The Real Miracle Worker

An interview with ART innovator Dr. Mike Leahy

TheReal Miracle Worker

Back in my small hometown in Texas, some of the more eccentric churches would hold these great tent revivals. Even if we didn't like their particular style of religion, we would still sit out in our cars and watch just for the sheer entertainment value of the show. (Like I said, it was a very small town – once we had shot up some stop signs, poked our favorite cousins, and gone to the Dairy Queen for a Dilly Bar, there wasn't much else to do.)

The really good revivals would bring in an out-of-town "preacher," complete with snakes and a banjo. Besides the usual speaking in tongues and rolling in the dirt bits, my favorite part was the "healing." The preacher would grab a true believer, smack her on the forehead and, sure enough, her arthritis, bunions, and hemorrhoids would all disappear in a flash of heavenly glory! Well, I didn't really go for all of that even as a kid, but I recently spoke to a person who just may be a true miracle worker.

Dr. Mike Leahy doesn't smack you on the forehead and, rumor has it, he can't play the banjo worth a shit. However, he does "lay on the hands" and perform what has been called miraculous healings. His innovative Active Release Techniques® (ART®) soft-tissue treatment has saved athletes and bodybuilders from career-ending injuries. Five minutes with Dr. Leahy can often save an athlete from expensive surgery and months of painful recovery.

Before Dr. Leahy decided to reinvent modern medicine, he was a fighter pilot for the United States Air Force and later polished his stainless steel testicles as a test pilot. Later, while flying for the airlines, his twin brother decided to become a chiropractor. After visiting a few of his brother's classes, Leahy traded in his wings to join his brother in the profession. A few years later, in what might some day be considered a medical discovery on par with the x-ray, Dr. Leahy developed ART.

Dr. Leahy is no "arm chair expert," either. He's a competitive athlete who's competed in 17 Ironman triathlons. Besides the Ironman, Dr. Leahy and his team perform as many as 600 ART treatments during the week of the competition. Never one to sit still, Dr. Leahy is preparing to compete in another Ironman competition next month. Testosterone was lucky to catch the man who's been called "the 8th wonder of the world" for an interview. Fasten your seat belts!

T: First things first, what's your educational background and how long have you been a chiropractor?

ML: Let's see, I've been a chiropractor for about 15 years, and before that I received an engineering degree from the US Air Force Academy.

T: You're known, of course, for your Active Release Techniques (ART). For those who've been living in bomb shelters for the past 30 years, give us a quick overview.

ML: One of the bad things about soft-tissue treatment is that all the various techniques are lumped together. "Oh, that's like massage or that's like trigger point" and really what we do is completely different. What we've done is figured out ways to manually find where soft tissue has changed and then use motion and manual tension to fix it.

T: How did you originally come up with ART? Did you study massage or rolfing techniques first?

ML: No, from very early on I was working with some well known athletes who were competing at a world class level. And with that caliber of athlete, you have to fix them right away, like today! Most of the treatment methods that were available at the time I started weren't very effective, and it just seemed obvious to me to develop this technique. The real key to it, though, was figuring out the specific causes involved with soft-tissue injuries. After I did that, I began refining certain techniques so that treatment was very predictable and worked very quickly almost all the time.

T: How long did it take you to perfect the technique?

ML: I'm still doing it! It's always evolving. So I'm better now than I was a year ago; and I'll be better next year and the year after.

T: We've heard some incredible success stories here at T-mag. TC even called you the 8th wonder of the world. Now that's some compliment!

ML: You know, I don't ask people to believe what the success rate is because it's almost too good to be true. So I let the treatment experience speak for itself. If someone has had an injury that's taking a long time to heal – or if they've been told they had to live with a problem or even have surgery – the only thing that's really going to prove the efficacy of ART is for me to fix them right away. It doesn't matter what anyone has said; the proof is in the fixing.

T: I'm sure it's different with every case, but how many treatments does it usually take?

ML: Well, let's take for example a weightlifter with a bad shoulder – a bodybuilder, an Olympic lifter, a baseball pitcher, swimmer's shoulder is another good example. It takes between three and six visits on the average.

T: About how long does each treatment last?

ML: Anywhere from 5 minutes to 15 minutes.

T: Is there a "rehab" period? Would they need a periodic tune-up?

ML: Oh no, when you're done, you're done.

T: Really? What about specific stretching on their parts to keep the adhesions released, etc.?

ML: You don't have to do that. When it's fixed, it's fixed. That's another thing that medicine accepts on face value that should never be accepted – that once you injure a shoulder you have to baby it or do special things. If we're smart enough, we should be able to fix it so it's as good as new, and that's always my goal. Now, you can re-injure it the same way you did the first time. So generally there are things that you should do so that you won't make the same mistake twice. One of those is to strengthen an area so that it better tolerates whatever activity your doing.

T: A lot of these adhesion buildups are caused by just years of weight training. Can we assume that every time we see a big strong guy that he has some of these problems?

ML: You can assume that a big strong guy will have problems. You can assume that a skinny guy will have problems. If fact, if they have two arms and two legs, they're probably going to have some of these adhesions some place.

T: Really?

ML: It's not necessarily weight lifting specifically that does it. It's chronic tightness in the tissue, and that can be caused by a million things. So, for example, people who sit at a desk all day long with tight shoulders get it. A golfer who hits balls for eight hours a day; he's going to have problems in at least four places!

T: You've worked with some top PGA golfers. Want to drop some names?

ML: It's not fair to drop their names unless they know we're going to do it. I don't like to take advantage of them.

T: You might be their secret weapon. They might not want to give that info out to their competition!

ML: Sometimes I feel like that! That's true, I've worked with some track and field people that don't want me to work on anyone else!

T: That's elite level competition these days! Besides shoulder problems, what other areas of the body do you work on?

ML: All of the neuromuscular skeletal soft tissue. That means all the ligaments, the muscles, the nerves, the fascia, the's almost scary. We don't work on livers and spleens and if you have a fracture we don't work on that, but if you've had a dislocation we can work on that.

T: What about tendonitis?

ML: That's very common for us to work on because it involves primarily the soft tissues. So we can fix tendonitis, a sprain, a strain...anything along those lines.

T: Without naming names, give us some cases you're particularly proud of.

ML: In one case we had a skier from Canada, probably their best alpine skier for many years. He missed the Olympics in Nagano because he had a skiing crash, which resulted in a concussion just two weeks before the Olympics. For eight and half months he was completely debilitated, had to be in a darkened room, couldn't walk two blocks to do errands, couldn't read for more than 30 seconds without getting nauseous and dizzy! This went on for eight and a half months and he saw everyone he could think of, but nothing worked. Finally, He found out about us, came down to Colorado Springs, and it took five minutes to fix.

T: That's amazing! What would cause a reading problem?

ML: He had a soft tissue problem that was actually pulling tissue and causing a tension on the brain stem. This is common with post-concussion syndrome; we see a lot of hockey players with it. But the reason we were really able to fix him is because we know what healthy soft tissues feel like and how they're supposed to respond. So we can physically palpate exactly where a soft-tissue injury is. It doesn't show up on an X-ray or a CAT scan, so you have to diagnose it manually.

T: You've worked with Milos Sarcev, the pro bodybuilder.

ML: Right, I just saw him last week.

T: Is this right – the doctors were going to actually cut away some of his bone?

ML: Yes, he had a bilateral shoulder impingement, and typically surgeons will cut away some bone to make more room for the humerus and the joint. The problem with doing that is the mechanical problems aren't solved. The arm just slides up higher, and a couple of months after the surgery he would have had the same problem again. You need to solve the mechanics. So Milos flew out here and we treated him for five minutes. Afterward, he was benching with no pain.

T: Wow! And before that he was out of bodybuilding for several months?

ML: Before he saw me he had cancelled out of all of his shows. But after treatment, he began doing every show in sight. We're going to work with him two weeks prior to the Olympia. One of the other things we can do is bring out the definition of the muscles and the fascial planes; we can get rid of the restrictions that kind of hold things back. So we're going to literally do his whole body two weeks before the competition.

T: Oh my God! That's amazing! Now this isn't a massage we talking about here. This hurts like hell, doesn't it?

ML: The better you do it the less it hurts. Some people say it's the worst pain they've ever had, but that's really an exaggeration. If you do the treatment well, most people say it "hurts good." And that's the best reaction we can get. However, there are some places on the body where it's just going to hurt. But most sites "hurt good" when you do it.

T: And if you're dealing with athletes that have millions of dollars at stake, they're not going to complain.

ML: Well, Gary Roberts and Brett Saberhagen are good examples.

T: Let's see, you guys helped Saberhagen get his fastball up from 88 miles per hour to 94 mph after one treatment?

ML: Yes, but more important is that before treatment he wasn't able to pitch – not for two and half years! But after treatment, he went right back in the lineup and won the comeback player of the year award. That's a big deal for him. Gary Roberts was "medically retired" from hockey, from the Calgary Flames. They said he could never play again. Now he's one of the best players for the Carolina Hurricanes. His career is back! We've had the same thing happen with NFL players, NBA players, and in just about every walk of professional sports we've seen that.

Note: Saberhagen recently signed a contract worth around 18 million smackers. That's a very big deal.

T: Ever come across injuries that you couldn't fix?

ML: Oh, yeah, that happens periodically. Our success rate is about 95%. We see about 150 new cases a month, so we're seeing 7 or 8 people we can't fix every month.

T: That's still pretty good odds!

ML: That's real good odds!

T: So why are other doctors so quick to go to the knife? Is it ignorance?

ML: Unfortunately yes. Most soft-tissue injuries can be effectively treated without surgery. There's still a need for surgery in some cases, but we almost never need surgery to repair conditions with the carpal tunnel and rotator cuff.

T: A 95% cure rate on carpal tunnel? How is that done exactly? Do you work right on the wrist and forearm area?

ML: There are 35 places that can trap the nerves going into the arm and hand, and it can be any of those. But we know how to manually find every single one of those sites. It's usually more than one; and it's not often the one at the carpal tunnel. That's just the result of the problem. But we can fix it manually.

T: Comment on this: one of our readers who's seen you said you can watch an athlete walk ten meters and know what the problem is and how to fix it. Pretty close?

ML: Um, I can usually do that. That's not something that we teach in our courses because I'm not sure how to teach it. But it's one of the best ways to find out what's wrong with an athlete and take them beyond just getting over an injury or pain. It's what I do with a lot of higher-level athletes in various sports.

Golf is an example. I'll go to the range with a PGA golfer and I'll watch him hit for five minutes. I can tell what's physically or mechanically holding him up, then correct it. His experience is, "Wow, it's a lot easier to hit the ball. I'm just naturally swinging right in the slot. I'm in the groove."

The same thing holds true for somebody who jumps, runs, or throws. If you really understand the engineering behind the biomechanics, you can see what's wrong. And then if you know the functional anatomy really well, you know which structures are causing the problem. And then if you can physically locate the lesion through palpation, you can fix it.

So we put all that together for an athlete. An athlete will come in and say he has pain in his shoulder. We fix the pain in the shoulder and it's gone. But what's even better is we'll have him do his sport and make him throw farther or harder or run faster. It's goes beyond pain.

Note: If that statement didn't make some pro athletes run to their phones and call Dr. Leahy, I'll eat my Jeep.

T: Why do you think every other person these days suffers from back problems?

ML: The major cause of back problems is a process called cumulative trauma disorder. This is exactly what we've been talking about. You do something like work all day, standing or sitting, and typically the deeper back muscles in most people are not as strong as they should be, so they stay tight. This will form scar tissue inside the muscle. Now a couple of things happen. One, the scarring shrinks so it makes the muscle short and it blocks the circulation and hurts. Mechanically it's not correct, so then you start affecting the mechanics of the spine and the discs, resulting in degeneration.

T: Sounds like a repetitive stress injury.

ML: Kind of like that. It's a long-term thing that builds up. But a person won't know all that is going on. All he'll know is his back gave out when he lifted a box. But it was coming on for a long time. Years ago, the problem was that you always had to get treated. We could make it better but you would always have to come in for the rest of your life. That's crazy! Fix the soft tissue and you fix the back. Then you don't have to come see us again.

T: Give us some self-diagnostic skills here. How do I know if I need ART?

ML: It's usually fairly easy to tell if the injury is in the soft tissue just by where it hurts. We use a system that we call "symptom patterns." We have symptom-pattern charts that patients look at and usually say, "Oh, that's exactly what I have! That's a picture of my problem."

T: I hear people all the time saying, "I just can't bench anymore."

ML: There's no way that that should be. You should be able to fix the shoulder and bench press. I hear that every week. People say, "I have never been able to bench press since my injury." Then 10 minutes later, after treatment, they bench press. Sprained ankles are the same way. They say, "I sprained my ankle in high school and it's always been weak." Or "I've had back pain or neck pain ever since my car accident." It doesn't have to be this way.

T: Do you see a lot of accident victims?

ML: Yes, they have the same trauma-induced injuries: One is a chronic tightness in the tissues that leads into scar-tissue formation. The other is an acute traumatic injury that causes inflammation and that leads to scar tissue. That tightness blocks circulation causing more scar tissue. It ends up being the same.

T: You know it seems like just about every person on the street could use this treatment. For those that can't make it to Colorado, there are other providers out there. How does one get certified in this?

ML: We train providers around the world, mostly in the US and Canada right now. There's a process you can go through involving hands-on seminars. We usually ask that you get study materials several months in advance; otherwise, you're overwhelmed by the volume of the information. I go to every seminar and my instructors and I maintain the level of expertise by making sure it's taught the same way every time. Then we have a credentialing process. A provider can be credentialed in one area of the body or the whole body.

T: Does it require a medial background to be a provider or can just about anyone get this?

ML: Just about anyone can, but the more experience they have with anatomy, diagnosis, and hands-on treatment, the better they'll do. You know, it takes years to really get good at this. But on the other hand, when somebody takes one of the courses, we can probably have them doing absolutely wonderful things in about a week. So maybe 50% of the results in a week. But then the next 50% takes quite a while.

T: Experience.

ML: Right, you just have to get your hands on a thousand people.

T: You know it seems that colleges should just send a trainer to you and get him certified. I mean, they're going to need this.

ML: That's happening. Pro teams are doing that now. Actually, there's a couple of pro teams now that want to hire us year round just to take care of their athletes. Their feeling is it's worth one athlete's salary to keep people in the game.

T: Let's change directions. Chiropractors can't prescribe drugs, of course. I know several chiropractors who are starting to supply nutritional supplements to their patients, things like glucosamine. Are you seeing any trends in that area?

ML: There are a lot of trends in that area. Everyone is getting more into it and getting a little more knowledgeable. This clinical nutrition is really in its infancy as well. There are some studies that show that glucosamine sulfate helps the integrity of the cartilage in the joints. So for many people, that's a good thing to consider.

T: How can an average person get in contact with you for treatment?

ML: Call Active Release Techniques at 719-473-7000. They can find a provider in their area or they can make arrangements to come out here if they feel the need to. We try to get it solved locally first.

T: Dr. Leahy, this is mind blowing stuff!. We appreciate you taking your time to chat with T-mag.

ML: Thank you.

As we concluded our interview, which ran a little long, I pictured Dr. Leahy's waiting room filled with Olympic and professional athletes and bodybuilders. As he walks past them the athletes stop reading their Sport Illustrated's and the bodybuilders stop reading their Highlights magazines. It's as if they expect him to turn water into Grow! or perform similar miracles like the ones he's about to perform on them. So whether you're a professional athlete and your salary depends on how well your body functions or you're just an average person who's tired of living with pain, contact Dr. Leahy or any ART provider. We're sure you'll soon be one of the faithful, too.

Chris Shugart is T Nation's Chief Content Officer and the creator of the Velocity Diet. As part of his investigative journalism for T Nation, Chris was featured on HBO’s "Real Sports with Bryant Gumble." Follow on Instagram