Acupuncture for Frozen Shoulder
Frozen shoulder, also called adhesive capsulitis, is a condition where the shoulder becomes very painful and stiff with an often drastic reduction in movement. Pain is usually worse at night, especially when lying on the affected side, and the restriction of movement can interfere with everyday tasks such as dressing or driving, meaning that this condition can often have repercussions for our working life. Frozen shoulders usually resolve themselves, but as this can take several years, most sufferers will seek treatment to speed up the healing process, reduce pain and free up the joint.
Orthodox medicine considers that scar tissue forming on the shoulder capsule, which is a thin covering that protects the shoulder joint, is responsible for frozen shoulder. However, there is as yet no known reason why this scar tissue should form. Conventional treatments include painkilling drugs, physiotherapy, steroid injections and perhaps surgery.
Frozen Shoulder and TCM
Pain and restriction in movement in TCM arises when our Qi is not free flowing; for some reason it is stuck or stagnant. In the case of frozen shoulder, the obstruction is in one or more of the meridians which flow around and through the shoulder, so treatment will involve freeing up the flow of Qi through the shoulder area, usually involving acupuncture treatment on the shoulder and quite possibly further down the meridians on the forearm or hand. Massage and cupping therapy may also be beneficial.
It is also important to understand why the Qi is getting stuck in the shoulder. From a TCM perspective there are several possible causes of this, such as:
i) Sometimes the Qi is blocked at the elbow due to what in TCM is called a pathogenic factor obstructing the flow; this is a form of external Qi which blocks the body’s own Qi. For example, if you are someone who feels the cold easily, and have been exposed to a cold environment, then a Cold pathogen may have entered the channels at the shoulder and, as it were, ‘frozen’ the Qi there. In this case as well as moving the Qi with acupuncture, we will want to warm the area, perhaps using moxibustion and warming topical applications. Other common pathogenic factors are Damp and Heat; in the former case the shoulder may feel heavy and perhaps be a little swollen; in the latter it may be warm and slightly red.
ii) Frozen shoulder often arises as part of an underlying systemic disharmony involving inefficiency or poor functioning of internal organ systems. The careful questioning of a TCM practitioner at the initial consultation appointment gives them a clear picture of any such disharmony, and in this case local treatment of the shoulder will be supplemented by treatment to rebalance the patient’s Qi overall, using acupuncture and perhaps herbal therapy.
Is Acupuncture Helpful in the treatment of Frozen Shoulder?
A Hong Kong study 1 of 35 patients with frozen shoulder measured improvement in pain, strength and mobility after a six week course of treatment, and again 20 weeks after the treatment finished. Patients who had acupuncture treatment and appropriate exercise had improvement of 76.4% after the course of treatment, and this was maintained 20 weeks later. This compared with 39.8% for patients who had exercise but no acupuncture.
1 Sun K. et al (2001) Acupuncture for Frozen Shoulder Hong Kong Medical Journal 7(4) 381-391
2 Guerra J. et al (2003) Acupuncture for soft tissue shoulder disorders: a series of 201 cases. Acupuncture in Medicine 21(1-2):18-22;
See also: Shoulder Pain