The general public understands that massage is good medicine, and this is reflected in the growing use of massage therapy and energy work in U.S. hospitals.

According to research conducted in January 2017, 82 percent of hospital patients claimed massage therapy was the most helpful form of hospital therapy. The patients in this survey were between the ages of 19-95 years old, according to the report.

Hospital massage includes any type of on- or off-the-body structured touch or energy work offered to any population in any facility owned by a hospital.

This means some hospital massage programs are on the hospital premises, while others are located in an outreach facility or clinic owned by a hospital.

“On a daily basis, the acute pain service sees firsthand the benefits that massage provides our patients, with improved mood, function and overall comfort,” said Lynn Anson, R.N., B.C., a pain management nurse at Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City, Missouri.

“When we ask them about their massage, they usually tell us the therapists are their favorite people to see–and their smiles tell all.”

Who Receives Hospital Massage

Three distinctly different population groups receive hospital massage: Hospital massage programs are offered almost equally to outpatients, inpatients and staff.

Hospital massage administered to outpatients is often very similar to private-practice massage or spa massage, in terms of being relaxing in nature.

Outpatient massage is often offered to both outpatients and the general public through a hospital’s wellness clinic or fitness department. There is often a treatment room available, where anyone can receive an hour-long massage therapy session.

Massage offered to hospital staff usually consists of 10- to 20-minute chair massages on the hospital floor or unit, primarily for alleviating stress and tension.

So, this type of massage is very similar to chair massage offered in corporate offices or at health fairs, although this massage is administered in a high-stress environment to people who are working with patients who have very serious health conditions.

Hospital massage administered to inpatients is the only type of hospital massage that is entirely unique, meaning it is completely its own type of massage, and unfamiliar to most massage therapists.

Working with hospital inpatients might involve working under the close supervision of a nurse, as well as taking specialty training in massage for the population with whom you want to work, such as infants, pediatrics, pregnant or birthing women, oncology patients, or critically ill or dying patients.

Hospital massage for inpatients is usually extremely gentle, palliative and soothing. It is most often administered while the patient is in a hospital bed. Massage received in the hospital is sometimes the first time a person, and her family members, are exposed to massage therapy.

“There was a mom who was a nonbeliever in massage,” recalled Amanda Sonk, L.M.T., a massage therapist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. “She reported several times that massage was just a fluff therapy and only used for rich people to feel better.”

“The mom told the nurse that her daughter, the patient, had not had a bowel movement for over a week,” Sonk said. “I spoke up and just offered to do some abdominal massage, and told her the benefits of massage therapy with constipation,” she added. “The mother waved her arms in the air and said to do whatever I thought could help.”

The patient soon had a bowel movement and the mom started crying, Sonk said. “The mother sang praises to everyone who walked into the patient’s room and was very thankful for the help massage gave her daughter.”

Massage therapy is offered in hospital areas including wellness and fitness departments, physical therapy departments, rehabilitation, surgery units, obstetrics/gynecology, infants/pediatrics, seniors/geriatrics/gerontology and oncology, according to data compiled by The Hospital-Based Massage Network, which has been collecting data on hospital massage since 2000.

Massage therapy alleviates the anxiety associated with painful medical procedures, and is sometimes offer during such procedures, said Gayle MacDonald, L.M.T., an oncology massage educator and author of books, including Massage for the Hospital Patient and Medically Frail Client, who teaches massage at Oregon Health and Sciences University in Portland, Oregon.

“We are available when bone marrow transplant patients are having their actual transplant,” MacDonald said. “The event [doesn’t look dramatic], but there is a lot of anxiety on the part of the patient.”

“Gentle massage to the feet completely transforms the experience, not only for the patient, but for the doctors, nurse practitioner and nurses who are in attendance,” she added.

Hospital massage for inpatients often consists of just 10 to 20 minutes of foot or hand massage or energy work, designed to provide compassionate physical presence to the patient, giving the patient the reassuring feeling that she is not alone and that everything will be OK.

The tension relieved often leads to patients sleeping better, which helps them heal faster.

“Therapeutic massage provides an invaluable resource to children and adolescents with chronic pain disorders, and is an indispensable component of our multimodal pain treatment program,” said Mark Connelly, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, in the Developmental and Behavioral Sciences department at Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics.

Why Isn’t Massage in Every Hospital?

There are various reasons why massage therapy is not in every U.S. hospital, with funding challenges topping the list.

There are many hospitals that offer massage programs in order to give themselves an edge above other hospitals. Many of these hospitals offer massage as a free benefit and therefore do not charge staff or patients for massage.

However, according to the 2010 Complementary and Alternative Medicine Survey of Hospitals, reasons for discontinuing CAM programs include poor financial performance and inability to break even.

Therefore, not charging patients and staff is a risk to the longevity of hospital massage programs.

According to the 2010 Complementary and Alternative Medicine Survey of Hospitals, when hospital CAM services are paid for, it is most common that patients and staff pay for the services out-of-pocket; however, 11 percent of hospitals that offer CAM services bill CAM services as part of physician or nursing care.

According to the AMTA’s 2014 Massage Profession Research Report, “massage therapists working in a hospital, medical office or clinic were paid by patients 36 percent of the time, by insurance 11 percent of the time and by the facility 54 percent of the time.”

According to the 2010 Complementary and Alternative Medicine Survey of Hospitals, reasons for discontinuing hospital CAM programs, beyond financial reasons, include lack of community interest, cuts to nonessential services, lack of medical staff support, reprioritized initiatives, space needed for core programs, lack of defined vision for program, lack of administrative support, program director left, difficulty in retaining providers, poor marketing efforts, and difficulty in integrating programs and providers.

As you can see, these programs need help with marketing.

An existing hospital massage program might be interested in hiring a self-motivated massage therapist who can help the program grow by writing and distributing promotional materials, delivering presentations on massage therapy to hospital staff and the general public, and analyzing and summarizing current research to make the program more evidence-based.

Kelly Burton, L.M.T., has provided massage therapy at Baptist Health Corbin, in Corbin, Kentucky, since 2002, and expanded massage to inpatients through Women’s Services in 2010. She helps ensure the longevity of her program by continuing to communicate its success to hospital administration.

“We started as a pilot program, so I offered as many statistics as possible, gave examples of pain management, conducted a patient satisfaction survey and tabulated the number of patients served,” Burton said.

“Five years later, I still compile monthly reports for upper management to show the positive results of massage for patient care.” The massage program she started is now branching out into other departments, she said.

Get in the Door

Hospital massage is a viable professional career path; however, that path is still an uphill one in many cases. If you want to get hired by an existing hospital massage program, be prepared to go in and explain why you will be an integral team player in developing their program.

“Setting up a comprehensive program often does not happen overnight, said Tina Allen, L.M.T., C.P.M.M.T., C.P.M.T., C.I.M.T., founder and director of Liddle Kidz, which offers training and programs in infant and pediatric massage.

“Having created multiple massage programs in hospitals internationally, we sometimes start in one department–the one where we have the most medical support and best research to document the benefits of touch therapy.”

“Once we demonstrate that the population is receiving therapy well, it can then be time to introduce [massage] to other areas of the hospital,” Allen added.

With less than 10 percent of U.S. hospitals offering massage, your best option may be to create a program yourself.

To do so, you need to find a champion–an administrator, physician, nurse or physical therapist–who will help you work with the committees, attend the meetings, write the proposals, make the presentations and complete the paperwork necessary to make your dream a reality.

“A big part of your success is finding a champion,” said Allen, “someone in the hospital who has taken the time to listen to your program plan, and understands it–they are the person who is willing to go out on the limb with you to bring massage into the hospital.”

Allen also advised professional preparation, which includes a resume that shows you have completed training to work with specific patient populations, as well as the ability to reference research that supports massage for hospitalized patients and specific conditions.

Offering massage to hospital staff can be a way of getting massage noticed in the hospital setting. If you decide to offer chair massage to hospital staff, present it as something that can help alleviate stress, and thereby improve care delivery to patients.

“You must show up prepared,” said Lauren Muser Cates, C.M.T., S.4.O.M., who provides massage at Washington, D.C.-area hospitals, and teaches continuing education in hospital massage. “Get training and supervised experience, so you can talk the talk when you approach the decision-makers at the hospital.

“You are not likely to get a resounding, ‘Yes!’ on your first outing,” Muser Cates added. “You’ll need to request and fully show up to multiple meetings, likely meet many people at different levels, and follow up with the people who emerge as most likely to champion your presence as a member of the care team”

Hospital massage programs require that massage therapists know how to work ergonomically around awkward hospital beds, and how to proceed extremely cautiously with distraught or medically fragile people who might have blood clots, open wounds, or IVs and tubes attached to them.

It is ideal when massage therapists interested in working with inpatients have already been practicing massage for at least six months out of school and have already pursued additional specialty training in pregnancy, infant, oncology, fragile/seriously ill patient or hospital massage, prior to approaching a hospital massage program.

Life Support

Nurses used to massage patients to ease pain and help them relax and sleep better. The nursing profession got away from that in the 1980s, as nurses were increasingly asked to administer medications, monitor medical equipment and see more people in less time.

Massage therapists are returning this level of care to the hospital, bringing soothing touch to those who suffer.

With the help of doctors, nurses, physical therapists and administrators, massage therapists have made inroads into more than 400 hospitals throughout the U.S., working with outpatients, staff and inpatients of all ages.

“Pediatric massage is generally extremely gentle to provide comfort and relaxation,” said Janet Rose, L.M.T., B.C.T.M.B., who works in the Integrative Pain Management Clinic at Children’s Mercy Hospitals & Clinics, in Kansas City, Missouri. “Parents are often in the patient’s room when the child receives massage.

“A real calmness comes over the room [during the massage],” she added. Voices drop, the TV volume is lowered or silenced, parents sometimes leave the room and medical staff will often delay procedures. “My greatest impact is to relax patients so that they can sleep,” said Rose.

According to Hospital-Based Massage Network data, 90 percent of hospital massage programs report having fewer than 10 massage therapists.

I believe that as a profession, we need to determine how to help each existing hospital massage program branch out to employ more massage therapists and provide massage to people on all units.

As the founder of the Hospital-Based Massage Network, it is my opinion that one important step toward achieving this goal would be massage schools participating in hospital massage internships and externships, thereby populating hospitals with supervised massage therapy students.

While hospital massage is growing, with, in my estimation, double the amount of hospital massage programs a decade ago, many hospital massage programs come and go.

Every year, as hospital massage programs emerge, other programs get cut. They are easy to remove because they are small, like a thorn in the side of the old system.

Imagine if each hospital massage program was like the nervous system or circulatory system of a human, penetrating every single floor and unit of each hospital. Then, massage programs would be far more difficult to remove, as they would serve as the medical system’s life support.


Laura Koch, L.M.T., is founder and editor of the Hospital-Based Massage Network (HBMN), which provides resources for getting started in hospital massage and compiles data on hospital-massage programs in the U.S.