6 Natural Ways TCM Can Help Treat a Frozen Shoulder

A frozen shoulder can make even the simplest everyday task challenging. This article discusses its causes, symptoms, and ways TCM can help.

Asian woman with her back turned, touching her frozen shoulder

Living with a frozen shoulder can be frustrating and painful. Its symptoms manifest as stiffness, pain, and a gradual loss of mobility in the area, impairing your ability to perform your daily activities. But patience, consistent care, and a combination of exercise and other remedies can help speed up and support your recovery.

What is a Frozen Shoulder and Why Does It Happen?

Asian woman holding her shoulder, grimacing slightly in pain
A frozen shoulder is more prevalent among women than men, occurring when they’re 40 to 60 years old.

Also known as adhesive capsulitis, it affects more women than men and generally occurs in their 40s to 60s. The condition is classified into two, primarywhen it relates to conditions such as diabetes. In comparison, secondary happens after an injury and develops into pain, leading to limited movement and immobilisation. 

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a frozen shoulder is due to an imbalance in the body – the blockage of qi (life force) and blood in the meridian pathways due to Cold. “We also call frozen shoulder, Fifties Shoulder (wu shi jian, 五十肩) because it’s more prevalent among people in their 50s,” says TCM Physician Vong U Chan. When the body’s yang qi slowly declines, elderly people, become more susceptible to the invasion of Wind, Cold and Dampness in their bodies. 

According to Physician Vong, the condition develops slowly over three stages. “There is the freezing stage, frozen stage, and thawing stage. Each stage can last for months. Eventually, in the thawing stage, it can last for five to 24 months during which, one can slowly regain the range of motion in their shoulder,” she explains. While it can naturally heal on its own, it may take years and cause much pain and inconvenience. 

Western Medicine and TCM Treatments: A Synergistic Approach

Older woman with frozen shoulder receiving physical therapy
A combination of physical therapy and other remedies has been shown to be effective for frozen shoulders.

Western medicine has three methods for treating an idiopathic frozen shoulder: conservative care, minimally invasive action, and operative treatment. Many cases can often be resolved with conservative treatments. This includes a combination of medication – nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – with physiotherapy or at-home exercises for more effective results. 

Similarly, TCM combines herbal remedies with other modalities to dispel Wind, Cold and Dampness, alleviate pain, promote the flow of qi and blood, and bring balance back to the body. Thus restoring mobility to the shoulder.  

“Treatments involve using herbs, acupuncture, cupping, tuina, and moxibustion to intervene early and relieve patients of the pain. It enables them to regain mobility sooner,” explains Physician Vong. Most importantly, TCM treatments should be conducted under the guidance of a professional TCM physician. 

TCM Treatments for a Frozen Shoulder 

1. Herbal remedies 

When frozen shoulder pain is too great to be able to undergo physiotherapy, a qualified TCM physician can prescribe Chinese herbal medicine as a natural pain reliever and an anti-inflammatory method. When used in conjunction with acupuncture, TCM herbs are effective in bringing back range of motion and function. 

2. Acupuncture

Closeup of hands applying fine needles to a woman’s shoulder
Acupuncture has been shown to help relieve the pain of a frozen shoulder.

In TCM, acupuncture helps treat a frozen shoulder caused by Cold, Wind, Dampness, and the Stagnation of qi and blood. It unblocks energy channels and promotes blood circulation, balancing yin and yang. Stimulating certain acupoints not only brings back range of motion to the shoulder when done regularly, but it also helps relieve pain symptoms. 

“You can also use a heating lamp in conjunction with acupuncture to disperse Cold and relax muscles. It helps to relieve tension and pain,” suggests Physician Vong. 

3. Moxibustion

Closeup of TCM Physician’s hands performing moxibustion on a woman’s bare shoulders
Moxibustion is a great way to nourish yang and help dispel Cold in a frozen shoulder.

This is an external treatment that works by burning specific materials on, or near, the skin as a form of heat therapy. It can help restore and regulate the flow of qi and blood. Its warming role can be further classified into the following: 

  • Warm-nourishing is for warming yang, tonifying qi, nurturing blood, and relieving depletion.  
  • Warm-dredging is for activating blood, dissolving Stasis, promoting qi, and relieving pain.  
  • Warm-melting helps reduce phlegm, eliminate Stagnation, remove Wind, and dispel Dampness. When combined with acupuncture, moxibustion works well to improve symptoms of a frozen shoulder. 

4. Cupping therapy

Vacuum cups placed on woman’s back on either side of the spinal column
Cupping therapy along the spinal nerves and parasympathetic nerves works to help the organs under its control.

This form of therapy relies on acupoints and meridians similar to acupuncture. This treatment is often used to stimulate the sensory nerves of the skin, delivering pain relief to a specific area without directly treating it. Treatment is on the relevant nerves controlling the area where the pain is felt. This makes cupping great for treating pain and stiffness as well as unblocking qi and blood flow (Bi-syndromes). 

5. Tuina 

Tuina is a special form of Chinese massage that also involves some energy work. Since it uses a manual stimulation of acupoints, it’s a viable option for treating a frozen shoulder.

Not only is it used to help people with orthopaedic problems by releasing the sinew channels (muscle, tendons, and ligaments) and assisting joint movement, but it can also boost the flow of qi in the hands of a skilled practitioner. A TCM physician often uses tuina in combination with other modalities such as acupuncture, cupping, and herbalism to improve recovery. 

6. Traditional exercises 

Physician Vong stresses the importance of exercising and physiotherapy but cautions that the right balance is crucial. “Too much stretching can worsen the condition, while too little will be ineffective in preventing it from worsening. Start with gentle and brief stretches and exercises, and then slowly increase the time and intensity.” She suggests traditional exercises like tai chi and qigong, which can help with reducing pain and supporting mobility.

TCM can be very effective in treating a frozen shoulder in the early stages, but it will take time. “It is also important to keep the area warm and take note of good posture on a daily basis to prevent a frozen shoulder from developing,” advises Physician Vong. Through early intervention, proper treatment, and most importantly, physiotherapy and exercise, a frozen shoulder can heal quickly and more effectively. 

References

  1. Singapore Medical Journal. 2017. Physical therapy in the management of frozen shoulder. [Accessed on 22 July 2022]
  2. Trials. 2020. Stuck-moving needle acupuncture myofascial trigger point to treat idiopathic frozen shoulder: study protocol for a randomized controlled trial. [Accessed on 22 July 2022]
  3. The Journal of Chinese Medicine. 2019. Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine for Frozen Shoulder: A Case Report. [Accessed on 26 July 2022]
  4. Evidence-Based Complement and Alternative Medicine. 2018. Acupuncture at Tiaokou (ST38) for Shoulder Adhesive Capsulitis: What Strengths Does It Have? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. [Accessed on 22 July 2022]
  5. Evidence-Based Complement and Alternative Medicine. 2013. The Mechanism of Moxibustion: Ancient Theory and Modern Research. [Accessed on 22 July 2022]
  6. Randomized Controlled Trial. 2019. Clinical trial of treatment of frozen shoulder by intensive moxibustion plus acupuncture. [Accessed on 22 July 2022]) 
  7. 7. Traditional Chinese Medicine Cupping Therapy (Third Edition) as seen in Science Direct. 2014. Benefits of Cupping Therapy. [Accessed on 22 July 2022]
  8. 8. Tui Na. 2010. Foundations and development of Tui Na. [Accessed on 22 July 2022]

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