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physiotherapist uses active release technique runners thigh

Resolve back pain, tennis elbow and more with Active Release Therapy

physiotherapist holds bent leg of patient active release technique

Whether you’ve got pain from a sport injury or from working at a desk all day, it can be tempting to ignore it, hoping it will just go away on its own. You learn to live with minor discomfort, adjusting your activities so the movement doesn’t hurt.

But what if a simple treatment could remove your restrictions, relieve your pain and restore your movement?

With Active Release Therapy, you can target those restrictions caused by both chronic and acute pain. There’s a lot to discover about this relatively new form of physiotherapy treatment.

What is Active Release Therapy?

Active Release Therapy (ART), also called Active Release Technique, is a non-invasive manual therapy technique that works to correct soft tissue restrictions that cause pain and mobility issues. The goal is to break down scar tissue and adhesions in order to optimize function in the body.

The technique can be applied to both acute and chronic conditions involving the muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves and fascia.

During treatment, a trained physiotherapist will position your tissue so it’s “active.” For example, to treat an injured muscle with ART, the therapist puts you in a position so that the muscle is shortened and then applies hands-on tension. Next, they’ll instruct you to lengthen while they hold the tension in place. They may apply this combination of tension and motion to several different areas before you feel the full release.

It’s kind of like massage but with motion and stretching, except the physiotherapist will use small, targeted contact points rather than broad strokes. The technique can feel quite intense as it increases your nervous system’s tolerance for stretching the muscle. Many describe it as a “good pain.”

physiotherapist presses thumbs into back of thigh

How is it different than other soft tissue techniques?

Other treatments like massage or myofascial release techniques also focus on this concept of release, but ART has a unique approach. It involves over 500 specific manual therapy techniques that practitioners learn to assess and treat restrictions in soft tissue. At each session, the therapist will assess which specific muscles to target and find the scar tissues that are causing the problem within it. ART works by combining manual tension on scar tissue with patient movement.

Physiotherapist vs. chiropractor: Who performs ART?

Active Release Therapy was developed by Colorado sports chiropractor Mike Leahy in the 1980s before spreading quickly as a go-to method for professional athletes and then to everyday use with the greater public.

Today, both physiotherapists and chiropractors can be certified to perform active release, which means they are trained to use ART on its own or in combination with other rehabilitation techniques that are part of your treatment plan.

Certification in ART requires practitioners to learn over 500 specific protocols to treat affected areas of the body with manual tension and patient movement.

physiotherapist holds patient forearm and elbow

Common conditions treated by ART

ART can be used on individuals with acute trauma (i.e. tears, sprains), chronic trauma (i.e. lower back pain), cumulative or overuse traumas (i.e. repetitive strain injuries, tendonitis) and post-operative cases. ART is ideal for individuals with conditions related to overworked muscles.

Common conditions treated by active release include:

  • Lower back pain
  • Sciatica
  • Plantar fasciitis
  • Neck pain
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Tennis or golfer’s elbow
  • Runner’s knee
  • Shin splints
  • Shoulder pain
  • Frozen shoulder
  • Tendinitis
  • Other sports injuries
  • Post-operative scarring and adhesions

Active Release Therapy for lower back pain

The psoas muscle, which runs from your spine to your hip, contracts when you sit all day, helping to keep your spine aligned. This muscle, along with muscles in your lumbar spine, can become overworked through repetitive movement or a sudden injury, leading to inflammation. When the therapist gets this psoas muscle to release through manual tension, lower back pain can often disappear.

You don’t have to put up with lower back pain. ART is a non-invasive solution that can bring relief and get you moving again. It can be used to treat general lower back pain, as well as an effective sciatica treatment approach, targeting the sciatic nerve to resolve the entrapment of the nerve.

Benefits of Active Release Therapy

The benefits of ART include a decrease of pain in the affected area and an increase in mobility and strength. By breaking down scar tissue, active release can improve your circulation and range of motion, helping you move more easily.

A relief of symptoms can happen immediately in the first session, with full benefits often requiring no more than three sessions.

Scar tissue 101

Scar tissue is a dense fibrous material that forms through inflammation to connect and bind injured tissue. It’s part of your body’s natural healing process. However, scar tissue is less functional than normal, healthy tissue. With scarring or adhesions (a band of scar tissue that binds two parts of tissue or organs together), muscles can become shorter and weaker, while nerves can become pinched or entrapped—all of this leads to pain and dysfunction in the area.

Breaking up scar tissue and adhesions through ART relieves pain and brings function back to that part of the body.

What’s the cost of Active Release Therapy?

Because ART is a technique used by chiropractors and physiotherapists, it’s often available at the same cost as a normal session. It’s always a good idea to inquire about the cost of treatment before booking an appointment, as well as checking with your health insurance provider about whether Active Release Therapy is covered by your plan.