A Healing Touch: Study.com Speaks With a Massage Therapy Professor

By Megan Driscoll

Paula Jilanis, massage therapy instructor

Study.com: It's National Massage Therapy Awareness Week - what is the most important thing people should know about massage?

Paula Jilanis: The most important thing is its number one benefit: stress reduction. Anywhere between 70 and 95 percent of the reasons that people go to the doctor are stress-related, so it's an excellent fit that receiving massage with its benefit of stress reduction would blend really well with reducing the amount of times that you go to the doctor.

Second, massage is one of the most natural ways to help maintain health and wellness, in addition to diet and exercise.

And the third really important aspect is that touch is crucial for life. We die without touch. So as human beings that are in need of touch, massage is a wonderful way to get that requirement met.

Study.com: What are your favorite styles of massage, both as a practitioner and as a recipient?

PJ: That's a really a challenging question to answer in both regards because, for me, it depends on what my need is as a client going in to receive massage. So if I'm going in for relaxation, I'm going to want to have a nice Swedish massage because of the great benefits of relaxation for Swedish massage. If I'm having trouble with a chronic issue in part of my body that's bothering me, I'm going to ask for myofascial release because that works really well in working with those chronic conditions.

As a practitioner, it goes the same way for me. What is the client bringing to me that day? And what modality can I offer that's going to best suit his or her needs? However, one of my favorites to work with is that modality called myofascial release.

Here's a clear explanation of myofascial release, which for some people might feel a little bit crude or gross. But when you pull skin away from the chicken, and see that clear, almost gel-like material - that is fascia. And that runs throughout our bodies. It wraps around every cell in the body.

When we have trauma or we're not getting enough sleep or exercise, or we're not eating properly, that fascia can be affected and it starts to crimp up, almost like Saran wrap crimps up. And because it's wrapped around every cell it can affect every part of the body. I can have pain in my foot, but the problem might be up in my neck because it's all interrelated. To me, it's fascinating that having my foot worked on makes my head feel better. Isn't that amazing, that our bodies are so intricately connected, but our Western medicine often likes to just segment things into little parts.

Study.com: We all know how relaxing massage can be. What other functions can massage therapy serve?

PJ: Massage helps reduce your heart rate. It can bring your blood pressure down and affect your respiration. There was a recent study from Cedars Sinai that found that even receiving one massage can boost the immune system. It can reduce the hormones that connect with stress.

It also makes us more aware of our body. In our society, we're moving so quickly that we don't often stop to go, 'Wow, my shoulder hurts.' So when we receive massage, we become more aware of what's happening in our body, so we have more body awareness. And it also gives us a sense of empowerment because it's a way that we're taking care of ourselves. And we all feel better after we take care of ourselves.

Study.com: How did you become interested in being a massage therapist, and what led you to the world of teaching?

PJ: I originally became interested because I was going through a traumatic life change and decided that to help me through that, I was going to receive massage and body work. And as a result of receiving massage and recognizing the changes that were going on in me, I decided that I wanted to do this. I wanted to learn about how to help people in their life process to feel better by doing something for them that is natural. It doesn't have to include medication or surgery.

I'm not saying that there aren't times where we do, absolutely, have to have those things. I just liked the idea that we could also do something on a much more natural level. And I noticed within myself that emotional shifts started to occur with me as I received massage on a regular basis. So when we're going through stressful times, I think massage is a wonderful way to be able to help ourselves feel better.

What led me to teaching was that, after I completed my massage education in 1997 at the Baltimore School of Massage, I started working at the school and an opportunity came up for me to start teaching. People said I was good at it, and as the years progressed, I realized that I really liked doing it. Now I've been working at Allegany College in Maryland for ten years, doing massage and teaching.

Massage Therapy Students at Allegany College

Study.com: What's your favorite thing about teaching massage therapy?

PJ: My absolute favorite thing is when students are practicing massage and they get to experience things that we have talked about in class with their hands. And the look on their faces of, 'Oh my goodness, now I get it' - those ah-ha moments that are life changing for many students. It reinforces for them that yes, this is what I want to do because look at how it helped that person.

Also, there are those times where being a program director that I, unfortunately, have to say no to students. That's never a pleasant thing. But then they come back later and say thank you because that ended up really making them understand more deeply why they want to practice massage.

I would say those are two of the things that I really like about teaching massage: The change in the students and helping them succeed.

Study.com: What sort of education is typically required to become a massage therapist? Is it possible to specialize in a specific type of massage therapy?

PJ: Regarding education that is typically required - each student would have to check with the state where she or he wants to work because each state is different. For instance, the state of Maryland, where I live, has two levels of massage therapists. We have licensed massage therapists who are required to have 500 hours and 60 college credits. We also have registered massage practitioners, who are only required to have 500 hours.

The national certification exam requires that a student must have completed a 500-hour program. So if someone wants to be nationally certified, he or she must complete a 500-hour program.

My recommendation would be to find out what the requirement is in your particular state. Many schools such as Allegany offer an Associate of Applied Science in Therapeutic Massage. So when students graduate, they have 1308 hours of massage, even though the State of Maryland requires only 500. We've combined the degree and the hours, or the 60 college credits and the 500 hours, into an associate's degree.

As far as specializing, a lot of schools offer standard Swedish massage. There are also places where you can go for specialization in areas such as Thai massage after you graduate. There's also extensive work that you can do in myofascial release, neuromuscular therapy and orthopedic massage. With practices such as craniosacral you can get into the energy modalities in addition to massage.

Ultimately, there are a lot of possibilities, but again, check with your individual state to make sure you know what is required.

Study.com: Do you have any other tips for someone who might be interested in following this career path?

PJ: If you're considering massage as a profession, make sure you know what your reason is for doing it. We're finding a lot of kids are coming in and saying that money is the driving force. And in the long run, if money is the driving force, I'm not sure you're going to be happy with massage because it takes a lot of work to be a really good massage therapist and it's work that has to come from the heart.

Someone is coming to you and asking you to help them along their journey in their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. So if you're just in it for the money, maybe there's something else that you want to do rather than massage because you're touching people and they're trusting you with their health and wellness. I think it's important for anybody interested in the profession to make sure that you do your own inner work.

Also, check the places that you're going to go for education. Make sure that they have accreditation. Ask questions like, what kind of national path rates are there for their graduates? Also, what kind of education is required for their teachers? Those are all things that are going to be important if you're considering going into the profession.

Study.com: Finally, I'd like to give you the opportunity to share any information you'd like about the practice and study of massage therapy.

PJ: I would say that massage is a phenomenal healthcare career for people who are interested in walking along with someone who is on their health and wellness journey. And to be able to do that, it's important for you to do your own work. If you're really interested in massage, you should look at the Massage Therapy Foundation under the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA). There's lots of information there about research, and the Associated Body Work and Massage Professionals also have great information out there.

There's so much research out there now showing the efficacy of massage. I think that it's really important for us, as massage therapists, to understand that we are part of the healthcare profession. The spa industry is exploding, and massage therapists can really have great opportunities, working in that area of the profession. But also, if you're in that field, you need to have a good understanding of what times massage is contraindicated.

Make sure that you understand the pathologies so that you can be the best practitioner that you can be for your clients, because each time we touch someone we might be the determining factor in whether or not someone decides to get another massage in their life. I, unfortunately, have had people come to me and say, 'Oh, somebody touched me and it hurt and I'll never get another massage.' So I think we need to look at massage and its impact on us as human beings in our overall health.

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