The ART of injury treatment – active release techniques
First appeared in Sunday Telegraph.
If you’ve got an injury, or just a petulant niggle, it’s often tempting to ignore it. For many of us who do seek treatment, the progress can be frustrating; things get noticeably better, but the problem never disappears entirely. We learn to live with those ‘sore wrists’, that ‘tweak in the hip’ or that ‘angry ankle joint that flares up now and again’. To some extent, this is fair enough – realistic even: the body ages with years gone by and heavy exercise and / or repetitive strain causes inevitable wear and tear.
But I wasn’t ready yet to accept that the issues I’d been having around my hips / lower back and shoulders / chest for eighteen months were now just a part of me. I didn’t want to feel a bit restricted or a bit injured forever, so I decided to try a hands-on soft tissue treatment called Active Release Techniques, otherwise known as ART.
Just to be clear: this isn’t the ART therapy that requires you to draw pictures of emotions or make models of your family (though I’d gladly try that, if it promised to make me injury-free) rather refers to a style of treatment of ligaments, muscles, tendons and nerves. ART was developed in the mid 1980s by Mike Leahy, a Colorado Chiropractor with an engineering degree from the US Air Force Academy, though the education only became available in Europe in 2009 and, according to Nicolai van der Lagen, manager of ART education in Europe (activerelease.com), it’s now routinely used by medical staff at Everton and Tottenham football clubs, and pro cycle and athletics teams.
“To treat a muscle with ART, the muscle is shortened and a manual tension is applied to the muscle by a therapist’s fingers,” says Newcastle-based ART expert, Thomas Feeney (whitleybaychiropractic.co.uk). “The muscle is then actively lengthened by the person being treated, while the tension on the muscle is held in place. The treatment hurts a bit, although most patients describe it as a “good hurt”. It feels like a stretch that you need, but can’t do yourself. When a muscle is tight the technique works by increasing the nervous system’s tolerance to stretch the muscle.”
Take, for example, one of Feeney’s patients, Barry Pitts, a Personal Trainer at Ultimate Performance in Mayfair (http://upfitness.co.uk/) who had 18 months of anterior ankle pain when squatting or deadlifting. Pitts has been so overwhelmed by the positive affect of ART that he’s training in the technique himself.
“I never touched the front of Barry’s ankle,” says Feeney. “Instead I worked on his ankle ligaments and calf muscles and his pain was gone immediately. Pain reduction is complex, but changing the joint mechanics by treating the restricting tissues and ligaments should always be part of multidimensional rehabilitation program.”
I’ve been feeling a sharp pinch in the front of my right shoulder recently, particularly acute whenever I try and do tricep dips or press ups. Within about fifteen minutes of ART during which time Feeny applies pressure to certain areas around my chest and underarm whilst moving my shoulder joint simultaneously, I feel a release.
Feeney applies exactly this technique to my upper body. I’ve been feeling a sharp pinch in the front of my right shoulder recently, particularly acute whenever I try and do tricep dips or press ups. Within about fifteen minutes of ART during which time Feeny applies pressure to certain areas around my chest and underarm whilst moving my shoulder joint simultaneously, I feel a release.
“Your shoulder blades and arm would not move back enough to put a bar behind your head,” Feeney explains. “We changed the biomechanics by treating the pec minor (a chest muscle) and the anterior rotator cuff (a muscle in my armpit) but never touching where it hurts.”
The results are immediate. I stand up straight for the first time in weeks and, as if by magic, I can work my triceps with no problem whatsoever. Can it really be this simple?
Not quite. My lower body requires more attention; I’ll need regular ART sessions for three weeks to make pliable the gnarly muscle tissue that has built up around the front and back of my hips, and all down one calf muscle after years of heavy training. Feeney sends me to a London-based practitioner he trusts, Andrew Martin, founder of Active Backs (www.activebacks.com) and leading ART instructor. He’s the man responsible for helping Gavin Henson back onto the pitch soon after injury looked set to destroy the rugby star’s career (“Andrew Martin’s treatment was, hands down, the best sports injury treatment I’ve ever had,” says Henson) and the extraordinary rehabilitation, with his brother, fellow medical professional, Matthew Martin, of champion CrossFitter Annie Thorrisdottir after a spinal injury rendered her athletic dreams almost certainly over.
Not only is Martin versed in all things chiropractic, he’s also renowned for his expertise in helping different parts of the body to fully communicate after injury or overuse has left them not on speaking terms. Just one week into the process (twice-weekly appointments during which Martin works to release stiff areas and activate dormant muscles) and I can already feel a reduction in pain and am performing better in the gym than I have for over a year. Two weeks in, and I am certain that ART is working and my body’s various parts colluding with one another again. Intra-muscular communication looks imminent, those petulant niggles placated at last.
ART instructor Thomas Feeney highlights some of the most common problem areas, for which ART is a particularly effective treatment:
1. Chronic muscle tightness: ART can quickly loosen most muscle tightness. It is the equivalent of stretching every day for about 2 months.
2. Spinal problems: ART provides a quick relief for a stiff neck or a stiff upper back
3. Tightness in the extremities: tight hip muscles or ankles often limits the squat exercise, this can often be sorted by treating the tight muscles restricting the joints.
4. Over trained muscles / tendons: shoulder rotator cuff injuries, hamstring pulls and Achilles’ tendinopathy.
5. Repetitive strain injuries: tennis elbow, plantar fasciitis, shin splints and De Quervain’s tenosynovitis are often effectively remedied by ART.
– By Lucy Fry