Acupuncture is most known for relieving pain but it also facilitates healing! In fact, acupuncture helps aid physical therapy after injuries. It especially works well for treating shoulder injuries such as frozen shoulder, rotator cuff injuries, impingement or labrum tears.
Frozen Shoulder, also known as adhesive capsulitis, occurs when scar tissue (adhesions) forms within the fibrous capsule that connects the shoulder joint. As the capsule tissue thickens and then contracts around the shoulder, mobility is restricted and can cause shoulder pain when the patient tries to move their arm. In extreme cases, patients can end up completely unable to rotate their arm or begin to experience it in their other arm as well, if left untreated.
Frozen Shoulder has multiple causes but most frequently results from a past shoulder injury, especially when someone has had their shoulder immobilized for a prolonged time frame such as following a fracture or surgery. It’s also more likely to occur in patients with diabetes and women are more likely to suffer from frozen shoulder than men.
Thankfully, acupuncture reduces shoulder inflammation which in turn allows the fibrous capsule to move more naturally and reduces the symptoms of frozen shoulder. Multiple treatments are used to regain not only mobility but achieve complete healing! Acupuncture also stimulates the release of endorphins and provides pain relief!
Acupuncture works so well at treating frozen shoulder it’s even on the suggested treatment list for the condition on Mayo Clinic’s website. Studies have shown acupuncture is “safe and effective for pain reduction, restoring shoulder function, and restoring flexion range of motion for frozen shoulder patients in the short-term and midterm.” In fact, one such study found that both acupuncture and electroacupuncture can help “thaw” frozen shoulder!
Your rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons which connect your upper arm and shoulder socket and is largely responsible for shoulder mobility, especially the ability to lift your arm above your head or rotate your shoulder to throw (hence the name “rotator” cuff). Because of this, many athletes, especially those who play sports such as baseball suffer from rotator cuff injuries at some point or another.
However, rotator cuff injuries don’t have to take you out of the game! These types of injuries can often be treated by acupuncture, cortisone shots, other pharmaceutical drugs, physical therapy or in severe cases surgery. In fact, acupuncture can be safely used in addition to other therapies including in addition to medications. It even helps aid rehabilitation after rotator cuff surgery.
Moxibustion, another traditional chinese modality which utilizes burning mugwort to warm and stimulate acupuncture points, can also aid in recovery!
So why does acupuncture work for rotator cuff injuries? According to one study, acupuncture treatments promote the release of neuropeptide and other substances by stimulating the sensory nerve endings of skin and muscle tissue. The release of β-endorphin and increase of 5-hydroxytryptamine in brain tissue during and following acupuncture treatments, can reduce rotator cuff pain and improve joint activity.
Additionally, injured shoulder muscles often contract causing pain and preventing blood from reaching the area. However acupuncture, specifically a method called trigger needling, can help unpinch these tensed-up muscles. This allows blood and lymphatic fluids to once again travel to the area, promoting healing as well as relieving pain and muscle tension.
Shoulder impingement syndrome is a painful condition that occurs when the acromion (top of the shoulder blade) rubs against or impinges upon the rotator cuff beneath it. Shoulder impingement syndrome is also known as swimmer’s shoulder and for good reason – it’s caused by excessive repetitive movements of the shoulder. In fact, it’s most commonly seen in athletes who compete in sports with a lot of overhead rotational motions, including but not limited to swimming, volleyball, and tennis.
Another common cause of shoulder impingement is bone spurs, which tighten the space around the rotator cuff causing it to rub against the shoulder blade, leading to swelling (much like a sprained ankle!). Swelling unfortunately also reduces the amount of space around the rotator cuff, which then causes it to rub against the acromion more. As you can see, shoulder impingement is a vicious cycle. In fact, if left untreated this condition can lead to rotator cuff injuries!
However, this cycle can be broken with acupuncture! Western doctors will try to prescribe medications to treat the symptoms, but acupuncture addresses the root cause of impingement syndrome. Acupuncture can not only relieve pain but also reduce inflammation, giving this condition time to heal. It also works to promote healing, strengthen the weakened muscles causing the issues, as well as repair tissue scarring. It’s also proven to work! A 2016 study shows acupuncture is a “safe and reliable technique to achieve clinically significant results” when it comes to treating impingement syndrome.
The shoulder labrum is the cartilage that reinforces the ball-and-socket joint as well as the rotator cuff tendons and muscles, stabilizing the shoulder. That’s why a labrum tear can actually lead to either partial or complete shoulder dislocation! The most common cause of labral tears is overuse! Much like other shoulder injuries, athletes who frequently use an over-the-head motion such as swimming or throwing are at extra risk of this injury. Labrum tears can lead to loss of strength, pain, popping or locking of the shoulder joint, mobility issues and overall shoulder instability such as dislocation.
If a labral tear in the shoulder results in the labrum tearing away from the socket it may require surgery. However, if the labral tear in the shoulder does not detach it can often be treated with acupuncture (and of course rest) alone. Acupuncture helps promote healing for these types of injuries by increasing the blood flow and decreasing inflammation. It can even help with post-operative pain and healing if surgery is required.