Massage Therapy Facts For Physicians

Americans are turning to massage therapy for relief from injuries and certain chronic and acute conditions, to help them deal with the stresses of daily life, and to maintain good health. In an August 2002 national survey of adult consumers by Opinion Research Corporation (ORC), 20% of adults surveyed said that such health reasons as muscle soreness/stiffness/spasm, reduction of pain, greater joint flexibility or range of motion, or injury recovery and rehab would motivate them to get a massage. Thirty-five percent of adults surveyed reported they would seek therapeutic massage for relaxation or stress reduction.

Medical professionals are becoming more knowledgeable about the efficacy and benefits of massage and commonly are integrating the services of massage therapists into patient care. Health insurance companies, realizing the cost savings of massage, may cover sessions with a massage therapist when they are a prescribed aspect of treatment. According to a survey of physicians, nurses, and physicians assistants in Washington State (November 2000 to February 2001) by Group Health Cooperative, 74% of these medical professionals perceived the results of massage as always or usually effective for the purpose it was prescribed.

In the 2002 consumer survey by ORC, of the 14% of adults who spoke to their health care providers about massage therapy, 76% reported that the conversation was favorable about massage and 19% reported the conversation was neutral. Of that same group, 30% were recommended to massage therapy by their physician and 27% were recommended to massage by their chiropractor.

Conditions that may be helped by therapeutic massage

An increasing number of research studies show massage reduces heart rate, lowers blood pressure, increases blood circulation and lymph flow, relaxes muscles, improves range of motion, and increases endorphins (enhancing medical treatment). Although therapeutic massage does not increase muscle strength, it can stimulate weak, inactive muscles and, thus, partially compensate for the lack of exercise and inactivity resulting from illness or injury. It also can hasten and lead to a more complete recovery from exercise or injury.

People with the following conditions have reported that therapeutic massage has lessened or relieved many of their symptoms: arthritis, asthma, carpal tunnel syndrome, chronic and acute pain, circulatory problems, gastrointestinal disorders (including spastic colon, colic, and constipation), headache, immune function disorders, insomnia, myofascial pain, premature infants, reduced range of motion, sports injuries (including pulled or strained muscles and ligaments), stress, and temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction.

Massage therapy may be contraindicated with certain forms of cancer, phlebitis, some cardiac problems, some skin conditions, and some infectious diseases.

Regulation and educational requirements for a massage therapist

As of May 20, 2003, only 33 states and Washington, D.C., had passed laws to regulate massage therapy. The number of states regulating the profession doubled in the 1990s. In some states, a minimum educational requirement is determined by a regulatory body.

The American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) requires minimum training of 500 hours of classroom instruction from a school accredited by the Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation (COMTA) or that is a school member of AMTA. Within the 500 hour minimum, COMTA requires accredited schools to offer at least 300 hours in massage therapy theory and technique, and a minimum of 120 hours of anatomy, physiology, and pathology.

Difference between a massage therapist and a physical therapist

A massage therapist focuses on the normalization of soft tissues affected by stress, injury, and illness through the use of manual techniques that improve circulation, enhance muscular relaxation, relieve pain, reduce stress, enhance immune function, or promote health and well-being. Massage therapists specialize in the use and application of therapeutic massage techniques. Generally, a physical therapist concentrates on rehabilitation of physical damage caused by illness and injury through the use of various modalities, including electrical, mechanical, and ultrasound devices; therapeutic and rehabilitative exercise; and manual techniques.

Referring a Patient to a Massage Therapist
How to Determine a Therapist’s Credentials

Ask these questions:
  • Are you currently licensed as a massage therapist in this state/municipality?
  • Are you a member of the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA)?
  • Are you certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork?
  • Are you a graduate of a training program accredited by the Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation, or that is a current AMTA School Member?
  • Do you have advanced training in any specific massage techniques?

How to find a qualified massage therapist

AMTA’s Find a Massage TherapistSM, a free service of the American Massage Therapy Association, helps consumers and medical professionals find qualified massage therapists. Founded in 1943, AMTA has more than 46,000 members in 30 countries. AMTA professional members have demonstrated a high level of skill and expertise through testing and/or education. AMTA associate members are working toward such qualifications. AMTA has a Code of Ethics and practice standards that promote the highest quality assurance in the profession. New AMTA professional members must meet at least one of the following criteria: be a graduate of a training programs accredited by the Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation (COMTA); be a graduate of a current AMTA School Member; have a current AMTA-accepted city, state, or provincial license; or be Nationally Certified in Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. To access AMTA’s Find a Massage Therapist service, visit the web site at or call: (888) 843-2682.

Determine the type of massage therapy needed and whether a specialist is necessary

The best approach is to find a qualified, professional massage therapist who can determine and/or recommend massage appropriate for the situation. AMTA’s Find a Massage Therapist national locator service is available to help locate an AMTA member across the United States.

Insurance reimbursement for massage

Reimbursement will vary with patients’ health plans. More health plans now regard massage therapists as recognized providers. An increasing number of health plans offer "add-on" discount plans for massage, but don’t cover it as a reimbursable therapy. Check with the patient’s insurance, as with all referrals, to determine how payment will be coordinated. The physician may need to write a prescription for massage therapy.

Reprinted with permission from: ©American Massage Therapy Association. Available at: