Active release therapy is a set of techniques for treating musculoskeletal problems. After feeling for the precise location of musculoskeletal dysfunction, practitioners aim to release affected tissues. However, the scientific evidence for active release therapy remains limited.

This article is about active release therapy. After explaining who performs this treatment, it will discuss its purpose and the conditions that it might help.

It will also detail scientific research on active release therapy.

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According to the Active Release Techniques (ART) website, active release therapy aims to alleviate the symptoms of musculoskeletal problems. For example, some people use the method to treat strains and sprains.

To perform this treatment, an individual must be an ART Certified Provider. A person can only become certified after taking a course from ART.

ART is a business. Its president is Dr. P. Michael Leahy, who first developed active release therapy.

According to ART, the main purpose of active release therapy is to reduce pain and improve musculoskeletal function. This therapy aims to reduce pain by addressing underlying musculoskeletal dysfunction.

The company says that active release therapy can reportedly help with both minor and complex injuries. It does not matter whether those injuries arose from exercise or a sedentary lifestyle.

ART claims that active release therapy can effectively treat several musculoskeletal conditions. These include:

However, ART does not provide any evidence for these claims.

Below we summarise some scientific studies on ART’s effectiveness.

General musculoskeletal problems

According to a 2022 review, ART therapies may have a positive effect on some general musculoskeletal problems. These include:

  • pain
  • reduced range of motion
  • disability

The review looked at nine studies that investigated ART therapies. The review summarised that:

  • six studies found that ART therapies significantly improved pain
  • six studies found that ART therapies significantly improved a person’s range of motion
  • two studies found that ART therapies significant improvements in disability

However, it is important to note that the review states there were several methodological problems with these studies.

For example, several did not use a double-blind methodology. Double-blind methodology means that neither the participants nor those performing the experiment know who is receiving the treatment.

The review authors also conclude that more research is necessary on the effectiveness of ART therapies.

Lower back and leg pain

According to a 2019 report, there is evidence that active release therapy can improve low back and leg pain.

The report looked at 115 different cases of low back and leg pain. It found that using active release therapy often correlated with decreases in self-reported pain. Sometimes, these improvements occurred after only 1 month of treatment.

It is important to note that the report’s authors point to multiple methodological issues with this research. For example, the sample sizes of the study were of poor quality. Moreover, the study design means that it cannot rule out a significant placebo effect.

Scapulocostal syndrome and masticatory myofascial pain

Scapulocostal syndrome is a condition that can cause pain around the shoulder blade. Masticatory myofascial pain is a condition that can cause pain around the neck and jaw.

According to a 2021 study, a modified active release therapy can help with scapulocostal syndrome and masticatory myofascial pain.

The study looked at pain levels after 4 weeks of treatment. Each week, individuals with either condition received three sessions of modified active release therapy.

Each session was 1 hour long, and the authors recorded decreased pain intensity after this treatment period.

There is no evidence to suggest that active release therapy is unsafe.

However, researchers have not studied this topic in much depth. For example, one 2022 review notes that scientists still do not understand the long-term effects of active release therapies.

ART does not disclose many details about its techniques. However, the ART website provides an overview of the treatment process.

First, an ART-certified provider will feel the person’s painful body parts. The aim is to find the exact location of inflammation and damage. This helps the practitioner diagnose the underlying musculoskeletal dysfunction.

The next stage is to use specialized techniques to release the affected muscles, ligaments, or tendons. ART claims that each session should last around 15 minutes and that most problems resolve by the fifth treatment.

ART provides training courses for its version of active release therapy.

According to its website, there are four ART certifications:

  • Upper extremity: This certification teaches ART therapies for the hands, wrists, and shoulders.
  • Lower extremity: This certification teaches ART therapies for the feet, ankles, and knees. It also includes the hips.
  • Spine: This accreditation is for ART therapies that target the spine. These therapies target the back and neck. They also target the head, jaw, and abdomen.
  • Nerve: Practitioners with this accreditation can apply ART therapies to the nerves, no matter the body part.

A person can find a list of ART-accredited practitioners on its website.

Active release therapy aims to treat musculoskeletal conditions, such as pains and strains, sciatica, carpal tunnel syndrome, and musculoskeletal inflammation.

There is some evidence that this technique can help with certain musculoskeletal problems. However, more research is necessary.

Active release therapy appears to be safe, but there is little research into the long-term effects of the treatment.