Relieving tight muscles and trigger points can make a big difference in reducing joint stress and improving your overall quality of life. That’s why you should consider active release technique (ART). It can help turn on muscles that have been turned off due to injury and eliminate muscular pain.
Active release technique is a type of soft tissue therapy that helps relieve tight muscles and nerve trigger points, greatly reducing joint stress or muscular pains. I’ve visited ART practitioners for years to help me overcome a number of muscle- and joint-related injuries. I now recommend that anyone recovering from similar conditions considers ART, along with other natural, soft tissue treatments like Graston Technique, dry needling and NeuroKinetic therapy.
What Is Active Release Technique (ART)?
ART was first patented by P. Michael Leahy, a certified chiropractic sports physician who created his signature method to treat patients dealing with a wide array of chronic pains or injuries. ART is similar to deep tissue massage techniques and myofascial release (although it definitely has its differences) because it works by manipulating soft tissue, thereby reducing stress placed on joints and nerves.
The conditions that ART is used to help treat naturally, often without the use of medications, are those that affect fascia (connective tissue), major muscle groups, tendons and ligaments. Most are the result of overused muscles, which contribute to scar tissue formation, tears, pulls, strains and inflammation. The goal of active release technique is to restore normal mobility and “glide” between muscular tissue and nerves. (1) It can also help push joint fluid throughout the body and stimulate the lymphatic system, which helps lower inflammation.
Some of the problems most commonly relieved through ART treatments include:
- Lower back pain
- Shin splints
- Plantar fascittis
- Tension headaches
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Shoulder strains, including frozen shoulder
- Tennis elbow
- Sciatic nerve pain/sciatica
ART Techniques: How Active Release Works
The core benefit of ART is preventing and breaking up dense scar tissue, also called adhesions. Adhesions limit the normal range of motion of joints and muscles because they cause abnormal binding between muscle groups, are very tough and are inflexible compared to healthy tissue.
The reason that ahesions form is to bind injured tissues and keep them stable — however, the adhesions act like a strong “glue” and can often compress or pinch nerves. Nerves sometimes become entrapped by scar tissue, which causes trigger points and pain to develop. The more that scar tissue forms, the more joints or tendons become strained and nerves become compressed.
According to the Active Release Techniques website, soft tissue manipulations address several components related to scar tissue formation:
- acute injuries, including tears or collisions that can happen during exercise or sports
- micro-trauma, which is the gradual wear-down of tissue that’s often caused from aging and inflammation
- hypoxia, which results from tissue not receiving enough nutrients and oxygen
Who Benefits Most from Active Release Technique Sessions?
What are some signs that you might be experiencing adhesion/scar tissue accumulation and therefore can benefit from ART? These include: (3)
- stiffness in your neck, elbow, hands, knees or back, sometimes associated with bursitis or tendonitis
- increased pain or throbbing when exercising
- reduced flexibility and limited range of motion
- loss of muscle strength
- inflamed joints or frequent joint pains
- signs of nerve damage, such as tingling, numbness and weakness
ART treatment is a unique protocol that consists of very precise, targeted movements, most of which are done by the patient. Each ART session is different and custom-created to treat the patient’s problem depending on the location and severity of the symptoms. Over 500 different hand motions are used by trained ART practitioners to evaluate a patient’s condition, locate areas of tightness that signify tissue damage, and then to help the patient move in a way that releases the affected tissue through “directed tension and very specific movements.”
ART practitioners are commonly chiropractors or other trained health care providers who become qualified by receiving an ART certification. Using this patented formula, Dr. Leahy (the creator or ART) found that he was able to consistently resolve over 90 percent of his patients’ problems naturally. Once the underlying tissue problem is addressed, patients are less likely to experience other injuries going forward and can return to regular preventative practices like exercising, stretching and performing myofascial release.
Benefits of Active Release Technique
1. Increases Flexibility
By relaxing muscles naturally and reducing tough adhesions around muscles and joints, studies have demonstrated that even a single ART treatment session can help increase flexibility. This includes increasing flexibility in the legs, specifically the hamstrings, which tend to be a very tight area for even healthy, active adults and susceptible to recurring injuries.
A 2006 study published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics found that a single ART treatment helped 20 physically active male participants with no current or previous injuries to improve their scores on a sit-and-reach flexibility test. Following the treatment, the men on average experienced improved flexibility in the lower legs, which could translate to better protection against future injuries and even improved athletic performance. (4)
2. Improves Range of Motion Following Injuries
Research shows that ART treatments can help improve range of motion and mobility in those with musculoskeletal disorders or following injuries (acute trauma) and episodes of chronic pain. Adults have a whopping 70 percent chance of developing neck pain during their lives, and ART is now considered to be beneficial for treating chronic neck pain that can be caused by work-related injuries, sports or exercise.
One study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science compared the influence of active release technique to joint mobilization (JM) in patients with chronic neck pain. Visual abilities, pain scores, pressure pain threshold and neck range of motion were measured in the study’s 24 participants before and after treatments. Patients were assigned to one of three groups: an ART group, a JM group and a control group.
Following treatments, both the ART group and JM group demonstrated significant changes in visual abilities and neck range of motion compared to the control group. The ART group was found to produce greater improvements overall in several of the markers compared to both the JM and control groups. (5)
3. Reduces Chronic Lower Back Pain
One 2013 study conducted by the Korean Academy of Physical Therapy Rehabilitation Science found that ART helps lower symptoms of lower back pain, considered to be one of the leading sources of dysfunction among adults. Lower back pain has commonly been found to be triggered from abnormal activation and adhesions within the upper legs (specifically the gluteus medius), but ART can help break up scar tissue and release compressed nerves.
Twelve patients with chronic low back pain participated in this study and received ART treatments two times a week for three weeks, resulting in significantly lower pain intensity and pressure, according to a pain visual analogue scale. (6) Another natural treatment for low back pain is cupping therapy.
4. Treats Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Findings from a small 2006 clinical pilot study published in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine suggest that active release technique can be an effective treatment strategy for patients with carpal tunnel syndrome, which results in limited hand mobility and often swelling or pain due to nerve compression. Patients first completed a questionnaire and examination to assess their symptoms, then received active release technique treatments using a protocol intended to affect the median nerve of the hands three times a week for two weeks. Following treatment, patients reported significant improvements in symptom severity and showed increases in functional status scores compared to the start of the study. (7)
5. Helps Prevent Running Injuries and Improve Performance
There’s now evidence that ART treatments can help promote faster muscle recovery and improve running or athletic performance. According to Competitor.com, ART is considered “one of the fastest roads to recovery” by serious athletes. (8) It does this by helping restore normal muscle and connective tissue function, keeping the body flexible, and reducing fibrous tissue accumulation, which can go unnoticed in training athletes.
It’s possible for runners, athletes who perform triathlons and those who are training for professional competitions to miss signs of adhesions before it’s too late. This can cause tightening and shortening of muscles that wind up taking an athlete off the field due to limited mobility and strength loss.
How ART Compares to Other Soft Tissue Treatments
ART is different than massage therapy or stretching because it targets the underlying problem that causes pain and helps to actually break up existing adhesions. Stretching can help stop adhesions from forming in the first place when done at the right time and in the right way, but won’t treat scar tissue that has already formed. This doesn’t mean that you should skip stretching all together, however — it just means that you might require more targeted techniques to resolve an injury or chronic pain.
- ART vs. Massage Therapy: Most massages work by improving circulation and also lowering muscle tension caused by chronic stress. They can sometimes reduce pain by lowering trigger points in your muscles — however, they normally don’t do much to break up adhesions or restore proper tissue function past a certain point of injury. ART is most like deep tissue massage, or myofascial release, but is usually much more targeted and custom-tailored to the patient.
- ART vs. Graston Technique: Graston is another type of soft tissue mobilization technique that works similarly to ART since it targets adhesions. It helps break up fibrous muscle scar tissue, improve blood flow, move tissue fluids, and reduce pain or muscle tension. One thing that makes Graston different is that it’s performed using a handheld instrument that helps apply deep pressure to the patient in a rhythmic way. Graston is also a patented technique performed by certified providers, including athletic trainers, chiropractors, hand therapists, occupational and physical therapists. (9)
- ART vs. Dry Needling: Dry needling is a technique that many trained physical therapists use that addresses myofascial pain and nerve or spinal injuries. What makes this technique different from other modalities is that it uses a “dry” needle (meaning one that doesn’t release any medication). According to the American Physical Therapy Association, the dry needle is inserted into trigger points in muscle tissue that causes pain to be dispersed outward. (10) This helps disturb “motor end plates,” the sites at which nerve impulses are transmitted to muscles and pain is experienced. Dry needling is often used in conjunction with other treatments, stretching and physical therapy to offer improved range of motion and other benefits.
- ART vs. Rolfing: Rolfing® is a trademarked system of soft tissue manipulation and movement that helps restore healthy posture and myofascial structures. Rolfing is done through deep hand manipulations, similar to deep massage, that reaches connective tissue all the way down to the skeletal system. It’s often used to improve spine health and lower muscle tension, fatigue, pain or strains due to stress and poor posture. (11)
- ART vs. NeuroKinetic Therapy (NKT): NKT is a type of corrective system that uses muscle memory to reduce postural problems and pain. NKT practitioners first identify where muscles are behaving abnormally, then restore balance and proper function through targeting the motor control center (MCC), a part of the cerebellum in the brain. The MCC is responsible for coordinating all movement patterns in the body and learns how to control the muscles through trial and error. The MCC can be “reprogrammed” so that new, healthier functional patterns are learned. (12)
Precautions and What to Expect from Active Release Technique
Active release technique is a very precise treatment and can sometimes feel “aggressive” or painful, which means it might not be right for everyone. It’s important to receive a thorough examination before having treatment performed if you’re currently injured or suffering from a limiting disability.
While some people experience positive results and improvements after just one ART session, everyone is different, and sometime it takes more time. Soreness and mild pain after treatments are normal, just like with massage therapy. It’s best to pace out treatments according to how you react and to discuss your symptoms and progress with your provider before every session. How many sessions should you expect to need? Active in-training athletes usually receive ART at least one or two times per month, while others might benefit from one time monthly or even less in some instances.
To be cautious and avoid further injury or pain, always make sure to receive treatments from a certified ART provider. The ART provider network now includes 14,000 certified providers, mostly based in North America but also elsewhere. Providers can be found through the Active Release Techniques website. Providers can be located either by region or name, plus narrowed down depending on their specialized qualifications, such as working with people who complete marathons or who have suffered from spinal and extremity injuries.
- Active release technique is a type of soft tissue manipulation treatment used to break up scar tissue, also called adhesions.
- This helps prevent injuries, improve range of motion, promote flexibility, lower pain and improve recovery time in athletes.
- ART is a trademarked, patented protocol that is performed using over 500 movements by certified practitioners who can be found through the Active Release Techniques website.