Effective Approach to Treat ‘Frozen Shoulder’

Self-massaging two acupoints does the trick in restoring flexibility to the shoulder joints

Middle-aged people are prone to shoulder pain, and when it is severe, even simple daily tasks such as dressing or combing hair can be difficult. Such pain may be a symptom of an incidence of frozen shoulder (also commonly known as fifty’s shoulder).

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners provide some tips on how you can massage corresponding acupoints, combined with proper exercise, to help a frozen shoulder recover sooner.

Frozen shoulder is known as adhesive capsulitis in modern medicine and is characterized by inflammation and adhesion of the tissues around the shoulder joints, making it difficult or even impossible to move.

The risk of having a frozen shoulder usually increases with age. Various studies have found that out of 1,000 Americans over 65, 35 suffer from frozen shoulder every year, and it is estimated that about 142,000 elders in the United States suffer from the disease.

Frozen shoulder usually lasts from one to several years from onset to recovery, and some patients may still experience symptoms after several years of treatment. Frozen shoulder is divided into three stages:

  1. The first stage is called the freezing (painful) period, during which the arm is painful to move, with the range of motion becoming limited and can last 10 to 36 weeks.
  2. The second stage is the frozen (adhesive) period, during which the pain is reduced, but the range of motion is further reduced, and usually lasts four to 12 months.
  3. The third stage is the thawing period when there is a gradual recovery of exercise ability and generally lasts five to 24 months.

The cause of a “frozen shoulder” may be due to injury, surgery, or disease, but often, the cause is not evident.

Yang Jingduan, a TCM cum Western medicine physician, and founder of Yang Institute of Integrative Medicine in the United States explained in his YouTube program, “SiWei JianKang (Four-Dimensional Health)” that the treatment of frozen shoulder in modern medicine includes increasing joint movement through physical therapy, injecting glucocorticoids to relieve internal inflammation, taking anti-inflammatory painkillers, and arthroscopic surgery to loosen joint adhesions.

Yang pointed out that unlike modern medicine, which focuses on structure and chemistry, joint adhesion, and inflammation—TCM treatment focuses on the body’s energy status. TCM refers to the energy in the human body as “qi,” and people over 50 have weaker qi and blood and cannot supply energy and nutrition to all joints.

Therefore, they are more easily affected by negative energy from the outside world, which is what TCM calls “evil qi.” The factor leading to a frozen shoulder is usually the “pathogenic wind.” Pathogenic wind can attack the human body with cold and dampness, and eventually damage the shoulders.

According to the theory of TCM, abnormalities of the six external factors of “wind, cold, summer heat, dampness, dryness, and fire (heat)” can lead to diseases, which are called the “six evil qi.”

Acupuncture Effectively Improves Range of Motion

Yang pointed out that acupuncture and moxibustion (burning ground mugwort to warm certain points along the body) can be used in the treatment of frozen shoulder in TCM, that is, acupuncture or moxibustion is used to stimulate the acupoints near the shoulder joint, or any other acupoints found on the meridians passing through the shoulder joint.

TCM believes that meridians are the channels through which energy flows within the human body, and acupoints are those points on the meridians that have special functions. Therefore, acupuncture and moxibustion on corresponding acupoints can treat diseases at the positions along which the meridians flow.

In addition to direct acupuncture on the affected shoulder, Yang found clinically that remote acupoint selection is more effective. For example, when one side of the shoulder joint is stiff, acupoints on the other side can be used to affect the stiff arm at the same time. This helps the shoulder joint regain mobility as quickly as possible. Acupoints commonly used to treat frozen shoulders include Tiaokou (ST38) on the legs and Quchi (LI 11) on the elbows.

A meta-study published in “Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine” in 2018 confirmed that acupuncture on Tiaokou is effective in improving frozen shoulders. Acupuncture at the affected shoulder acupoints is more effective than massage, anti-inflammatory painkillers, and for restoring mobility in the affected shoulder.

Self-Massage Also Works

Yang also suggested that patients can massage the Tiaokou and Quchi points on the opposite side of the body by themselves. For example, when the left shoulder joint is inflamed, they can press the Quchi and Tiaokou points on the right side. The way to find Tiaokou acupoint is to arch the instep, and the depression at the midpoint of the outer calf above the ankle is Tiaokou acupoint. Similarly, to find Quchi acupoint is to bend the elbow, and the depression at the end of the elbow crease is the Quchi.

Patients can massage themselves, or ask others to help do the massage. At the same time move the painful arm during the massage to achieve an even better result.

Epoch Times Photo
(The Epoch Times)
Epoch Times Photo
(The Epoch Times)

Give the Affected Limb Some Proper Movement

With a frozen shoulder, proper movement of the affected limb can promote recovery. Wen Binrong, director of Minghui Traditional Chinese Medicine Clinic in Taiwan, wrote an article in The Epoch Times about one interesting case.

A patient in Taipei, who had a frozen shoulder, often took a crowded bus and once reached up for a handle to support himself. He slowly raised his arm while enduring the pain in his shoulder and took hold of the handle. At that moment, the bus suddenly braked causing his body to sway back and forth. With one quick cracking sound, his ligaments were accidentally stretched and his frozen shoulder was healed.

Wen suggested that during the early onset of a frozen shoulder, the patient should move the limbs more by doing more lifting, stretching, and rotating movements—they should do it according to their tolerable limits and not overdo it. He advises not to be afraid of the pain and to still use the affected limb. Not using it for a long time will cause muscle atrophy, making the condition worse.

Shoulder Pain May Be Associated With Bruises

Tse See-li, a registered TCM practitioner in Hong Kong, said in an interview with The Epoch Times that persistent shoulder pain is mostly related to blood stasis.

Repetitive motions that lead to strain, or improper treatment after injury can both lead to bruising. If blood stasis cannot be absorbed by the body, it will affect the microcirculation of nearby tissues. When the surrounding tendons and muscles do not receive sufficient blood and nutrients, they will gradually stiffen—like aging elastic bands. For shoulder pain caused by blood stasis, the blood stasis must be removed for it to fully heal.

Tse said that he once treated a table tennis coach who came to see him because of pain in his left shoulder and arm. He claimed that he had suffered from a frozen shoulder for almost ten years. During that time, he tried various treatments but to no avail, and often felt an increase in heartbeats. Sometimes there was also pain behind his breastbone, and his throat often feels gas gushing upwards.

Tse diagnosed blood stasis on the left chest and then stacked the affected area with a medicinal bag made of Chinese herbal medicine to loosen the blood stasis and let it float to the surface. After five treatments, the patient felt that his heartbeat became normal again and felt no more pain in his left shoulder and arm.

It Might Affect the Whole Body If Not Treated Properly

When there is a problem with the shoulder, one will try to compensate by taking an abnormal posture to exert force and which can cause pain in the back. Tse said that once a construction worker came to him with a complaint of chest and shoulder pain. After removing the blood stasis, the pain in the shoulder improved, but he still felt pain in his back and hip joints.

Tse explained that when shoulder pain occurs, one should try to avoid exerting force on that part, and the back is usually tilted when carrying heavy objects, causing the pain to spread. In the beginning, the worker only paid attention to the shoulder pain and ignored the other parts. It was only after the shoulder pain improved, he started to be aware of the secondary pain.

Tse reminded everyone to pay attention and change postures frequently, to try to maintain a suitable working posture, and to never rely on just one side of the body. If you are injured, you should treat it in good time to help all underlying damage recover. Otherwise, after a prolonged time, it can cause sequelae (a condition that is the consequence of a previous injury) and many other problems.

Teresa Zhang is a reporter based in Hong Kong. She has written on health topics for The Epoch Times Hong Kong since 2017, mainly focusing on Traditional Chinese Medicine. She also reports on current affairs related Hong Kong and China. Contact her at teresa.zhang@epochhk.com
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