My experience with Active Release Techniques (ART): Part 1

I should start this series by revealing what a huge mess my back is. I had a doctor tell me in high school that I wouldn’t be able to walk by the time I was 25 if I continued on the path I was on. Once I was 25, I had a doctor look at my X-rays and tell me he couldn’t believe I was walking around living a normal life without regular pain medication. Spondylolisthesis, former gymnast, cheerleader, stress fractures and misalignment, blah blah blah, whatever.

Suffice it to say: my back is a huge fucking mess. Also: I don’t fucking care and that’s not the point of this post.

I do Pilates, SLT (basically the amped-up-on-crack cousin of Pilates), and general core work for my back at the suggestion of a doctor and, despite the mess revealed by X-rays, my back has never felt better than it has since I started my regimen several years ago. I rarely get low back pain anymore unless it’s an acute injury which I’m more prone to because of my history but which I can avoid by being very mindful while exercising and watching my posture in daily life.

So imagine my surprise when I woke up a few weeks ago and couldn’t turn my head to the right! I couldn’t make it even 45 degrees to the right. I could hardly even turn it to the left. I couldn’t nod “yes” or shake my head “no.”

I will do basically anything to avoid making an appointment that requires me to leave my house, including walking around with a completely immobile neck for over 24 hours. So that’s exactly what I did for about 3 days. I finally realized that I had to do something about it when I was pulling out of my driveway to bring my kids to preschool and almost got pulverized by oncoming traffic because I was unable to turn my head enough to see out of my side mirror (#sorryhusband, never told you this). Earlier that morning, I also may or may not have dropped the 2-year-old onto the floor because my right hand was actually getting weak. (Honestly, he’s perfectly capable of walking and I shouldn’t have to hold him so much anyway so it serves him right.)

I decided to try a chiropractor because MDs in the past have always just told me I should a) get surgery or b) take pain meds/get regular epidurals, and neither of those options is my scene. My aunt is a chiropractor and told me about Active Release Techniques (ART) which is supposed to be really helpful for soft tissue injuries. I went on the ART website, found a provider, and made my appointment for that day!

I actually showed up to the chiropractor appointment which I’m still patting myself on the back for. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I could hardly make the left turn into the facility parking lot before my first visit.

When Dr. Todd first examined me, he was pretty appalled at the limited range of motion not just in my neck but all over my body. I have man shoulders and thighs and I’ve been thinking for a while that I need to do something to loosen them up so that didn’t come as a shock to me.

(not actually me but it could be)

I started out face-down on a table with some kind of device on my upper back/neck that made my muscles tingle. I’ve experienced this device four times now and I’m still not sure what it is but the sensation is pleasant. Once I was fully cooked, my timer went off and the doctor reentered the room for the actual ART portion, which was not as pleasant.

My personal definition of ART is as follows: you in a room with a sadist/doctor poking and pulling your muscles aggressively in sensitive spots (and also in non-sensitive spots that somehow connect to the sensitive spots) with his thumbs and heels of his hands, oh and also he’s directing you to do specific movements repeatedly so he can get deeper into the sensitive spots. I was face-down, face-up, sideways, arms over my head, arms wrapped around my waist, reaching up, reaching across, retracting my chin… I think the only thing I didn’t do was stand on my head but maybe that’s coming in a future visit.

The whole thing took under 30 minutes and by the time I stood up, I had significant improvement in my neck mobility. I was shocked at what a huge difference it made in such a short period of time.

We proceeded to a different room where he showed me some exercises to do at home. I don’t think these were specifically related to my neck but I know chiropractic care is meant to be more of an all-over/“everything is connected” type of approach. The exercises seemed to be core-focused so I thought I’d breeze through them because I work pretty hard on my core and they were extremely basic. By the end of only about 10 minutes, though, I was surprised to feel some heat and shakiness in my core.

My neck is almost back to normal now, and typically this is when I’d jump off the treatment wagon and wait for it to heal the rest of the way on its own a.k.a. “never let it fully heal.” But for once in my life I’m going to stick it out for an entire treatment plan which is twice a week for six weeks. I’m two weeks in and I can already feel a huge difference not just in my neck and shoulders, but my hips and back as well.

I’m pretty excited to see what kind of a difference this process will make for the way my entire body feels. My hope is that it will open up my range of motion and help me feel more comfortable and not so “tight” throughout the day. Jury’s still out on that.

As for ART specifically, though, I’m a believer so far. I’m looking forward to having my neck back to 100% and I really do think ART will get it there. Here’s to the next four weeks of my first-ever completed treatment plan!

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