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Massage Therapists Want Respect

Industry pushes for new laws while battling bad old ones

SUNDAY, March 3, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Fresh from a victory over a city regulation they considered demeaning, massage therapists are turning back to their main crusade -- getting more laws for their profession on the books across the country.

No, it's not a contradiction in terms.

Massage therapists are pushing states to pass licensing rules for their industry while they battle the last vestiges of a disreputable past.

"We're getting everything up and running to be considered a full profession," says Steve Olson, an immediate past president of the American Massage Therapy Association.

A variety of studies have supported the use of massage as a way to relieve chronic pain and other illnesses. However, therapists admit their occupation has not yet escaped its traditional association with prostitution and illegal behavior. Some practitioners even avoid using the term "massage" and prefer to be called "body workers," Olson says.

The massage business came under a microscope in January, when city leaders in Huntington Beach, Calif., considered whether massage therapists should be tested for sexually transmitted diseases before being licensed.

Since 1985, massage therapists in the city of 190,000 were tested annually for syphilis, gonorrhea, and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Therapists who failed the test could not be licensed.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, many massage parlors in Huntington Beach were fronts for prostitution, massage therapist Mark Dixon concedes. However, in 1995, a program that required therapists to undergo extensive training eliminated the problem, he notes.

The STD testing regulations remained, however. When Dixon became aware of them, he pushed for change.

For one thing, he says, the HIV test requirement was illegal because doctors and medical laboratories can't release results to anyone other than the person tested.

"That left syphilis and gonorrhea," he says. "I tried to show that the tests were totally inappropriate for a professional massage practitioner, even in the extremely unlikely transmission from a cut to a cut."

Therapists know how to handle a patient who bleeds, he says. They wear gloves, bandage the wound or send their client home.

The Huntington Beach City Council finally voted to eliminate the STD testing regulations. Massage therapists, like doctors and teachers, will still be tested for tuberculosis, hepatitis B and C, and mononucleosis, Dixon says.

Officials at the American Massage Therapy Association don't know how many other cities have STD testing regulations, but spokesman Ron Precht says those types of rules are not uncommon.

Fortunately, local regulations have been supplanted in many cases by new state laws in recent years, Precht says.

"It's much better to have regulations on a statewide level. That's the main reason our association supports that idea," Precht says. "When our chapters feel it's really important in their state, we support them in it, often financially."

Thirty states and Washington, D.C., regulate massage therapists. Ohio has done so the longest, since 1916; Mississippi was the latest to join the list in 2001.

Generally, the states require massage therapists to have undergone at least 500 hours of education and training to be certified. New Hampshire is one of the most stringent, requiring 750 hours of instruction in a variety of topics, including hygiene, massage therapist ethics and anatomy.

"There's quite an evolution going on," Olson says.

Several heavily populated states -- including California, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Michigan -- do not regulate massage. However, Olson's association, which represents 48,000 therapists, hopes to change that.

"We'd prefer to be regulated as professionals, based on professional standards," he says.

What To Do

Does your state regulate massage therapists? Find out from the American Massage Therapy Association.

Learn the basics about massage from Massage Today.

SOURCES: Interviews with Steve Olson, certified massage therapist, immediate past president, American Massage Therapy Association, Fargo, N.D.; Mark Dixon, certified massage therapist, Huntington Beach, Calif.; Ron Precht, spokesman, American Massage Therapy Association, Evanston, Ill.
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