Over the course of the last several years I have seen many patients recover or find relief from debilitating and protracted episodes of shoulder pain thanks to traditional acupuncture treatment.  Painless and unrestricted movement of the shoulder joints are essential for free use of the upper limbs and hands.  Those who have pain and dysfunction often find it difficult to fully participate at work, in sport or at home.  In the older population, degeneration of the rotator cuff tendons can be an additional complicating factor. The ability of acupuncture and moxibustion (heat therapy) to alleviate pain and restore function in acute shoulder pain, chronic shoulder pain or frozen shoulder has led me to believe that it is a first-class treatment.

Below are some general facts about the shoulder joint.

  • The shoulder joint is a shallow ball-and-socket type joint that connects the humerus (upper arm bone) to the scapula (shoulder blade).
  • Another bone called the clavicle (collar bone) acts as a brace between the sternum and the scapula, which keeps the shoulder at a useful distance from the mid line.
  • The short powerful muscles that connect the scapula to the humerus are essential for supporting and moving the shoulder joint.
  • The muscles that connect the scapula to the spine ensure free movement of the scapula over the back of the ribcage.

Traditional thinking dictates that pain, loss of movement and neuralgia are diseases of the external region of the body.  This means that the disease is situated somewhere in the skin, blood vessels, flesh, sinews or bones.  Conceptually these areas are considered part of the meridians.  Many of you have probably seen an acupuncture chart displaying the meridian lines and points.  Unfortunately these charts do not usually impart that a meridian is a three dimensional structure that encompasses all the skin, flesh, muscles and connective tissues that lie along its line of association, as well as the substances circulating through them.  The meridians should in fact be viewed as a conceptualization of how all our bodily structures integrate and shape our physiques.  When one wants to emphasize the muscular and tendinous structures we use the term meridian sinews.  Maintaining a view of how the sinews connect to one another atomically, functionally and pathologically is helpful in determining a treatment plan.  For shoulder pain one must keep in mind that the meridian sinews traversing arms, scapula, upper back/ chest and neck are of prime importance.  Additionally, joints in the sternum, spine and neck may also be dysfunctional.  This perspective separates traditional acupuncture from many other forms of treatment that have a narrow view and usually concentrate all their effort where the pain is located.

When the causes of a case of shoulder pain are closely examined one often finds more factors at play than just a traumatic event alone.  While a trauma maybe the most memorable aspect for many patients, it is usually preceded by a broad buildup of pressure across the muscular structures (meridian sinews) of the shoulder joint.  This pressure occurs because the person has become fatigued or burdened by a decline in overall health.  The basic notion of health in Chinese medicine is a person who can adapt to changes in the natural world, avoids emotional stress, has a good diet and avoids getting fatigued from excessive physical labor.  When we lose our way we create weakness in the body’s condition.  In relation to the external areas of the body, this may lead to poor nourishment, lubrication and regeneration of the sinews, and as a result leave these same structures stressed, vulnerable and tense.

In a traditional acupuncture treatment efforts are made through the medium of physical therapy to improve a person’s general well-being, while at the same time treating the main symptoms.  Obviously the scope of this aspect of treatment can be very broad, and while a holistic approach to treatment is undertaken, rest assured if you come in with shoulder pain, the main aspect of treatment is to carefully and thoroughly treat your shoulder.  For this, needles and heat therapy are especially suited to release pressure, increase circulation and aid in the healing process.  The areas that require treatment are variable, however the muscles that connect the spine to the scapula and the scapula to the humerus are of significant interest.  The ability of traditional acupuncture to synthesize holistic principals into a pragmatic and effective physical medicine is why I consider it a first-class treatment for shoulder pain, and indeed any musculo-skeletal issue in the human body.

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