Acupuncture for Rotator Cuff Pain

Briana’s* case was a typical one for someone with shoulder pain. She came to us complaining of achy pain in the front and side of her shoulder. The pain began slowly, but kept getting worse. While Briana’s pain was dull and achy most of the time, as soon as she tried to raise her arm, she would feel a sharp stabbing pain in her shoulder and down her arm. During those times, the pain almost took her breath away.

One of the most frequent conditions that we see at Acupuncture in the Park is shoulder pain. Shoulder pain responds well to acupuncture in most cases, but it is a complicated joint to treat in general. One of the reasons for it’s difficulty is that while your shoulder is a ball and socket joint (like your hip), it’s a shallow one, and as such depends on the surrounding muscles, tendons, and ligaments to hold the joint in place.

A common source of shoulder pain is a group of muscles that make up something called your rotator cuff. The rotator cuff muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis) are actually found on the back side of your shoulder, but act to stabilize the shoulder through a wide range of movements.

Acupuncture for shoulder painOver the years, I have found that much of the grief caused by rotator cuff problems comes from the supraspinatus muscle. This muscle runs horizontally across the top of your scapula (chicken wing), passes under the acromium (the bone at the top of your shoulder), and attaches at the top of your humerus (arm bone). Your supraspinatus muscle helps you lift your arm to the side and is used in overhead motions such as combing your hair, throwing, and swimming. When this muscle is injured or inflamed, the pain may come and go, but frequently it will feel achy—until you lift your arm. Typically you’ll be able to raise your arm to the side only so far before you experience a “catch” that sends a lightening bolt of pain through your shoulder and into your upper arm.

The supraspinatus muscle can become injured from overuse, such as too much keyboarding, lifting, or other repetitive motions. It can also become injured from trauma, such as a fall on the shoulder, having your arm yanked, or a direct hit. It may act up from bad biomechanics, such as poor posture or sitting all day in a bad office chair. Whatever the cause, the pain arises from the muscle and surrounding tendons, which can become torn, inflamed, or impinged (pinched) where it travels under the acromium. Unfortunately, this kind of injury has the potential to become chronic which can greatly limit your range of motion and activity.

If you’re suffering from shoulder pain, there are a number of things you can do to be heal your shoulder and become fully functional again. First, I recommend checking with your acupuncturist for an assessment and treatment. Your practitioner is likely to incorporate acupuncture with something called electric stimulation and a kind of bodywork called Tui Na. You are also likely to be sent home with some instructions for care (such as heat, stretches, etc.) in between visits. If you’re trying acupuncture for this kind of injury, plan to give it four to six weeks minimum to see improvements, as shoulder injuries tend to heal slowly.

Other suggestions to help your shoulder heal include:

-Rest. Yes, I’m sure you’ve heard this a million times before, but quit raising your arm if it hurts to do so. Let the flight attendant lift your bag into the overhead bin and learn to comb your hair with the other hand.

-If your arm was injured due to some kind of trauma, use ice during the first couple of days after the injury to keep the inflammation to a minimum. After that time, I like heat because it loosens up the muscles and increases circulation to the area.

-Check your posture. Pull your heart area upward, your shoulders back slightly, and quit slouching. It’s not helping your shoulder.

-Ladies—get that handbag off your shoulder. It doesn’t matter which shoulder you wear it on, using a shoulder strap causes you to dramatically raise one shoulder higher than the other and pulls your back and shoulders out of alignment, which can aggravate and even cause rotator cuff pain.

-Beyond acupuncture, try working with a physical therapist for a couple of sessions. They can give you some exercises to strengthen your rotator cuff muscles and stabilize your shoulder.


*Names and identifying details have been changed.

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