Frozen shoulder, also known as adhesive capsulitis, is a condition where there is stiffness and pain in the shoulder joint leading to a limited range of motion in the joint. Frozen shoulder usually only affects one shoulder, but some people may eventually develop it in the other shoulder as well. This condition usually develops slowly, over a period of months. The shoulder starts out in the painful stage, where pain occurs with movement and the range of motion begins to become limited. Gradually there is a decrease in pain along with a drastic decrease in the range of motion of the shoulder.
Frozen shoulder can occur after an injury to the shoulder, a surgery or an arm fracture, or it may occur in people with other health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, thyroid problems, and Parkinson’s disease. Frozen shoulder is also more common over the age of 40. With frozen shoulder, the shoulder capsule (the connective tissue in our shoulder joint) becomes inflamed and stiff, which in turn can cause adhesions to develop between the joint’s surfaces and a decrease in the natural lubricating fluids in the joint, all of which contribute to the pain and reduced mobility. At night the shoulder might hurt when sleeping on the painful side and there can be a numbness or tingling in the arm and hand. With the limited use and mobility, strength is lost in the surrounding muscles.
The treatment in Western medicine consists of pain management by using painkillers, muscle relaxants and anti-inflammatory drugs. To regain mobility, physiotherapy or acupuncture may be recommended. A frozen shoulder that isn’t treated well can become a lengthy condition.
What can acupuncture do in these cases? There are several meridians (energy pathways) running over the shoulder or close to the shoulder. When the qi-energy and blood flow in these meridians is obstructed, problems begin to arise. This obstruction can be the result of an underlying problem in one or more of the related organs- in other words, if we have a constitutional weakness in our body due either to genetics or to the accumulated effects of our lifestyle, it can create the conditions for a problem to occur. Because there are many meridians that run over or near the shoulder, internal weaknesses or imbalances can create a weakness in the shoulder, leaving it prone to injury.
An acupuncturist investigates where exactly there is improper functioning within the patient and then will treat the underlying organ problems to get the blood and energy flowing again in the meridians. By increasing circulation and blood flow to the shoulder and reducing inflammation, we can relieve the symptoms of pain and increase mobility in the shoulder, setting the stage for further healing.
The significant difference between Western medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is that Western medicine will treat the shoulder mainly locally, while in TCM we will treat the organ-related problems together with the meridians, addressing internal factors that contribute to the health and healing of the shoulder area. In fact we will treat the whole person and their imbalances, stimulating the body to return to its own natural equilibrium. By going to the core of the problem, relief through acupuncture can be long lasting if treated properly.
James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, downtown Kelowna, BC.