February 13, 2016

Cure Shoulder Pain Without Surgery with Active Release Techniques (ART)

Recently, every time I had a bench workout, I could feel an acute “pinch” in my right shoulder when pressing any considerable load, akin to a spike being driven into it through the anterior deltoid.  This discomfort, over the course of several weeks, progressively became measurable pain and, with that, weakness.  The tell tale sign of such weakness, no doubt recognizable to many weightlifters, was when the bar raised awkwardly and unevenly while benching so that rather than being parallel to the floor, the left-to-right downward slope of the bar resembled something that could be construed as a profile view of Charlie Sheen’s crack pipe dangling from his mouth at “Sober Valley Lodge,” as my right arm lagged pathetically behind my left.  With that, I knew it was time for a visit to my ART provider for a soft tissue tune-up.  After just one session (!), my shoulder pain was gone and my strength restored. 

Years earlier, after as many as 10 years with nearly debilitating shoulder pain and corresponding weakness in my LEFT shoulder (any many visits to various Orthopedic specialists), I’d decided to give ART a try as a last ditch effort before surgery.  The results?  Unbelievable to me then, and still amazed by it today, it CURED my left shoulder in a matter of a couple short months.  The pain, which had infiltrated and set up shop in my day-to-day life, was completely gone, and my pressing strength had shortly thereafter returned.  A through-and-through cynic, I hadn’t had much hope when I scheduled my first appointment based on a series of very positive reviews I’d read from professional athletes and weightlifters, but after my first session, I knew I’d stumbled upon something different than ordinary physical therapy.  I could literally feel improvement after just one (brutal) session, and thankfully decided to stay the course.  I am fully convinced that this treatment is, unequivocally, a therapeutic gem for serious strength (and other) athletes.  So I’ve decided to introduce it to my readers who’ve never heard of it or are undecided as to whether it is right for them.  Let’s face it, as strength athletes, injuries are inevitable, so we need to evaluate all our options for recovery and rehabilitation.

So, what is ART?

Active Release Techniques (ART), according to its website, is a “soft tissue system/movement based massage technique that treats problems with muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia and nerves.”  It treats the following ailments, among others: 
  • Shoulder pain
  • Back pain
  • Sciatica
  • Knee problems
  • Tennis elbow
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Shin splints
  • Plantar fasciitis
  • Headaches

Note the first half of the above list… Remind you of any weightlifting injuries you’ve experienced lately?  They are extremely common injuries we all famously attribute to “the gym,” and rightfully so.  ART specialists tell us those conditions “all have one important thing in common: they are often a result of overused muscles.”  Exactly.  Overused muscles, in a way, define who we are and what we do in the gym.  Continuously pushing ourselves beyond previous limits is a tenet of our training, a precondition to building muscle and getting stronger.  It’s at the heart of what we consider a workout.  Inevitably, then, we will experience injury as overuse produces the following changes in the soft and connective tissues (i.e. muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia and nerves):

  1. Acute conditions (pulls, tears, collisions, etc)
  2. Accumulation of small tears (micro-trauma)
  3. Insufficient oxygen (hypoxia)

The above 3 soft tissue changes cause your body to develop dense scar tissue in affected areas, which impairs the tissues’ ability to function properly (and certainly not optimally, which is obviously important to strength athletes).  As scar tissue accrues over time, muscles shorten and become weaker, tension on tendons causes tendonitis, and nerves can be compressed. This cocktail of dysfunction often ultimately results in reduced range of motion, noticeable loss of strength, and significant, sometimes debilitating pain. Compressed nerves are also likely to produce tingling, numbness, and further weakness, symptoms to which anyone who’s ever had sciatica can attest (such as yours truly).

Let me wrap up by saying a few things about my own experiences with ART treatments.  First, they effing hurt.  Particularly when being treated for shoulder injuries.  As noted above, ART is a movement-based massage technique, and true to that description, the patient needs to participate in the treatment.  In my experience, when being treated for shoulder injuries, the patient involvement in the therapy can be excruciating, as one’s doctor is digging deep into the soft tissue while the patient is moving against the doctor’s manipulation.  The day after, there will often be substantial bruising and soreness in the areas treated (though it is a welcome pain and one that signals important changes, corrections, in the tissue, treating the problem rather than merely the symptoms).  I recall my doctor’s saying during my first ever ART session (relating to the aforementioned left shoulder), “most of my patients never return after the first session.”  Some of that discontinuity may be associated with the fact that ART can often produce results in only a single session, but more likely, and to his point, it is often because the treatments can hurt so damn much.  But we’re weightlifters, so we can handle it…

Also, you should understand that for long-standing, very significant injuries, the soft tissue has accrued so much scar tissue, and mind-muscle memory/movement patterns have been so significantly skewed over an extended period of time, that a multi-pronged approach is best to fully and permanently heal the tissue.  With respect to my left shoulder, which had been described by a number of prominent orthopedic surgeons as an injury that could only be improved through invasive surgery, my doctor had prescribed a number of rehabilitative shoulder exercises to perform in the gym with very light weights to re-establish normal movement and retrain the mind-muscle connection to default to normal movement patterns.  This is important for long-run effectiveness, and something not to be ignored when undergoing therapy.

So, how do you find a local ART provider?  There is a locator here into which you simply type your address to find the nearest provider. 

I encourage any of you who have been suffering training injuries for some time, and have perhaps tried many options for rehab, including surgery, to give ART a try and let the W8Room community know about your results.  Please also comment on this post if you’ve already tried ART and would like to share results!

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  1. I have a work comp injury of my shoulder and neck, how can I find out about this ART technique to have my orthopaedic doctor prescribe it

    • You can find some pretty thorough information on the ART website, a link to which is included in the post. There is a locator there as well, so you can input your zip code and find the closest provider. That’s how I found my local provider, who is excellent.

      For more testimonials, you can always simply google search “ART” or “active release techniques” as well… The web is rich with reviews. Powerlifting sites will usually cover ART because it’s such an effective treatment for joint and soft/connective tissue injuries.

      Good luck, and keep me updated.

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