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Alternative Treatments for Frozen Shoulders with Yoga and Trigger Point Therapy

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I come from a family with four generations of shoulders that ended up being difficult to move due to unbalanced and tight surrounding muscle. My maternal grandmother used to say she had a "bum arm". She was unable to lift her arm over her head or bend over to clean her floors. When I was a little girl I remember that my grandmother's right arm and shoulder were so immobile that she used to clean her floors by attaching a rag to one of her feet and then sliding her foot around to wipe the floor. Interestingly, another relative was diagnosed with bursitis, but the net effect was that she, too, was unable to lift her arm over her head just like my grandmother.

Seventy percent of frozen shoulder patients are middle aged women.
From NBC News

As I aged I noticed that my shoulder started to freeze up as well. I almost ended up like my grandmother. At one time I reached the point where my shoulder was so immobile that I could not even lift my right arm up enough to use a hair dryer. My younger son has also developed the same problem when he was in first grade. Technically, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS) and scoliosis, and my son was diagnosed with a pulled trapezius muscle. But the underlying root cause was that my son and I were the third and fourth generations of a family that had a genetic predisposition to have tight connective tissue, resulting in scoliosis and a frozen shoulder on the lowered shoulder side of the spinal curve.

Fortunately for my son and myself, we were able to fully regain use of our shoulders and arms through diet changes to reduce muscle tension, trigger point therapy and yoga. The rest of this section will outline the treatment tips and exercises that helped us. I think about my grandmother a lot these days, and how unfortunate it is that she never knew how with a little daily self massage therapy and yoga she might have been less disabled. My grandmother died before I figured out how to help my son and myself, so it's too late for me to pass along any information to her. But perhaps some of you reading these pages may be able to use the treatment ideas below.

Treatment Tips to Free Up Your Shoulder

1. An important point to note in selecting a treatment plan for your frozen shoulder is that even though your shoulder may be frozen, it doesn't necessarily mean that the source of your problem is in your shoulder. Your shoulder may be the result of tight muscles somewhere else in your body pulling on your shoulder and "freezing" it into place. In my case, my son's and (I suspect) my grandmother's, we all had scoliosis (spinal curvature) which caused us to have uneven shoulders. Our lower shoulder on the concave side of our curves is the shoulder that would freeze up.

My son has not had TMJ, but he has had the same neck pain problems, mild scoliosis and clogged ears that I have had in the past. In his case he seems to have tight muscles and trigger points in his thighs, but the resulting problems are similar to mine. It took reading a lot of books on yoga and body alignment and many months of searching for a knowledgeable physical therapist to help me figure all of this out. Most PTs simply do not understand that the part of your body that hurts the most may not be the actual source of your pain. (For a diagram of how tight muscles in other parts of my body caused my frozen shoulder, click here.)

Most of the physical therapists I saw for my shoulder pain only had me do shoulder exercises. In hindsight, this was a short sighted and simplistic treatment methodology. My shoulder was already tight from being pulled down by tight muscles in my leg and higher shoulder, and yanking on my lower shoulder just either made the pain worse, or at best, shifted the tension point somewhere else in my body. Only yoga and trigger point therapy really worked to free up my shoulder permanently and eliminate my chronic pain in my shoulder and elsewhere in my body.

tennis ballsa can be used to  massage trigger points
  You can buy special massage balls at health stores, but tennis balls can work well, too. I liked just laying on on the floor on a tennis ball on all of the trigger points and tight areas around my shoulder.

2. In our cases, we found that trigger point therapy was very instrumental in finding the true sources of our shoulder dysfunction. Trigger points are small contraction knots found in the muscles of the body. Trigger point therapy is a type of specialized self massage designed to ferret out and remove these muscular contractions by applying counter pressure to the contractions, either with your fingers or massage tools. Balls such as tennis and golf balls work well, too. You can buy specialized massage balls with little spines that are great to either roll or lay on for tight muscles, but the tennis balls will also work.

It is simple to do and works amazingly well for many kinds of chronic muscle pain, and for me it has been especially effective for my frozen shoulder. I have had better success doing trigger point therapy for my shoulder symptoms that I have had with most other types of treatments. I've tried many different treatments for my chronic pain conditions, and trigger point therapy is one of the two most effective treatments I found. (The other being yoga).

Trigger point therapy not only helped me with regaining normal shoulder movement, but I also use it on my entire body, especially my legs. This is where knotted muscles ended up being the true source of my shoulder pain. Even today, if I walk for extended periods, I can feel my leg muscles tighten and eventually start to pull on my shoulder and neck causing them to stiffen and tighten up. At least now I know that when that happens, 20 minutes of yoga and trigger point therapy on my legs, torso and upper body will get me back into shape.

3. Yoga is usually great for straightening out your whole body, but in the case of freeing up frozen joints, I have found that it is best to start out very slowly and easily. In my case, and I suspect in others with problems like mine, I couldn't just jump into a general yoga class and expect to get any pain relief. I found that many of the generic yoga poses did more harm than good by causing too much tension in my shoulder area.

When I was first trying to heal my body, if I did yoga poses that either stretched out my arms and/or put a lot of pressure on my shoulder, my shoulder would then just go into into spasm and freeze up even more. So my one of my main treatment tips is to not over do any shoulder exercise. It is better to under exercise rather than over exercise.

When deciding on exercise and/or yoga poses for your frozen shoulder, one way to think about what will work is to visualize what you would do if you had knots in a necklace chain. If you ever tried to undo knots in delicate chains, you know that going in and doing major tugging right off the bat doesn't work. It often just tightens the knot even more.

You usually have to make gentle small tugs to the various sides of the knots until some of them start to loosen up and break free. I've found it was the same way in trying to free up my frozen shoulder. Gentle, small tugging movements worked best at first to try to regain some initial movement. After that, I could do very gentle yoga poses, eventually working my way to to some of the more strenuous yoga positions and eventually, a regular yoga routine. These days I can even do aerobics videos, but it took many months of getting my body back in shape (after years neglecting my body and unwitting abuse at my own PC) to get to this point.

The exercises below are listed in chronological order of what helped me in getting my shoulder back to a normal range of motion. Initially I would do these exercises multiple times a day, ideally after doing trigger point therapy, described in the previous section.

1. Shoulder Circles - I started out with very small circles just to free up my shoulders a little bit. At first I could only make very small circles without pain because my shoulder had literally "frozen" into place through years of programming work and my own ignorance about the value of movement to keep joints lubricated and flowing freely. I would do a few minutes on each side many times a day following trigger point therapy.

2. Arm Circles - Again, these were less painful when done lying on one side. It also put less tension on my shoulder to bend my arm rather than keeping it out straight. So I would lie on the floor or my bed on one side and bend my upper arm so that my hand would be placed on my shoulder. Then I would make little circle movements in the air with my elbow. I started out with very small circles and then made then bigger and bigger circles as my shoulder freed up. I would also make other shapes in the air - figure eights, letters of the alphabet, etc. - anything to try to get my shoulder muscles freed up and moving again into their full range of motion.

Eventually I could do arm circles standing up and with my arms out straight, but it took awhile to get to this point.

As I mentioned above, your frozen shoulder may be the place where you notice your pain the most, but this doesn't mean your shoulder is the source of your pain. It may be the result of tight muscles or imbalances elsewhere in your body. Books, web sites and physical therapists that advice only shoulder exercises for shoulder pain or dysfunction may be seeking simple solutions to complex, whole body muscular problems.

In my case, my son's case, and I suspect many others, people don't just have a frozen shoulder in isolation without any other orthopedic problems. Western medicine often treat human bodies like car parts, where you can work on one defective part without influencing the other. I think we are built more like stacked pieces of wood in a Jenga game, where a failure anywhere in the stack will cause imbalances elsewhere in the structure.

3. One Leg Up The Wall, One Leg Outstretched - While it is unconventional to do leg stretches for frozen shoulders, in my case this is what helped. My tight leg muscles were actually a root cause of my pain, so freeing up my leg muscles helped reduce the pull on my shoulder.

For this exercise, I lay down on my back in front of a doorway. I put one leg up the wall and one leg out flat, arms overhead flat on the floor. This stretch is good for stretching the hamstrings of one leg and the hip flexors of the other. I know after I do this pose for a few minutes on each leg that my legs actually feel looser and more relaxed. This pose is also supposed good for scoliosis, which I suspect based on my family's history may be common in people with frozen shoulders.

I've also noticed that some people with frozen shoulders also tend to have swollen ankles. There are actually logical reasons for these conditions to occur together. See my swollen ankles pages for more on this topic.


"Joint freedom is the ability of each joint to move freely through its full range of motion without cracking, muscular stress, discomfort or causing movement in the adjacent joints."
Mukunda Stiles, in Structural Yoga Therapy




Related Pages in My Site -

Help for shoulders that pop out of place - Yoga and arm stretches can help prevent this painful condition.

Fibromyalgia diet tips - foods that helped me to relax my muscles.

Fibromyalgia Treatment

Neck Pain Tips - Sore necks are commonly caused by a combination of tight, unbalanced muscles and poor posture.

Winged scapula (shoulder blades that stick out funny).

TMJ - alternative therapies

Exercises and Yoga Poses for Scoliosis

Popping Jaws and Creaky Knees

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