Physical Therapists vs. Sports/ Medical Massage Therapists

Physical therapists and Massage Therapists both have a role in rehabilitating clients after illness and injury. They may even share office space and referrals. Still, there are some big differences between the two professoins.

Physical Therapy Training and Practice

Physical therapy education reflects more of a medical model. Physical therapists have a higher education level which includes a far more in-depth study of body systems. While a Canadian physiotherapist – roughly the counterpart of a U.S. physical therapist – may earn a credential on the strength of a master’s degree, the doctoral degree has become the U.S. standard.

A physical therapist’s scope of practice is greater than a massage therapist’s. The physical therapist may perform medical massage but will also do many things that are outside a massage therapist’s scope, for example, assessing the physical function of a person who has had a stroke or selecting assistive devices to help a patient with mobility issues. The massage therapist may make diagnoses, though the scope will be different than a medical doctor. The physical therapist may put together complex treatment plans.

In many cases, it won’t actually be the physical therapist carrying out the more routine treatments; it will be the physical therapy assistant, an individual who typically has a degree at the associate’s level.

Massage Therapy Training and Practice

Massage therapists have post-secondary education, but are not usually required to hold degrees. They often use continuing education to acquire specialized skills in disciplines that interest them. While some continuing education classes may be as short as a couple hours, others are hundreds of hours; it is not uncommon to delve deeply into subjects like orthopedic treatment or sports massage.

Massage therapists have not traditionally been seen as healthcare providers, but increasingly they are becoming part of healthcare teams and even providing services by prescription. While we don’t usually think of a “dose” of massage, Premera Blue Cross reports on a study that found that the dose of massage effective for osteoarthritis of the knee was one 60-minute session per week (

A degree can be an asset for massage therapists who want to work in medical settings, though the vast majority of states do not mandate one. Some massage therapists who find employment in healthcare settings have had prior healthcare experience (for example, as nurses), but others break in on the strength of continuing education and/or references.

Massage therapists who work in hospitals or other healthcare settings may carry out a very specific set of duties. While massage therapists who work in spas often provide lifestyle and wellness recommendations, those who work as part of a healthcare team must be especially mindful of the limitations of their scope of practice.

Sports massage therapists often find themselves in a rehabilitative role – and working alongside other practitioners, from athletic trainers to physical therapists. They, too, must be mindful of their role.

Interdisciplinary Strengths

A massage therapist, though, is not just a professional with a more limited scope of practice. He or she brings unique perspectives to the team. Massage therapy students often learn a wide variety of Eastern and Western techniques and philosophies. They are typically taught to view the body in a holistic way.

Some healthcare professionals opt to hold multiple credentials, including one in massage. It’s not always the massage therapy credential that comes first. Healthcare practitioners sometimes decide that they want the extra training in massage — and that they want to communicate to the world that whatever else they are, they are also licensed massage therapists.