Go right ahead -- rub it in

Health: Massage rubs shoulders with mainstream therapies as people see its healthy, soothing benefits.

June 04, 2000|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,Sun Staff

Once perceived as the domain of exclusive health clubs or seedy back-room parlors, massage is now hitting the mainstream -- and in the process generating a boom market for certified therapists.

"Masseur" and "masseuse," titles once associated with the practice of massage, have morphed into "massage therapist" and "body worker."

There are nearly 800 massage schools nationwide, and if that's not evidence enough of massage's popularity, "Massage for Dummies" just hit bookstore shelves.

"In 1988, you probably could have counted the amount of massage schools on your hands," says Marc Zollicoffer, a massage educator for Aveda, an international health and cosmetics company. "It's becoming more and more part of health care."

Lee Bean, director of the Baltimore School of Massage, faced family skepticism when she switched from a high-profile corporate job as a business consultant eight years ago to the healing profession of massage therapy.

"They didn't understand the full scope of it," she says, "until I started putting my hands on them and working on them."

Demand rising

From stress release to rehabilitation, massage's medical benefits are being increasingly acknowledged. And demand for therapists is up.

At the Baltimore School of Massage, 1,160 students are enrolled -- some part-time and some full-time, according to Tina Russo, the school's assistant clinic director. The curriculum requires 500 hours of training, covering anatomy and physiology along with hands-on practice. Tuition for the program is about $5,000 to $6,000, Russo said.

Massage students are a diverse bunch. There are high-school graduates reared in a society hip to holistic practices, such as 22-year-old Cara Bruce, and also open-minded older people looking for a career change, such as Lynn Lawson, 51, who enrolled at the Baltimore School of Massage after her three children were grown.

In addition to the academic course work, students also practice on one another and also volunteer clients, who get the benefits of massage at a bargain rate -- and sometimes for free.

Barbara Barteet, 64, has been getting student massages for years. "It's cheaper," she says, "and you get a whole hour."

The average price for an hourlong massage nationally is $48, according to Claude Gagnon, past president of the American Massage Therapy Association. But $30 will get you the same time with a student therapist. And sometimes there is no charge at all.

"We have to give so many free massages," says Gayle Blais, 52. Blais and her daughter, Cara Bruce, are both students at the Baltimore school.

On-site massage

As Blais nears graduation and prepares for state and national certification exams -- 29 states, including Maryland, require licensing, as opposed to 13 in 1989 -- she knows career opportunities await her.

Some certified therapists go into private practice. Others work in medical offices, and some may even give seated massage service to tense travelers at airports. Many geriatric facilities are hiring massage therapists, Gagnon says, and even the corporate world is catching on.

Some high-stress dot-com firms, for example, have started providing on-site massage for employees.

Progressive health-referral firms such as the California-based WellCall, refer companies to therapists who visit regularly to perform monthly chair massages.

On-site massage has become popular, notes Dave Young, account manager for WellCall, whose clients include Internet stock-swapping site E-Trade and Premiere Magazine.

"Everyone wants to do on-site massage at least once a month for their company," says Young, who adds that it can be difficult finding enough massage therapists to meet the demand.

Besides simple relaxation, massage has been shown to increase circulation and range of motion, and release toxins from the body. Specific types of massage can reduce swelling in cancer patients' limbs, or heal problems caused by mastectomy scars.

"People think, 'Oh, you get rubbed, you feel better.' It's not just that," says Stacey Devine, a physical therapist at the University of Maryland Faculty Practice. "The medical benefits are exceptional."

For a massage therapist, sometimes "therapist" is the operative word. Students must be soothing counselors, inquiring about medical histories, explaining how massage works, and generally putting their clients at ease.

There is no question that Cara Bruce has made Barteet very comfortable during her session.

Barteet, eyes closed, a dreamy, semi-conscious smile on her face, appears to have passed into a parallel relaxation universe -- the "zone", as Bruce and her mother call it.

As Bruce skillfully strokes under Barteet's shoulders, you can see the concentration in the student's eyes.

Exploring alternatives

Gagnon partially credits the Internet for massage's mainstreaming.

As people started taking charge of their own health care and logged on to explore the possibilities, they were introduced to alternative therapies, including massage.

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