They call it “frozen shoulder” (also known as adhesive capsulitis) for a reason.
At first, the shoulder feels like it’s in the “freezing stage”, where it’s getting tighter and restricted in mobility, and the pain is increasing.
In addition, any arm movement away or towards your body is little bit like shooting a stream of razor blades through your shoulder’s rotator cuff!
Then, the shoulder literally feels frozen in the “frozen stage”, where the shoulder is no longer so much painful as it is immobile. It feels tight, and becomes a chronic condition that gets stiffer and more difficult to move with time.
For a woman with frozen shoulder, putting on and taking off a bra becomes an acrobatic feat of pure agony, and button down shirts and sweaters become your best friend.
Sound like I know what I’m talking about? That’s because I’ve had frozen shoulder, myself!
It is no walk in the park.
My Frozen Shoulder Story
For me, my frozen shoulder was due to a culmination of things. It happened during a time in my life when I was recovering from a laparoscopic myomectomy, so I was spending more time than usual in bed, in the same position, since moving around a lot was uncomfortable (I’m normally a very active person who enjoys her independence).
And during the acute phase of recovery, where I was half-asleep and half-awake, I was doing a lot of self-Reiki on my womb to help me heal faster (which helped tremendously), so my arms were often in a single position for longer periods of time than usual.
All that inactivity was a frozen shoulder in the making!
Another underlying factor was that I was working a lot on my Throat Chakra at the time, and the shoulders are in the realm of the Throat Chakra.
Whenever there’s constriction in the Throat Chakra, oftentimes, the tendons and muscles in that area get tightened and strained. This affects the neck, upper back, pectoral, and shoulder muscles. And, as we all know, EVERYTHING is connected – physically, energetically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally.
Ever get tense in your upper back or shoulders after increased stress in your work day? That’s a perfect example of how all the aspects of yourself are connected.
In addition, months after my surgery, when the frozen shoulder was getting worse, I found various ways of healing it, such as: Acupuncture, Reiki, massage, heat therapy, stretches, and many other things that I’ll be sharing as a resource, below.
During this time, I was lucky enough to receive some Medical Qi Gong (a Chinese form of energy healing, a small part of which I learned and sometimes merge with my Reiki) from one of my teachers, a Medical Qi Gong Master who doesn’t really give private sessions anymore. He concluded that surgery had resulted in “broken Qi” in my Small Intestine, San Jiao (Triple Burner), and Large Intestine channels, which all happens to be arm/shoulder pathways. So, he fixed my Qi during his few sessions with me.
After a few months of frozen shoulder, many things helped me regain mobility of my shoulder girdle, for which I am thankful!
I’m also grateful that I am able to share with my patients in my private practice what I’ve learned as a healthcare practitioner who’s experienced frozen shoulder.
How to know if you have frozen shoulder
Having a frozen shoulder is often easy to self-diagnose, for the simple reason that you are unable to freely move your arm at your shoulder. This is particularly seen when you are unable to raise your arm at your side past 90 degrees without raising your entire shoulder girdle.
When you have this condition, any of the following movements are limited in range and/or painful:
- adduction (towards your sides)
- abduction (away from your sides)
- flexion (reaching your arms behind you)
- extension (reaching your arms in front of you and above you)
- lateral rotation (bringing your hand away from your midline while bending at the elbow)
- medial rotation (bringing your hand towards your midline while bending at the elbow)
There are other movements that may aggravate a frozen shoulder, but the above are the main ones.
This means that the following tasks can become very difficult:
- Stretching your arms above you, or in any direction, when you wake up in the morning
- Raising your hand in class, holding the NYC subway rail overhead, or hailing a cab
- Swinging or lifting your arms during sports like tennis, baseball, football, ballet or other dance, or even on an elliptical machine in the gym
- Some physical activities, such as working out
- Lifting heavy objects, such as grocery bags, especially if you’re pulling them towards you or lifting them away from your body
- Putting on a bra (especially a sports bra), and any articles of clothing that involve you lifting your arms into them, like fitted shirts and sweaters
- Putting your hands on your hips
- Washing your hair
- Styling your hair (never mind attempting a ponytail!)
How to heal your frozen shoulder naturally, and what you can do while it heals
- Acupuncture. I am grateful that I have access to fellow healthcare practitioners, one of whom regularly opened up his treatment table to me when I could barely laterally rotate my arm! I suddenly became very grateful, and in awe, of the power of this medicine. What a reminder of how effective it is! It’s wild how this shoulder issue is so quiet and insidious, until you find that your range of movement has become limited. In my private practice, general treatment protocol for frozen shoulder (and with many pain issues) is at least once a week (twice a week would be ideal, if you can swing it) for about 3-5 weeks, and reassessing thereafter. Recovery depends on a few factors: the frequency of treatment, how long the pain has been there, the constitution of the patient, their lifestyle, if they do their stretches and other home protocols, among other aspects. Although it makes sense that a chronic condition, that’s taken time to build up in our body, would also take some time to heal with all the right measures in place, I still experience some patients who may have the expectation that their frozen shoulder, or other pain condition, should heal within a single treatment. While not at all impossible, it is more likely that the first treatment is the one that starts breaking up the stagnation, and creates Qi & Blood flow in the area for the first time, after what can be many years of pain or stiffness. Patients will often tell me that they can feel warmth in the area for the first time (that’s the Qi & Blood flowing), that they may start feeling sensation again (instead of numbness, tingling, or nerve pain), and that they can participate more fully in their physical activity practices, such as getting farther in their yoga poses, or walking with more ease. A nice by-product is that it naturally reduces stress and helps you manage stressful situations with more ease, particularly with cumulative treatments.
- Massage. For some, starting with some gentler massage methods may help you penetrate into the muscle layers. For others, getting a more medical deep tissue massage may be in order. To be truthful, opening my frozen shoulder up again for the first time, particularly through deep tissue massage, was as fun as a root canal. It can be painful to receive what you need (how symbolic is that?) The good news is that if you have a truly skilled massage therapist, who has deep knowledge of the body and its anatomy, and is able to be present and mindful with what you need at that time, they will know when you may be more receptive to something softer and gentler, and when you are ready for opening the shoulder girdle more aggressively. Massage was up there as one of those modalities that really broke through my shoulder stagnation!
- Reiki or other energy work. Getting to all the layers of our being, when healing the whole body, is important. To heal the energy body, bring on the healing power of energy work! Allow what no longer serves you to rise to the surface and release. Allow those deep shadowy parts of you air to breathe, and heal, so you can release the energetic tension that you’ve been carrying from way back when. In this case, particularly in your Throat Chakra and shoulder. Where are you not speaking your truth? Reiki was my main energy work I received, but I also received Medical Qi Gong from one of my dear teachers, who was a Master at it (he came from a lineage of Medical Qi Gong practitioners) and allowed me privy to the few sessions he was still willing to give. His style incorporated energy work and some simple stretches. My shoulder was such that when he gently stretched my arm, it felt like it was about to break off like a piece of peanut brittle, my eyes teared up immensely, and I went straight into awareness breathing. Yet, after this and many other modalities, I was able to put my hand behind my shoulder blade once more, after many months of not being able to do so. Healing can be a process of trust, and you need to trust your gut that you are choosing the wellness team that is best for you for this time, and that your healing is optimal.
- Foam roller. I am a big advocate for the foam roller, and often recommend that my patients who are experiencing back pain, shoulder pain, tight hamstrings, and tight iliotibial (IT) bands get one (particularly the firm kind, not the spongy kind). For frozen shoulder, not only do I recommend rolling on the mid to upper back, with your arms hugging you, to open up your shoulder blades while rolling, but I also recommend rolling under the armpit, and slightly towards the back. You’ll know which area I’m talking about, because those with shoulder pain will have pain in that area of the latissimus dorsi, right under the armpit. Find that tender spot and roll into it, breathing evenly and fully, until it releases (usually just a few minutes). Do this twice a day, when you wake up and before you go to bed.
- Lacrosse ball. When you’re ready for more focused muscle release at home, reach for your lacrosse ball. Lay against it on the wall. Areas to use it: behind the inside of the scapula/shoulderblade, the spot on your “lats” (latissimus dorsi) right behind your armpit, the groove on your chest where the pectoral muscles meet your shoulder (it will be tender to those with shoulder pain), and anywhere in those parts that are tender. How to use it: find the spot you want to treat (it will feel tender), lay into the lacrosse ball (so the ball is between you and the wall), breathe into it for a couple of seconds, until the pain releases slightly, and then move on to the next spot. Like the foam roller, do this twice a day, when you wake up and before you go to bed. You may find it easier to do after a warm shower. I believe so much in how this tiny, dense ball can help you open your muscles, that I even carry them in the office!
- Heat packs. For frozen shoulder, ice packs are a no-no in Chinese Medicine! You want to thaw out, and warm, your shoulder. You can get a heat pack at your local Duane Reade, CVS, or other local pharmacy. I enjoy the electric heat pad. Lay it on the affected area for 15-30 minutes. Even better yet, use a castor oil pack to treat the area! Check out my blog post on how to make castor oil packs here.
- Stay lubed or patched. Herbal liniment oils are helpful to massage into the affected area after a shower. One favorite that I use on myself and my patients is Po Sum On oil, which has Chinese Medicinal herbs and menthol, to penetrate into the muscle layers. You can also switch it up with Chinese Herbal patches. One note on the herbal patches: do not use them consecutively many days in a row, or your skin may get irritated!
- Stretch. A favorite stretch for the shoulder entails standing in front of a wall, then crawling your arm up the wall, using your fingers, until you feel a stretch. Go farther each time if you can, with the goal of having your arm flush against the wall. If that’s too much of a stretch yet, try the exercise where you bend forward slightly at the waist, and let you affected arm hang in front of you. Start to swing it in a small circle, and allow the circle to get wider and wider. Another stretch (which was the hardest for me), is to bring the affected shoulder’s hand behind your back. Perhaps you can only get it to your buttocks in the beginning, which is fine, but just get it behind you in a place that’s challenging but doable and gently opening your shoulder. As you continue to practice your stretches, aim to get your hand behind your shoulder blade.
- Heal your Throat Chakra issues. What are you not saying? Are you speaking your truth? Are you trying to hold down your words? These are the questions of the Throat Chakra (check out the link for some helpful resources on healing the Throat Chakra). To help the Throat Chakra heal, allow yourself to speak your truth, say what you mean, mean what you say, and honor your voice. Notice what happens to your throat, neck, upper back, and shoulders when you are faced with challenging situations that silence you. Allow yourself to take baby steps towards standing up for yourself, and celebrate them. Loosen up the muscles around your neck and mouth, notice if your temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is clenched. Bring awareness into loosening up those areas.
- Change up your clothing routine for the time being. Ladies, this is when you have to do the old switcheroo with the bra technique. It was the best thing since sliced bread when I discovered putting on your bra backwards at your waist, and then flipping to the front, then hooking your arms into the straps. I also used a front-closing sports bra for workouts, and wore slightly looser tops that had wider necklines or buttons on the front. As your shoulder heals, you will celebrate not having to perform acrobatic feats to get your clothes on in the morning!
If you experience frozen shoulder, how did you heal it?
Please share it with us in the comments, below!
Giving you warm shoulder love,
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