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Massage therapy is the fastest growing field in the alternative medicine arena. That's not a bad thing, but it may not necessarily be a good thing, either.

Therapeutic massage--Swedish, sports, deep tissue, neuromuscular, somatic--is healthy. Stress reduction, increased circulation, improved posture, and pain relief are undisputed benefits of a natural, non-invasive form of treatment for a myriad of discomforts. A proper massage, done by a trained, compassionate and competent therapist is one of the most luxurious and restorative gifts we can give ourselves.

But there's the rub! All across the United States, in big cities and rural communities and everywhere in between, medical massage clinics, body renewal centers, on-site practices, and holistic therapy spas are springing up like mushrooms in the rain forest. Only nineteen states have education and/or licensing requirements. In the other thirty one, legislation is left to the counties or towns. Many localities have no legal requirements at all; anyone can hang a shingle and do massage for money.

In such an unregulated mish-mash, how does a body go about finding a therapist that is trained, compassionate and competent? Word of mouth, of course, is a practical method of finding any health care provider. When someone you trust recommends the work of their therapist, that may be all you need to schedule an appointment. It's even more valuable when the same name comes to you from several different sources.

But if you are searching out a bodyworker without a trusted reference, there are some questions you can ask to put yourself into qualified hands.

* Find out how much training she has had. Although the "gift of healing hands" can't be discounted entirely, it will make a difference if the structured training comes from a video from the local rental store, or if she's graduated from a 1,000 hour nationally certified massage school.

* Ask if she has a specialty. Does she primarily do stress reduction work, or is her focus rehabilitation after an injury or disabling disease? Does she work in a soothing, relaxing atmosphere or a clinical one with her work emphasizing the structural workings of muscles and postural alignment? Is she certified for geriatric work, infant massage, maternity care, addiction recovery, working with abuse survivors---or anything else that would apply to your situation.

* Ask how long she has been practicing. A newly graduated therapist may not have the benefits of experience, but she may balance that with training in the newest techniques.

*Ask if she does work that's covered by insurance. Not all states permit this, and not all skilled massage therapists choose to align themselves with insurance work, but those who do usually have to meet strict standards of training and ethics.

*How much do they charge? Do they offer discounts for seniors, or for pre-payment for a series of treatments? The going rate for a one hour massage ranges from $45 to more than $100, depending on the facility and the part of the country.

By asking these questions, and listening to the answers, you should have a feel for the personality and values of your prospective therapist. Be wary of someone who promises to "fix everything" in one or two sessions, or, at the other extreme, expects you to make a long time commitment. Also be cautious if you hear negative comments about traditional medicine, or other massage therapists.

There are also some questions to ask yourself before you select a massage therapist.

*Do you prefer a male or a female bodyworker? Gender really does not guarantee quality work, but if you would be more comfortable with one or the other, acknowledge that.

*What do you expect from the treatment? An oasis in the midst of stress, relief from migraines, help getting over an injury?

*How convenient is the office or clinic for you, in terms of location and hours?

Once you have chosen your therapist and made an appointment, plan ahead to make you session a wonderful experience.Dress comfortably, eat lightly if at all for a couple hours before you session, and expect to come away refreshed, renewed, and restored!