Ask the Expert: What is Active Release Technique?

ART isn't just a type of massage. We asked an expert to explain how it's different.


Dr. Kelly performs ART. Photo provided

If you’re like us, you thought active release technique (ART) was just a fancy kind of massage, but it’s actually a complex technique used to treat the body’s soft tissues. We asked Dr. Kate Kelly, an ART practitioner at Active Recovery Boston, to explain what it is and who needs it.

Q: What is active release technique?

A: Active Release Technique is a patented, state-of-the-art treatment for injuries to muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia, and nerves, collectively known as soft tissue. Almost any soft tissue structure in the body can be treated with ART.

Every ART session is actually a combination of examination and treatment. The ART provider uses his or her hands to evaluate the texture, tightness, and movement of muscles, fascia, tendons, ligaments and nerves. Abnormal tissues are treated by combining precisely directed tension with very specific patient movements. Most often, the patient is an active participant in the movement of the muscle by moving it from its shortest position to its longest. For example, if the quad muscle is being treated, the patient starts by sitting with his or her leg straight. Once tension has been established by the practitioner, the patient slowly flexes or bends the knee.

Although ART and massage therapy work well together as adjunct therapies, massage therapy often does not effectively deal with muscular adhesion and scar tissue. ART uses pressure combined with active lengthening of involved muscles to develop greater tension into the adhesion or scar tissue. This, in turn, creates increased friction to break the adhesions up and has longer-lasting results. Scar tissue adhesion is very resilient. This scar tissue binds up and ties down tissues that need to move freely. As scar tissue builds up, muscles become shorter and weaker, tension on tendons causes tendonitis, and nerves can become trapped. This can cause reduced range of motion, loss of strength, pain, and sometimes numbness and tingling. Only by generating high amounts of tension rather than just pressure (which is what happens in massage therapy) can the adhesion be effectively and permanently removed.

Problems such as headaches, shoulder pain, tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain, sciatica, knee pain, and plantar fascitis are just a few examples of soft tissue injuries. Scar tissue is often an underlying component to injuries, whether the injury is acute, chronic, traumatic, or overuse related. ART is highly effective for locating and eliminating scar tissue.

Patients who are having discomfort or limited range of motion and who don’t see anything wrong on an x-ray are often great candidates for soft tissue investigation through ART. ART is also extremely effective in treating athletes who have been injured in their sport, notice performance decline due to limited range of motion or pain, or have chronic injuries. Additionally, ART’s effectiveness has spread to the workplace. Truly anyone can develop soft tissue injuries through trauma, stress, or overuse of muscles.