The rotator cuff is made up of the various muscles and tendons in the shoulder that connect the upper arm bone to the shoulder blade. They also help hold the ball of the upper arm bone firmly in the shoulder socket. The shoulder has the greatest range of motion of any joint in our body.
A rotator cuff injury is fairly common and can involve any type of irritation or damage to the rotator cuff muscles or tendons. The most common problems are tendinitis, when one of the rotator cuff tendons becomes inflamed due to overuse or overload (especially common in athletes), bursitis, when the fluid-filled sac (bursa) between the shoulder joint and rotator cuff tendons become irritated and inflamed, and muscle or tendon strain or tear, which can happen with tendonitis that is left untreated, or with stress from overuse.
Injuries are most commonly caused by normal wear and tear of daily life, poor posture or slouching, a sudden fall (and using our arms to break the fall), lifting a too-heavy object or lifting improperly, pulling something heavy, or repetitive arm activities, especially those done overhead, that cause stress to the shoulder.
Symptoms may include shoulder pain, tenderness and weakness, loss of shoulder range of motion, and a tendency to keep the shoulder inactive. Pain is the most common symptom of rotator cuff injuries, and may be experienced when reaching overhead, behind the back, lifting, pulling, or sleeping on the affected shoulder. A severe injury, such as a large tear may cause continuous pain and muscle weakness.
Treatment for rotator cuff injuries typically involves rest, over-the-counter pain relievers, and gentle stretching. Physiotherapy may be recommended to help heal the injury, improve flexibility of the rotator cuff, and develop shoulder muscle strength. Depending on the severity of the injury, full recovery may take from several weeks to several months. In more severe or chronic cases, treatment may involve corticosteroid injections or surgery. About half of the time, a rotator cuff injury can heal with self-care measures or exercise therapy.
Acupuncture can be very helpful in dealing with rotator cuff injuries, and this is good news. Treatments can help to relieve the inflammation, pain and muscle weakness and stiffness caused by the injury, which can speed recovery and bolster the body’s self-healing mechanisms. This makes acupuncture an excellent option in the treatment of rotator cuff injuries, as it can complement physiotherapy treatment and can reduce the length of recovery time. In addition, acupuncture helps the body to function better, and so can help to strengthen the shoulder and promote its proper functioning.
In Chinese medicine, rotator cuff injuries are often due to an obstruction of the flow of qi-energy and blood to the shoulder, causing pain and weakness. Acupuncture can remove these blockages to allow full circulation of qi-energy and blood to the shoulder, allowing it to receive the nourishment it needs for proper functioning. In addition, a person may also have internal imbalances or weaknesses that make him or her particularly prone to a shoulder injury of some sort. By determining the cause of the pain and looking at each person’s individual health, we can not only resolve the pain and weakness that is being experienced, but we can also strengthen the body so that it is functioning in better health and less prone to a repeat injury or pain problem in the future.
James Kaufman is a registered acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, downtown Kelowna.