Jeff Muskovin's job is most rewarding when a client has a "Eureka!" moment. The licensed massage therapist has watched a musician return to playing without pain, a marathon runner finish a race with a faster time and no injuries, and a couple with fertility challenges report they're expecting.
Muskovin, 57, has a private practice in Evanston and also treats clients at Chicago's Lakeview Athletic Club. He's trained to understand and help correct pain, tension and circulation issues in the body's soft tissues, including muscles and tendons.
He works six days a week, seeing 3-8 clients a day. Patients seek out Muskovin for everything from stress reduction and relaxation to relief from restricted movement. Many clients suffer from headaches and neck pain related to working on a computer. Muskovin sees many amateur athletes who need help with muscle injuries and overall conditioning.
"I get to meet interesting people every day, and I get to help make a difference in their lives," said Muskovin, who trained at the Chicago School of Massage (now Cortiva Institute of Chicago). "Sometimes, it's simply helping someone learn how to stretch properly after their long runs. Sometimes, it's a more lengthy, complicated process of helping someone rehabilitate after a serious injury. I enjoy physical work, and I get plenty of that in this profession."
In fact, said Felicia Tyler, owner of Universal Spa Training Academy, Downers Grove, because the job is so physically demanding, massage therapists can't -- and shouldn't -- work a 40-hour week. Most work 20-30 hours per week.
Some therapists work on contract for chiropractors, treating a certain number of clients per week. Those at day spas see clients for 60- to 90-minute sessions. Self-employed MTs treat clients in an office, at the client's home, or in the therapist's home. Universal Spa Training Academy grads have found jobs in health care facilities, hotels and spas, doctor's offices, even aboard cruise ships, Tyler said.
"Massage therapy is a good career for people who like to work for themselves and have flexible hours," she noted. "Also, all of your clients are happy to see you and so appreciative of your skills."
Once licensed, therapists stay current on advancements in the field through continuing education. Reading trade journals and new massage textbooks is also important, as new discoveries are continually being made, Muskovin said.
"You can learn the basics in (about) a year. You'll spend the rest of your career trying to master the details."
Massage therapy isn't just a luxury, Tyler said. It can reduce muscle stiffness and inflammation and improve circulation. It's also good for people with sore muscles, arthritis, high blood pressure, stress and anxiety. Stress is at the root of many illnesses, Muskovin said.
Therapists can also learn specialized procedures to address fertility issues, digestive problems, breathing restrictions, headaches, tendinitis, joint dislocation and posture issues.
The job comes with challenges. Massage therapists must make clients feel safe and secure enough to be touched. Clients who have unanswered questions or don't feel comfortable may not be satisfied with treatment, Muskovin said.
Because the work is physical, therapists must stay fit to avoid self-injury. They must also manage their time well to accomplish everything agreed upon within each session, and maintain relationship boundaries, with both parties respecting each other's privacy.
Nicole Boeger, owner and founder of Radiant Life Massage Therapy, Naperville, said some male therapists have a difficult time starting out. Many men and women are more comfortable with a female therapist. However, some men question the strength of female therapists when it comes to providing effective deep tissue massage, Boeger said.
Massage therapy can be highly gratifying.
After a Swedish massage session, an 82-year-old woman once told Boeger she'd been to spas across the country, but that Boeger was by far the best therapist she'd ever had.
"Nothing can beat the feeling of accomplishment more than that. It's at that point I know I'm doing something right," Boeger said. "I live for those moments to help people feel radiant."
Demand up as more people learn benefits
A massage therapist's job involves using touch to treat clients' injuries and enhance wellness. Treatment involves working the soft tissues of the body to relieve pain, help rehabilitate patients from injuries, improve circulation, ease stress and promote relaxation.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 132,800 people working as massage therapists in 2012. On the job, MTs typically talk with clients about their symptoms, medical history and desired results. They evaluate each patient to find painful, tense areas of the body; manipulate muscles or other soft tissues; provide guidance on stretching, strengthening and improving posture; and document clients' condition and progress.
MTs can specialize in several different types of massage. Swedish massage -- the most commonly thought of massage -- uses five stroking styles. Deep-tissue massage is more vigorous and often helpful for those with injuries. Sports massage promotes flexibility, reduces fatigue, improves endurance, helps prevent injuries and prepares the body and mind for optimal performance. The type of massage used depends on a client's needs and physical condition.
Educational requirements vary from state to state. Training is available in private or public postsecondary schools. In Illinois, a massage therapist must complete at least 600 hours of training at an approved school. At Tyler's academy, students can complete the program in about nine months.
"Most states regulate massage therapy and require massage therapist to have a license or certification," the BLS notes. Candidates must also undergo a background check, be fingerprinted and pass a national board test.
Many local schools offer massage training, including Universal Spa Training Academy, Downers Grove, and the Cortiva Institute, Pacific College of Oriental Medicine and the Soma Institute, all in Chicago. For a full list, visit http://www.massageschool.org/search/illinois/chicago.html.
A high school diploma or equivalent is usually required for admission. Massage therapy programs typically include both classroom training and hands-on practice, covering topics such as anatomy, physiology (the study of organs and tissues), kinesiology (the study of motion and body mechanics), pathology (the study of disease), business management and ethics.
Most massage therapy schools have a student clinic open to the public at a reduced rate so students can get experience.
According to the BLS, in 2012, 44 states and Washington, D.C., regulated massage therapy. Not all states license massage therapists, but there may be regulations at the local level. In states with massage therapy regulations, workers must be licensed or certified after completing an approved program.
In May 2012, the median annual wage for massage therapists was $35,970, the BLS said. Most earn a combination of wages and tips. Most work part-time (only about 1 in 3 worked full-time in 2012). Most work by appointment, so schedules and work hours vary widely.
Employment is projected to grow 23 percent by 2022, the BLS reports. As more states adopt licensing requirements for therapists, massage is likely to become more accepted as a legitimate therapy to treat pain and improve wellness. Also, as more health care providers understand the benefits of massage, demand likely will increase as massage becomes part of treatment.