like the wastebasket of everything. They couldn’t figure out what to do with it. A lot of those people started getting better and coming out. They see them walk out of the room with this look on their face like, “This is good. I feel wonderful.” There was a lot of curiosity that started like, “What are you doing in there? What’s happening in there?” That was wonderful because what it did is it opened up the opportunity for us to begin communicating more with each other.
What we did over the years, we developed a wonderful collegial relationship where I talked to them about what I was doing with massage, with seeing their patients and how this would benefit them or whatever. The flip side of that is I’m sure it was pretty annoying because I would follow them around everywhere when I didn’t have patients in the clinic and watch what they were doing. “Why are you doing this?” Trying to learn what they were doing in the rehab process and how massage might coordinate with this. We developed a good sense of recognizing when would be the benefits of this particular approach. Also, in times a lot of the limitations when it wasn’t going to work because it’s important to recognize it doesn’t always work with everybody like nothing does. It works all the time.
What do you think the future is like for your profession? I know you’re very much in education. You’re involved in a lot of committees and national organizations. What is your view in the next few years of where your profession is headed? Not necessarily your career but the profession itself.
It’s a very exciting time for us in massage therapy. In that, there is greater recognition of the value of massage especially in the healthcare arena and a greater degree of acceptance. We’ve moved out of this sense of having to try to explain that we’re not sex workers to people. We don’t have to do that much anymore because there’s so much written about the positive benefits of massage therapy. We’re in a place of recognizing there’s a lot of value in what we do and we can be complementary partners in a healthcare team. This is an exciting time to see the potential growth of our profession. It’s also going to be a painful time for our profession because growing pains are challenging and there is going to become a point.
We’ve been moving toward this for a number of decades, but we’re still a little bit away from that. We are going to have to make some divisions or distinctions about training requirements that are going to be much more stringent for certain people entering this that want to work in the healthcare arena than people who want to work in the more wellness or personal care models of massage. In general, if you look at the adoption of massage, the number of people who are getting massages, who were exposed to it, who learned about it or curious about it, those numbers are increasing very significantly. It’s a good time for growth and the outlook of what’s happening in the profession.
What students do you think the best flourish in this type of career?
This is a challenging one but the people who do best are people who are okay being working alone by themselves and not having to have a lot of social interaction with a lot of other people. Some people thrive off that workplace relationship with a lot of other coworkers because massage therapy can be lonely sometimes. You’re being quiet in this room with a few individuals for your day. It can be a little bit challenging for some people. The other thing is that those people who are most successful in this field are those I’ve seen generally who have some type of entrepreneurial or individual business mindset about creating their own success.
We’re not yet at the point where there are a lot of jobs that massage therapists would go sign up for a job and move their way up through a ladder of success and improvement in those different positions. There’s an increasing number of employment opportunities for massage therapists in some of these locations. Still, the people who tend to be most successful that I’ve seen throughout our field are those individuals who are self-directed and driven to accomplish more on their own as well.
I want to present some rapid–fire questions to learn a little bit more about you if you don’t mind. Cats or dogs?
Dogs. I love cats, we have two of each but I’m a dog guy.
Beaches or snow?
Snow. My wife is from Alaska and we live out in Oregon now, and we have gotten enamored with the North country and the snow. Snow but I still love the beach.
Favorite type of movies or TV shows to watch?
Drama and adventure things where I get wrapped up in a story and lose the time. Those movies and TV, those things.
Favorite place you have ever visited?
Alaska, without question. I lived there. It’s a phenomenal place.
A place you most want to travel to that you haven’t visited yet.
Tibet, I’m fascinated with things there. I’ve always thought I would love to see that someday. I don’t know if I will ever get there but I’ve always had a fascination with wanting to see that at some point.
Was there a chore you hated doing as a child?
Yes. Cleaning the kitchen and doing the dishes. Emptying the dishwasher and I hated putting the dishes in there and cleaning the kitchen but I had to do that every day.
If you could only keep three possessions, what would they be?
They’re probably going to be musical instruments for most but the guitar. My father is a guitar maker and a violin maker. The guitar my dad made for me would certainly be one of them. I hate to say this but the reality is my computer. I can’t live without it. For the third one, I’d have to say I’d have to pick one of my animals or something. They’re not possessions, they’re family.
It depends on how you look at it.
I’d say maybe some other pieces of artwork that I have here in terms of possessions. That’s a hard one. I had to think about that because we live in a very rural area and we had a bad forest fire come near our house a number of years ago and we had to evacuate. I did have to throw a bunch of stuff in the car and haul ass, get out of there. I have to get that stuff set up somewhere.
What’s something you could eat straight for a week?
Pasta, just simply buttered noodles with sour cream on them and a grapefruit.
Grapefruit, that’s an interesting combination.
Two more questions. If you had to live in a different state, what would it be?
Alaska, I’d say that again.
If you could start your career over, what would you do differently? Although I think you answered that.
Here’s what I would do. I would finish my Master’s degree in Sports Medicine and Biomechanics. That would have opened up and would potentially still open up other doors to things especially in academia where I’ve drifted to be very interested. My lack of having completed a graduate degree has been an impairment in a certain number of places in my profession. It’s finishing one of those degrees.
Whitney, this has been a great episode. I appreciate you coming on. I learned a lot.
Thank you so much for having me.
Thank you so much for sharing. I want to talk about this briefly because you are an educator. You’ve educated a lot of massage therapists. I found you because of your website and the courses you’re providing. Where can readers go to learn more about you and find out more about what you’re doing?
They can check things out at my website, the AcademyOfClinicalMassage.com. I have a colleague that we have a podcast together. They may also be curious and listen to that. If you want to learn a little bit more about what we explore in the massage world, that’s called The Thinking Practitioner. Those are the two places that people can find me. Email me. You can get links to email me there. It’s at Whitney@AcademyOfClinicalMassage.com.
Whitney, thank you so much. I’m glad you joined us.
- The Thinking Practitioner
- Academy of Clinical Massage
- Academy of Clinical Massage – Facebook
- Whitney Lowe – Twitter
About Whitney Lowe
Whitney Lowe is a recognized authority on pain and injury treatment with massage therapy. His contributions to the massage field are wide-ranging and include professional publications, teaching, clinical work, consulting, and participation in national boards and committees. He is the author of the books, Orthopedic Assessment in Massage Therapy, and Orthopedic Massage: Theory and Technique, which are used in training programs and schools nationally and internationally.
He has also been a contributing author to several other books. In 1994 he founded the Orthopedic Massage Education & Research Institute (OMERI) to provide massage therapists the advanced education they would need for treating orthopedic soft-tissue disorders. He is currently a member of the editorial advisory board of the Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapies and has been a regularly featured author in publications such as Massage Magazine, Massage Today and The Journal of Soft-Tissue Manipulation.
Specialties: Whitney’s specialties are in the evaluation and treatment of soft-tissue disorders. In addition, he has a special focus on education within the massage therapy field. In the last 10 years, Whitney’s fascination with education has extended to intensive study and development of online learning opportunities.