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Turning a Cold Shoulder Back Around with Self-Care

by Wendy Fachon

A complex joint comprised of a girdle of bones, ligaments, four rotator cuff muscles and associated nerves, the shoulder has the greatest range of motion of any joint in the body, and is it easily taken for granted until one encounters sharpening pain with progressive immobility and needs to seek treatment for adhesive capsulitis, more widely known as frozen shoulder. Shoulder problems can arise from many causes: overuse, underuse, injury, aging or from an underlying condition such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, adrenal stress, thyroid condition, menopause or other hormonal imbalance.

Issues are usually diagnosed through a physical exam showing limited range of motion and pain; x-rays, to identify bone fracture, misalignment or displacement; and MRIs, to identify torn muscles, ligaments or thickened muscle of the shoulder capsule—or frozen shoulder. While an orthopedic surgeon will suggest a treatment plan to address the physical symptoms, which will include physical therapy, holistic practitioners can help identify and treat the underlying issues.

Doctors have differing opinions on what causes frozen shoulder. Some say sitting at a desk or laying down and resting the shoulder for long periods can aggravate an existing problem by limiting the use of the aggrieved shoulder, and allowing the build-up of scar tissue. Frozen shoulder develops slowly, then heals slowly—usually within a year, if one is committed to the self-care required.

Dr. Austin Oolo attributes the cause of frozen shoulder to a triad of physiological circumstances: a neck problem, a shoulder strain, and a hormone imbalance. His theory begins with a lower neck disc pathology compressing nerves in the lower neck and leading to interference with the transmission of motor signals to the muscles of the corresponding shoulder and weakening the muscles. Add to this a shoulder strain, often undetected by the patient, and an endocrine system that is out of balance. If the imbalance is significant, the healing response may be over-reactive or under-responsive. In cases of frozen shoulder, Oolo states, “it is over-reactive with an uncontrolled and over-exaggerated inflammation response and an equally uncontrolled and exaggerated healing response. Thus, excessive amounts of scar tissue form over the capsule of the shoulder joint.”

Dr. Christiane Northrup suggests underlying emotional problems to shoulder issues. “In many respects, the intense pain of a frozen shoulder can be the biological equivalent of a life coach steering you away from what doesn’t support you,” she explains. She suggests some common emotional patterns associated with a frozen shoulder include feeling the need to carry the “weight of the world on our shoulders.” Another common pattern is being too rigid in one’s thinking, or too set in one’s ways. A third common pattern is engaging in too much negative self-talk, which often means there is sadness associated with the physical pain.

“Because our bodies are made of energy, pinpointing the origin of your pain, and exploring your mental, emotional and energetic patterns may provide important steps toward healing from a frozen shoulder,” she suggests.

Physical therapy (PT) typically begins with massaging the muscles and manipulating the shoulder joint, then a therapist will guide the patient through a series of exercises and stretches. Each week the PT doctor will assess progress in the range of motion and add new challenges. Meanwhile the patient can use heat packs, cold packs, over-the-counter pain-relievers, herbal creams and/or oral supplements to help reduce pain and inflammation. A magnesium supplement may also help with sore and tense muscles.

Salt water therapy, whether in a pool or the ocean, can be a more relaxing workout. The water provides a buoyancy that supports range of motion work and offers gentle resistance that benefits all the shoulder and arm muscles. Foam noodles can be incorporated for balance and stability. One can push the noodle up and down in front of the body while bouncing off the bottom in shoulder-height water, or one can place the noodle between the legs, while doing a bicycling motion with arms and legs or an abbreviated breast stroke in upright position.

In addition to physical therapy, patients may want to try complementary therapies, to see what works best for their situation. Myofascial release massage targets the fascia and loosens up the adhesions, encouraging the frozen shoulder to thaw. Intermittent chiropractic treatments can correct misalignment created by the muscle tension imbalances. The integration of acupuncture and reiki sessions can help unblock energy flow to promote muscle relaxation, reduce pain and expedite the body’s healing process. Complementary preferences will be unique to each person.

To address shoulder problems on an emotional level, Northrup offers several suggestions. Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) tapping is a great way to relieve both physical pain and its underlying cause. While tapping, one can say, “Even though I have this pain in my shoulder, I love and accept myself.” Or, “Even though I can’t move my arm, I love and accept myself.” She also suggests shifting one’s perspective and attitude from annoyance to gratitude, remembering that despite a bad shoulder, one can focus on enjoying and appreciating all the good things in life. In addition, Northrup recommends visualization. “Imagine taking excess responsibilities off of your own shoulders and giving them back to the people they belong to,” she suggests, being sure to do this with love.

Affirmations are another tool for improving one’s emotional state. Louise Hay’s affirmation for shoulder problems is “I choose to allow all of my experiences to be joyous and loving.” Shoulders are associated with the energy of the heart chakra, and love heals. By repeating affirmations and imagining energy entering the heart chakra between the shoulder blades, one works to unblock the heart chakra and open oneself to receiving the healing energy.

Bodies have the ability to heal themselves. If one accepts a frozen shoulder as a message to be more flexible, and to surrender and receive, this allows the healing to happen on all levels—body, mind and spirit. The worst thing one can do is nothing. Pain builds self-awareness. It is often the body’s way of saying “something needs to change.” Changing habits takes time, and healing takes time. It’s up to each individual to find what works best, and to practice better self-care and self-love to move forward.

Wendy Fachon is a regular contributor to Natural Awakenings.