December 2008

Acupuncture for Rotary Cuff and other Shoulder Problems

By Elliot Wagner, O.M.D., L.Ac., Doctor of Oriental Medicine

The shoulder is the most moveable joint in the body. Its extraordinary range of motion is possible because of its structure: the small and shallow socket in which the head of the humerus — the bone of the upper arm — sits, and the scapula, which connects the shoulder with the collarbone and is virtually floating free, held in place almost entirely by ligaments and tendons. The drawback to the structure that allows it to be so flexible also means that it is highly prone to injuries of various kinds.

The rotator cuff is the anatomical name given to the group of four muscles and their tendons that connect the scapula to the head of the humerus. They control most shoulder joint movements, and work together to stabilize the arm in the shoulder socket.

Pain and dysfunction of the rotator cuff muscles and tendons are among the most common shoulder problems. These stem from traumatic injury, or from wear-and-tear damage due principally to aging joints, which causes a variety of shoulder problems. In Chinese medicine these are called 40-year-old and 50-year-old shoulder.

Clinical trials have irrefutably demonstrated the effectiveness of acupuncture for the treatment of shoulder problems. The National Guideline Clearinghouse (NGC) is a comprehensive database of evidence-based clinical practice guidelines compiled by an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. All data is put through an exhaustive submission process and reviewed by a qualified and impartial panel of experts.

Regarding shoulder pain and dysfunction, the experts at the NGC have made "a strong recommendation, based on an evaluation of the available evidence and general consensus of the expert panel, that acupuncture and electroacupuncture treatment is effective, always acceptable, and indicated" for the following shoulder problems:

Rotator Cuff Tear
Acromioclavicular Joint (AC Joint) Separation/Compression Biceps Tendon Injury
Adhesive Capsulitis (Frozen Shoulder)
Shoulder Tendinitis/Bursitis
Muscle Spasms

Virtually all soft tissue shoulder problems can be improved or healed with the use of acupuncture. Shoulder pain can be reduced significantly in almost all instances. That is my experience treating many, many shoulder pain patients.

One recent case: an 83-year-old retired physician with tendinitis and a frozen shoulder was in such pain that any movement was virtually impossible. He was unable to enjoy a cup of tea because the pain of lifting the cup was too great. Surgery was not an option. Because he uses a pacemaker, we used only simple acupuncture with heat, without the added assistance of electrical stimulation. After a number of treatments during which he made slow but gradual progress, he announced one day that his pain was entirely gone. Should it ever return, he knows the help he received from acupuncture is always available.