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Combining science and ancient traditions, licensed massage therapy training at COCC leads to well-paying careers with impact

PHOTO SUBMITTED BY MARK RUSSELL JOHNSON
 - The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 32% massage industry growth rate. In a softly lit classroom in the modern Health Careers Center at Central Oregon Community College (COCC), where conifers outside fill the high, transom-style windows, students of the massage therapy program sit at portable massage tables — doubling as desks — and contemplate a wildly colorful chart that lights up the lecture screen.

The image represents chakras, or energy centers of the body. At the center sits a meditative figure, partly covered by a column of seven vertically oriented circles.

"It's an Eastern map of how the body functions," explained Alan Nunes, assistant professor and program director. The chakra diagram encapsulates his lesson for the day on Eastern Theory & Practice, a class that explores Chinese medicine, Ayurveda and Eastern philosophy.

While students of the licensed massage therapy (LMT) program at COCC learn the essential mechanics of massage, they also come away with an education layered in culture and history. Coursework ranges from Zen Shiatsu and Thai massage to neuromuscular, sports and Swedish massage types to kinesiology. It's a science-based program of diverse teachings and in-depth practices.

Massage therapy used to occupy the very periphery of the health care field — deemed an alternative, even indulgent practice — but massage today is widely integrated into wellness plans and treatment practices and is highly embraced within the athletic population. According to the American Massage Therapy Association, 93% of individuals recently surveyed view massage as being beneficial to overall health and wellness.

Health studies have documented the many benefits of massage therapy. It can lessen pain, lower blood pressure and promote healthier sleep. It can even be used to help alleviate fatigue with cancer patients. One study at Cedars-Sinai found that participants of a Swedish massage group underwent a noticeable boost to their immune system, with the bodywork actually elevating lymphocytes, white blood cells that help thwart disease: Massage as a manufacturer of antibodies.

COCC's is the only LMT program in Oregon that offers an Associate of Applied Science degree option. Recognized by the Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation, the program also offers a faster-track certificate of completion for students looking to concentrate their studies for quicker career entry. "Students can license in just four terms," said Nunes, who added that excellent financial aid options are available.

As more states have required licensing for massage therapists (as is the case with Oregon, mandated by the Oregon Board of Massage Therapists), general acceptance — and demand — has grown. The industry rates as a top-ranking growth field, as gauged by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which projects a 32% increase in the industry between 2020 and 2030 (by contrast, the average for all occupations is 7%).

According to the same agency, the Bend-Redmond area's annual mean wage for LMTs last year, at $69,930, was sixth in the country for metropolitan areas. Eugene's annual mean wage, at $72,990, ranked fourth in the nation for metropolitan areas.

For massage student Trey Berthold, helping others is a central incentive. He hopes to work with patients recovering from trauma.

"I always wanted to help others with problems and issues they were having, be that medically or just troubled by something," he said. "What I find most meaningful in this work is the progress toward a healthy goal and outcome for a client and to be a part of that experience."

Recent graduate, Amber Dawn, felt drawn to the program after discovering that massage helped her manage pain following a car accident.

"Even in just my first week in the program, I felt right at home," she said. "The instructors are all very professional, friendly and open-minded. I decided to start my own business and I have the confidence to do that through the hard and soft skills I have gathered at COCC."

Students can enter the program each year in the fall (a day program) or in the spring (an evening program). Key outcomes of the program include personal growth and health advocacy.

"They create a connection with others and, in turn, discover a lot about themselves," Nunes said of his students. "This work is centered around the care of others through the science and traditions of health and wellness."

For more details on the massage therapy program at COCC, visit cocc.edu/programs/massage or contact the COCC Crook County Open Campus at 541-447-9233.


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