Sitting in a hallway of the Cortiva Massage Therapy Center in downtown Chicago, Jennifer Kaminski appeared ebullient-ready to take on anything in fact.
Few would guess she had just spent an hour in a dimly lit room, relaxing on her back, in almost complete silence, while a therapist stroked her muscles. Massages, however, have become a routine part of her life for stress reduction and relaxation.
"I'd rather do this than take a pill," said Kaminski, associate dean of the business school at Robert Morris University in Chicago. "It's not just some fluff, downtown spa. They're actually doing something for your muscles. I always see this as a doctor's visit."
Clients such as Kaminski, massage therapists, statistics and studies are all now attesting to the benefits and growth of the massage therapy industry.
Recent research has suggested that massage therapy can effectively alleviate cancer-related pain, boost the immune system, lower blood pressure and stress levels, reduce headache frequency and ease alcohol withdrawal symptoms, among many other things.
Just one massage session of massage can decrease levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and increase the number of white blood cells, according to a study released in fall by researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.
It's also a lucrative profession. Last month, Bloomberg Businessweek ranked massage therapy one of its top 10 careers for 2011. U.S. News and World Report named massage therapy one of the 50 best careers.
In fact, more growth is expected in massage therapy than most other industries over the next decade. The U.S. Labor Department estimates an expansion of almost 20 percent, with the addition of 23,200 jobs by 2018.
The American Massage Therapy Association reported that, in 2009, the industry was worth between $16 and $20 billion, up from $6 to $11 billion in 2005. From July 2008 through July 2009, an estimated 48 million American adults received at least one massage.
"Massage has become a lot more mainstream," said Peter Rubnitz, owner of the Urban Oasis Spas in Chicago. "I would guess that there are two or three times more people now receiving massage than there were back in 1992."
The greater demand for massage therapy services, industry insiders agree, results from the growing needs of aging baby boomers and the continuing emergence of medical studies that reveal the health benefits of massage therapy.
"It's becoming more recognized in the medical community for its powerful influence on the human body," said Debbie Huckeba, a massage therapist at Wrigleyville-based Southport Wellness Center. "Normal aches and pains can become chronic problems if they are not treated by massage, chiropractic or acupuncture. You don't necessarily need to take a pill or have surgery."
According to the American Massage Therapy Association's 2009 Consumer Survey Fact Sheet, 52 percent of people who discussed massage therapy with their doctors said their physicians strongly encouraged them to get a massage.
The public's increased awareness of massage therapy's health benefits comes partially from the Western world's recent fascination with wellness, or the holistic approach to physical, mental and social well-being that today involves alternative medicines such as massage therapy and acupuncture.
"I would say within the last decade, we've seen a trend more toward alternative medicine, which is preventative health care rather than the traditional model of sick care where you go to the doctor only when sick," said Christopher Wolcott, a chiropractor and instructor of research literacy at the National University of Health Sciences.
Wolcott and Rubnitz believe that health insurance companies will eventually cover massage therapy as a form of stress reduction and preventive care. Although, currently, insurance often doesn't cover treatments, which can cost $100 per session.
The appeal of complementary medicines such as massage therapy, other than relaxation, for many individuals, is that they allow patients to regain some control of their own bodies, and also lower their health care costs, said Ellen Letten, a program director at the Soma Institute National School of Clinical Massage Therapy in Chicago.
"One of the reasons why complementary modalities are becoming so popular is people are just tired of being sent home with a pill," she said. "Whereas when you work with complementary therapists, it's more about engaging in the treatment yourself. People also cannot afford $1,000 a month for some drugs that are being prescribed with surgery."
Others may turn to massage therapy to avoid the side effects of conventional medication, said Mike Hovi, Illinois chapter president for the American Massage Therapy Association.
"Look at all the commercials on TV for drugs," he said. "You hear what the drug can do and then listen to all the side effects, everything from a heart attack to strokes, to death to suicidal tendencies. Well, there are no real side effects to doing massage."