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Massage Today
September, 2002, Vol. 02, Issue 09

Who Are We?

By Cliff Korn, BS, LMT, NCTMB

In what community or communities do we belong? What do we call ourselves? The answers to these questions have serious implications for the future of massage therapy, and the roads we will travel to get there.

Anyone who actually reads my Massage Today editorials knows I have a passion for definitions.

I've devoted several columns to the importance of language. I've long felt that the intent of our words has little importance if we're the only ones who know that intent. If only one party is aware, there is no communication. What we say, and how it's perceived, is what is important! If you agree with me so far, you also probably agree that what we call ourselves is very important. In many states, the law says you must call yourselves "licensed massage therapists." In a perfect world, that term would have a common meaning to everyone practicing under that title and to everyone looking to contract our services. In reality, it means different things to different people. A client who has experienced massage therapy only as part of injury rehabilitation will have different expectations of a massage therapist than a client who has only experienced relaxation spa services. In that scenario, each of the practitioners are likely happy to be called massage therapist, but the terrain gets more rocky when therapists who do work they don't consider massage are required by state law to use the massage therapist title, and to train as massage therapists before starting practice.

The massage umbrella encompasses many therapies in various states. Included or exempted in various state laws are reiki practitioners, polarity practitioners, reflexologists and others. Kelle Walsh at Massage Magazine undertook one of the most in-depth studies I have ever seen of this situation in her March/April and May/June 2000 issues. She not only told of the efforts of massage regulation proponents to legitimize massage therapy to make it easily distinguishable from prostitution advertising as massage, but of the role of a standardized credential in easing insurance reimbursement and physician referrals. Her articles clearly stated the disagreement among massage practitioners, and between massage practitioners and nonmassage practitioners, over the issue of regulation in 2000. Unfortunately, we, as both an industry and a profession, have not progressed much since that time. With few exceptions, polarity therapists, Trager practitioners, etc., are still trying to disentangle themselves from the regulatory net of massage. Massage therapists themselves are divided on the benefits (or horrors) of licensure. There are several online massage discussion groups that hammer this point home on a daily basis.

One example of a divisive regulatory issue is the inclusion/exclusion of reiki in massage practice. I'm sure there are exceptions, but I have yet to hear a reiki practitioner suggest that he or she or the public would be better served by falling under massage regulation. Unfortunately, in some jurisdictions reiki is defined by the "looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and sounds like a duck" method. After all, there is usually soft music playing, a massage table is usually used, and the client and practitioner are behind closed doors in a dimly lit room. The practitioner frequently is touching the supine client's body. Based on the "duck" test, this must be massage! Of course, I'm making light of a serious concern here. As my April 2002 editorial mentioned, it is the regulating jurisdiction that defines a scope of practice. If that jurisdiction defines Reiki as massage, it's a done deal and the door is closed. (Editor's note: See "Scope (Not the Mouthwash" online at Unfortunately, common sense isn't always the most abundant resource among municipal or state legislators (or massage professionals, for that matter).

As loathe as many Reiki practitioners are to train and practice as massage therapists, most massage therapists are not inclined to train as physical therapists to retain title to the term "therapy." (Yes, PT groups and others have attempted to keep practitioners of massage from using the term.) This alone is enough for many to desire at least title protection regulation on a statewide level. My trusty Webster's says that "therapy" is a treatment of any physical or mental disorder by medical or physical means. I don't know about your practice, but that definition certainly fits what I do! However, if a regulatory body defines therapy as reserved for use by professions overseen by an allied health board that excludes massage, legal use of the term is by massage practitioners is questionable.

I have no desire to go back to using terms like "masseur" or "masseuse" to define my work. While I don't find the terms offensive in and of themselves, they are used pejoratively in many public and professional circles to describe untrained or under-trained massage practitioners.

My guess is that we can find compromises on how big the massage umbrella becomes, but the issue gets more difficult still when we look to see where we fit in the greater world of caregivers. Are we or are we not part of "medicine," and if so, to what part do we belong? "Mainstream medicine?" "Traditional medicine?" "Complementary medicine?" "Alternative medicine?" "Complementary and Alternative medicine?" "Integrative medicine?" And if not "medicine," then what? Personal service? And do the Trager practitioners, shiatsu practitioners, Rolfing bodywork practitioners and Feldenkrais practitioners among us hold the same opinions? Who are we? Who are you? Who do you want to be?

Massage Today encourages letters to the editor to discuss matters relating to the publication's content. Letters may be published in a future issue of Massage Today. Please send all correspondence by e-mail to , or by regular mail to the address listed below:

Massage Today
P.O. Box 4139
Huntington Beach, CA 92605

Former editor of Massage Today, Cliff is owner of Windham Health Center Neuromuscular Therapy LLC. He is nationally certified in therapeutic massage & bodywork and is licensed as a massage therapist by the states of New Hampshire and Florida. Cliff is a member of the International Association of Healthcare Practitioners; a professional member and past president of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Massage Therapy Association; a certified member of the Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals, Inc.; and a past chairman of the board of directors of the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork.


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