Ahhh . . . just thinking about a massage can be relaxing.
For many people, the hands-on therapy is a simple cure for everyday ills, aches and stresses. It's become so popular, in fact, that we can have our kinks worked on or worked out, not just at posh resorts, but at the airport or grocery store too.
And yet a lingering stigma dogs the profession, leaving some tense, aching Americans nonetheless reluctant to bare their body parts to strangers.
A new law could bring peace of mind and guidance to those who hesitate, as well as some welcome regulation to massage therapists who say it's about time.
Lucy Wojskowicz, owner of Laguna Canyon Spa in Laguna Beach, looks forward to the day when she and other massage therapists can get their credentials to practice massage therapy without being associated with the adult entertainment industry.
"In the past, when I applied for city permits, I got grilled as if I were running a massage parlor," the 41-year-old spa owner said. "They don't consider what I do health or therapy. I'm the same as a prostitute. It's embarrassing."
State laws across the country, including one in California that went into effect Jan. 1, aim to legitimize the profession, crack down on prostitution rings masquerading as massage centers and better protect the public.
"We want to put the unsavory past behind us," said Bill Brown, director of government and industry relations for the American Massage Therapy Assn. "One goal of getting states to regulate the practice of massage therapy is to curb prostitution and stop unethical practices that occur with no repercussions."
The California law creates the Massage Therapy Organization, which by fall will be ready to grant state certification to massage therapists who've had 250 or more hours of training and who pass an exam on ethics, anatomy and methods.
"The law lets those who want to receive the services of a massage therapist know with certainty that the massage therapist has met certain training criteria to become certified," said California state Sen. Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach), who fostered the measure.
Massage therapists and law enforcement agencies welcome the law. "The law protects consumers from financial and physical harm, and from people who have a different agenda in mind once they get you on the table," said M.K. Brennan, a massage therapist and AMTA president, adding that a properly trained massage therapist has a knowledge of anatomy and understands appropriate draping, boundaries and ethics.
In recent months, undercover officers have cracked down on prostitution rings posing as massage parlors throughout the Los Angeles Basin, and the resulting headlines may have left many members of the general public skeptical of the massage business.
Brown called the law "a good first step," but wishes it were tougher. Though the law provides massage therapists a chance to prove they have met a higher standard, it falls short of requiring that they be licensed -- a goal the AMTA has for all 50 states. So far, 42 states plus the District of Columbia have some statewide massage-therapy regulation.
In California, regulations vary widely among cities. "Some cities require a license, proof of training, and a background check. Others have no requirements at all," Oropeza said. For consumers, that means a massage in one city could be a lot safer than one in the next town, where regulations and oversight don't exist.
"It's chaotic and costly," said Wojskowicz, who has a permit to practice massage therapy in Laguna Beach. But if she wanted to be paid to give a massage in nearby Aliso Viejo, where she lives, she would need another permit.
State certification will supersede all local laws, relieving practitioners of multiple permit hassles and giving consumers a state stamp of approval for which to look.
Law enforcement agencies see the measure as a tool to help distinguish legitimate massage businesses from disreputable ones. "If they can eliminate two-thirds of the operators off the bat because they're state-certified, that makes their efforts to control vice more manageable," said Oropeza.
The health benefits
Beyond having a new way to separate reputable practitioners from disreputable ones, wary consumers may still wonder whether massage offers any benefit besides brief relaxation. The answer is: maybe.
Though research is limited, some studies indicate that therapeutic massage can reduce anxiety, depression, pain, high blood pressure and headaches.
It can boost both your immune system and your mood, contends Gail Ironson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Miami, who has conducted several massage-therapy studies.
"Depression and stress do accelerate disease," Ironson said. "Because massage therapy in turn reduces depression and stress, we expect it could also have a protective benefit on slowing disease progression."