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The 7 Steps to Becoming a Massage Therapist
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  • If you're looking for a fulfilling career in massage therapy, start by making sure you meet the initial qualifications in your state and finding the website for your state’s licensing board.
  • Complete an approved training program, pass the MBLEx and gather (or complete) any final sections of your state’s licensing application before you submit.

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Growing up, I dealt with a lot of tension in my back. It wasn’t uncommon at all to find my best friend and me splayed across a couch (or the floor if the situation called for it) practicing massages on each other. When asked as a child why I thought I needed such frequent massages, I would say that it was because my body was tense from “trying to keep up with my brain.” I was, well, kinda right — even if I didn't fully understand it. 

As I’ve grown older and more aware of myself and the way that our minds and bodies work, I've realized that not only did sports and things like posture have a direct physical impact on muscle tension, but that pent up energy or anxiety can cause equally debilitating discomfort. As someone who dealt with anxiety — and continues to deal with it, if I'm being completely honest — that often stemmed from “overthinking” I wasn’t completely wrong in my assessment that my body was trying to keep up with my brain. Either way, I love a good massage. 

So, it's safe to say that it wasn’t a surprise to anyone when I considered a career in massage therapy. In fact, there were many times over the years that I found myself wondering “what qualifications do you need to become a massage therapist?”  While it didn’t end up being the path I chose to take, I did do a lot of research into what it takes to become a massage therapist. Whether you're a high school graduate considering different career paths or someone just looking for a fulfilling career, here are the steps to take.

How to become a massage therapist

1. Make sure that you meet any initial qualifications in your state.

In many states, there are certain rules and regulations that will dictate who's qualified to even begin the process of becoming a licensed massage therapist. Common examples include:

  • Having a high school diploma or GED
  • Being over the age of 18
  • Passing a background check and/or drug test
  • Demonstrating proficiency in speaking and understanding the English language

2. Find the website for your state’s licensing board.

When researching how to become a licensed massage therapist in North Carolina, one of my most valuable resources was the website for the North Carolina Board of Massage & Bodywork Therapy. Not only did it explain exactly what the requirements were for getting your license in NC, but it also gave me a list of Board-certified colleges and courses that were available in my area and outlined of how much time those courses might take to complete and what exactly they were required to cover. 

Furthermore, it explained application fees and the state testing requirements and detailed exactly what would be required in terms of continuing education or license renewal after becoming a licensed massage therapist. Almost everything I needed to know before moving on to the next step was on that website. So, I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with your state’s equivalent because it can give you a very clear idea of what it takes to become a massage therapist and whether this career will be the right one for you. 

3. Complete an approved training program. 

As I briefly mentioned in the previous step, in North Carolina, you must complete a Board-certified training course before applying for your license. These training courses can vary in length from state-to-state, but typically, they're between 500-1000 required hours. For example, in North Carolina, the requirement is 500 hours, and in New York, it’s 1,000. These training courses will include topics spanning anatomy, different styles of massage therapy and the business and ethics associated with practicing massage and body therapy. 

The tuition for these programs can vary from state to state, but from what I've seen, they typically cost around $9,000. It may seem like a lot of money, so it's important to consider that there are typically payment plans available, and unlike with 2- and 4-year degrees, this will be a one-time-only tuition fee. Furthermore, these courses will not only include time at a desk learning theory but also the opportunity to apply that theory through — and pardon the pun here — hands-on practice, which is invaluable.

On that note, if this article is making you want to go get a massage, here’s a pro tip: you can usually get one at a discounted rate through these schools if you allow a trainee to do it. 

4. Apply to take the MBLEx, and pass. 

MBLEx stands for Massage and Bodyworks Licensing Exam. This is the national exam that you will be required to pass in order to complete your application for a license in massage therapy. In North Carolina, the cost of the exam is included in the $195 application fee for your license, but it's possible that there might be a separate fee in your state. In the past, the test was 125 questions and a passing score was a 630 out of a possible 900, which is basically 70%. Now, however, the exam is only 100 questions and pass/fail, but it can still be taken again with the understanding that you'll have to wait at least 30 days after receiving a failing score. 

5. Gather or complete any final sections of your state’s licensing application.

In some states, you might be finished with your application after you've passed the MBLEx. In others, the licensing board may require further state-specific testing or documentation. For example, NC requires you to submit four letters of recommendation from healthcare practitioners, one of which must come from a massage therapy instructor. 

6. Submit your completed application.

After you've finished your training program, passed any exam requirements and fully completed your application, there’s nothing left to do but submit it and wait. As with most licensing programs, this, too, can take time. In NC, it typically takes around 60 days to receive a response. 

7. Apply for work.

This last one might be a little obvious, but as anyone who has ever had to take part in a job search knows, you can be qualified and still not have an easy time finding work. But after you've successfully become a licensed massage therapist, the only thing left to do is look for a job. The great thing about this profession is that people are becoming increasingly mindful to take time for self-care, and as a result, job opportunities in this field are only expected to grow. 

FAQs

Where can I find a list of the licensing requirements in my state? 

A great resource for this would be the American Massage Therapy Association because some states accept a national certification in lieu of a state license, and the AMTA website can link you to the regulations that are applicable in your home state. 

Can you make good money as a massage therapist?

Absolutely! There are many different places a massage therapist might choose to work, including a massage office, physicians' offices, franchises, hospitals and wellness centers, spas, salons and even cruises. Depending on which path you choose, your salary could vary greatly. For example, the average salary for a massage therapist in North Carolina is $49,204 but can fall between $44,036 and $56,521 according to Salary.com

How many years does it take to become a massage therapist?

Most of these schools will offer part-time and full-time course schedules, which will typically take anywhere from six months to a year to complete. However, you should also consider that the MBLEx exam is only given a few times per year. That means that depending on your graduation date, you might have to wait a month or so to take it. Once you take all of that into account, plus any further testing you may be required to complete and the wait for your actual license to be approved, you’re probably looking at anywhere between 18 months to two years. 

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