Pain and Palliative Care Massage Training and Careers

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Pain and palliative care massage therapy is becoming a standard part of caring for the critically ill and those nearing their end of their lives. Is this specialized massage practice right for you?

lisa schuetz

Written and Reported by Lisa Schuetz
Contributing Writer

Pain and palliative care massage therapy grew out of the needs of people who have a terminal illness such as cancer and are in hospice care. Many studies have indicated that massage in a palliative care setting can help reduce anxiety, pain, and depression in patients nearing the end of their lives.

The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization strongly supports the use of massage as a therapy in hospice and palliative care, according to the organization’s spokesman, Jon Radulovic.

“It’s been used by programs for quite some time,” Radulovic says. “I think providers are learning more about the value of therapeutic touch to enhance the care they can provide to patients—and family caregivers too.”

The types of massage used in palliative care vary, but typically focus on gentler techniques.

“In terms of massage, all light touch modalities are useful in working with cancer patients,” says Susan Adler, a licensed massage therapist (LMT) who has worked for three years at the Perlmutter Cancer Center at New York University in New York City. “These include light Swedish relaxation massage, light shiatsu/acupressure, craniosacral therapy, manual lymphatic drainage, reiki, and reflexology.”

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Yvette Quintana Pascal, massage therapy coordinator since 2018 at the Hospice Care Network on Long Island, New York, has been a licensed massage therapist for 20 years and has seen the comfort that such massage can bring to patients who are in pain or nearing the end of their lives.

“Bringing this energetic quality into this difficult time assists the family in processing all that they are feeling,” she says. “Just as birth is a sacred and blessed moment, this, too, is a sacred moment.”

Training and Education

As massage is increasingly viewed as a valuable component of complementary medicine for people with serious illnesses such as cancer, employers in healthcare settings are seeking licensed massage therapists who have completed additional training in oncology massage, says Adler.

This means massage therapists may want to seek credentials beyond their basic massage training, or at least some hands-on experience.


woman massages elderly persons hand

In the U.S. and Canada, there is no national or state-level oversight of oncology or palliative care massage therapy, so there is no formal certification process.

Specialty certificates are offered by a number of organizations that train and education massage therapists, but having a certificate is voluntary and not mandated. Earning a certificate can, however, give a practitioner important knowledge about the specialized field of palliative care that may make them more marketable as they seek employment.

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Various massage schools and training centers offer courses in hospice or palliative care massage. After completing an approved program, a massage student can take an exam to earn a specialty certificate through a number of organizations.

The National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB), for example, offers the Pain and Palliative Care Massage certificate for massage therapists who provide services to individuals in hospice and hospital settings. The board also offers the Oncology Massage Specialty certificate for practitioners who work with patients with cancer.

This is the path Adler took. She added oncology massage training several years after completing her basic massage coursework and witnessing how beneficial touch was to a family member in hospice. “The training was extensive, incorporating not only practicing hands-on oncology massage techniques, but also learning about the broader challenges that cancer patients face, such as nutritional and psycho-social issues,” Adler says.

How Long Does It Take?

It depends on what type of program you take. If you’re just looking for a class to brush up on techniques, get ideas, or fulfill continuing education requirements to renew your massage therapy license, you can find one- or two-day courses that touch on certain aspects of pain and palliative care.

If you’re interested in a more in-depth educational experience and looking to earn a certificate to demonstrate your knowledge, there are programs available that dive deep into dozens of related topics and last as long as a year.

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What You’ll Learn in a Pain and Palliative Care Massage Program

There are a number of training programs that teach practitioners the fine points of working with patients seeking end-of-life comfort through massage. Classes in such programs range from basic…

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