Just three weeks before the 1998 Nagano Olympics, one of Canada’s top hopes for a medal in bobsled suffered an injury. Calgary’s Pierre Leuders strained a hamstring. In a sport that requires extraordinary power in the legs to ensure the best possible start, a hamstring injury is serious business. And with the most important competition of his career less than a month away, Leuders knew the problem had to be fixed – fast. “The typical injury formula is rest, ice and elevation,” Leuders says, “but sometimes that doesn’t work right away. I need hands-on therapy. I don’t have time to waste on something that isn’t working, and I sure didn’t have time to waste just before the Olympics.”

Fortunately, Leuders had been a regular client of chiropractor Dr. Jayson Shephard, owner of Shephard Chiropractic Advanced Health Centre in Calgary, and one of the few accredited practitioners of a revolutionary soft-tissue healing method called Active Release Technique – or A.R.T.

Some people call A.R.T. a miracle, but they’re wrong. Active Release Technique is neither random nor unexplainable. It combines sound scientific principles with the skill and sensitivity of a highly trained health care professional. The result is often a fast and complete recovery from such problems as carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive strain injury – a recovery that may seem miraculous, but is really just good medicine. Leuders had experienced A.R.T. before, on a nagging Achilles tendon, and said just one session accomplished more than the previous six weeks of conventional therapy. “It was almost immediate,” he recalled. “It was like night and day.”

To understand what Active Release Technique is – it’s helpful to first understand what it isn’t. It isn’t chiropractic care, although it’s often administered by a chiropractor accredited in A.R.T.

Chiropractic care works on the skeletal system – the bones and joints – to keep everything in line and functioning freely. It isn’t physiotherapy or massage, procedures that relieve muscle and motion dysfunction, but don’t necessarily address the underlying problems.

That’s essentially what Active Release Technique is – a non-invasive healing procedure that locates and breaks down scar tissue and adhesions that cause soft tissue injuries. It’s a “hands-on” manipulation that targets very specific problem areas and heals through a combination of pressure and motion.

A.R.T. was developed about a decade ago by Dr. Michael Leahy, a chiropractor based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Leahy is a former U.S. Air Force aeronautical engineer, and it was his engineering background that gave him the ability to look at the pains and problems of his patients from a biomechanical point of view.

He realized that the body’s nerves and muscles were incredibly complex, and had to work together in order to work well. When a muscle, tendon, ligament or nerve is damaged through trauma or overuse, the body will repair it with scar tissue. That’s a good thing when you cut your finger – it’s the body’s way of gluing the cut together so that it heals. But when that gluing results in one piece of muscle being glued to another, or a tendon and a nerve sticking together, it doesn’t lead to healing. Instead, pain, stiffness, weakness and numbness result. Leahy developed and trademarked A.R.T. after he found it could not only relieve that pain, but heal the injury.

Active Release Technique is performed only by specially trained and accredited practitioners. In Calgary, fewer than a dozen people have learned the technique – the first being Dr. Shephard. He was required to have an advanced knowledge of nerve anatomy and musculature, and to take part in an intensive training course, and to score above 95% on both a written and a practical exam. But the positive effects for his patients have been well worth the effort.

Dr. Shephard has several autographed photos on the wall of his Kensington Road clinic, from athletes happy with the care they’ve received. One is inscribed, “Thanks for keeping me out of retirement!” signed by Calgary Flames defenceman Steve Smith. Sidelined into the coach’s corner because of a persistent back problem, Smith was forced to hang up his skates the season before last. But after 15 seasons in the NHL and three Stanley Cup rings, Smith just didn’t feel ready to bow out of active play. What he was ready for was A.R.T. Dr. Shephard set to work on Smith’s back and made him well enough to play in the 1998/99 season. In fact, Smith was so healthy he was able to play more than 40 games – and was never out of the lineup because of his back. A.R.T. had healed his injury.

It’s not just top athletes who reap the benefits though; A.R.T. is a fast and effective way to heal a variety of strains, sprains, traumas and repetitive injuries in most people.

Therapists like Dr. Shephard detect and pinpoint the scar tissue causing problems. Then, through touch, they manually break the adhesion and, at the same time, use specific motions to force the layers of muscle, tissue and nerves to work together properly. Because it’s manual manipulation, and because it’s breaking through scarring and forcing a body part to correct a movement, A.R.T. can be uncomfortable – even painful. But it’s the “good” kind of pain, the kind that comes from knowing you’re solving a problem and healing an injury.

Is Active Release Technique for everyone? Of course not – no one method will solve every problem in every person. It’s not a preventative technique, and it’s not effective for injuries resulting from diabetes or hypothyroidism. But as a treatment, A.R.T. has proven itself to be a fast, effective, non-invasive way to heal a wide range of soft-tissue injuries, to correct injury-based mobility problems, and to get people moving again, comfortably and without pain.

What about Pierre Leuders? Well, his hamstring was healed through Active Release Technique, and when the 1998 Nagano Olympics were over, he brought home a gold medal.

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