Sore shoulder? Consider acupuncture

Recently I've met several people who will miss hunting this fall because of shoulder injuries. Shoulder injuries are nasty things. Sometimes they never seem to heal completely.

Archer Dwight Schuh had to learn to draw his bow with his teeth to keep hunting with a shoulder injury.

If you or someone you know has a shoulder problem, I want to pass along a story about a treatment regimen that I went through about a year ago that did not require surgery and resulted in complete healing.

On a halibut charter fishing boat out of Homer, Alaska, in eight-foot swells, I hooked a big fish. Twenty minutes later, I ended up with a 45-pound Pacific halibut flopping on the floor of the boat next to me.

I was tired, but too excited to quit fishing. Soon after positioning myself in the lurching bow, I hooked another big halibut. Then I slipped and fell, stressing my right shoulder as I grabbed the rail.

The next morning, my shoulder was very sore. I took some ibuprofen but continued fishing. What's a little shoulder pain when you are in paradise, right?

When I got home, my shoulder was not only still sore but weak. And the range of movement was restricted.

I could not draw either my compound or recurve bow, take a full back swing with a golf club or even sleep on my right side. Shooting a rifle or shotgun sent a jolt of pain through my shoulder from the recoil.

I knew that I needed help.

For years, our family doctor has been an acupuncturist, Dr. Xiao "Rocky" Wang of San Rafael, Calif.

Dr. Wang is a unique medical practitioner. In Beijing, he trained in traditional Chinese medicine for six years and then spent five more years to become an orthopedic surgeon.

Before leaving Beijing, he was the surgeon in-charge of traumatology in an ER at a major hospital, performing more than 1,000 operations, as well as a medical school clinical teacher.

Several of his former students are now physicians with national sports teams.

Wang was very familiar with shoulder injuries.

In China he had operated on some shoulder injuries and found mixed results. He said there was damage to my rotator cuff, the biceps and the deltoid muscles, but it was possible to treat me without surgery.

He advised that I would have to start treatment right away, as I was suffering from adhesive capsulitis — adhesions of scar tissue in the fascia that would limit my range of movement and create pain.

He said that there was a three-month window for healing; otherwise the adhesions would grow worse and it would be very difficult to treat.

From a Western point of view, I had muscle tears and the solution would initially be R.I.C.E. — rest, ice, compression and elevation — followed by painkillers, possibly surgery and physical therapy.

After reading articles in some medical journals about mixed results of various surgical procedures for shoulder injuries, plus research that found acupuncture to be superior to the use of braces and pain-killing medications for treating tennis elbow, I was willing to consider a non-surgical approach.

In addition, I trust Wang, which is important in the healing relationship.

Traditional Chinese medicine sees health as a the result of a natural flow of life force energy, "chi" or "Qi," that travels through 14 major meridians in the body, most of which are associated with organs, like the stomach, spleen, kidney and bladder.

Along those meridians there are 365 acupuncture points where meridians intersect, or change direction. Acupuncture needles, herbs and massage treat blockage of Qi flow. (That blockage leads to imbalances that create the conditions for disease and injury to occur and hinder healing.)

Western science cannot explain how acupuncture works, but numerous studies show positive results from acupuncture for a number of health conditions.

You can debate whether Qi exists or not; but if the system works and there are no negative side effects, who cares?

In traditional Chinese medicine, an injury is seen as the result of multiple causality and a symptom of overall imbalance in Qi, caused by excessive or weak flows of Qi from or to internal organs.

For example, liver and kidney meridians influence the tendons. The muscles are related to the spleen and stomach meridian. And a lung meridian runs through the deltoid muscle in the shoulder.

From this perspective, when I was injured I was fighting seasickness, so my stomach meridian was weak.

It was cold, and the choppy seas were somewhat frightening, causing weakness in the kidney meridian, as they kidneys are associated with fear. When you are frightened, your breathing shallows, producing less Qi, so the lung meridian would also be weaker.

Accordingly, these external conditions made the shoulder weaker and injury more likely to occur.


A typical treatment session began with Wang inserting a dozen or more wispy-thin, sterile, three-inch-long metal acupuncture needles into my shoulder.

Sometimes when the needles are inserted, there is little or no sensation. Other times you feel pain, like a spasm and then release. The pain never lasts long and the subsequent relief of tension is welcome, and sometimes unexpected.

When the needles first started being inserted in my shoulder, my stomach would growl and then grow warm. (Remember how the stomach meridian is related to the muscles.)

After inserting the needles in my shoulder, Wang had me lie still with an infrared light trained on my shoulder for 15 to 20 minutes. Halfway through this period, he would come in and touch each needle to stimulate it.

Ten minutes later he would remove the needles and the lamp and begin "tuina."

Tuina, which translates as "grabbing and pulling," is also called "hand technique." It is a physical treatment system more than 2,000 years old that involves stretching and acupressure to stimulate the muscles, tendons, ligaments, spine and joints to encourage the healthy flow of Qi and blood.

Part of tuina therapy is relaxing the spine and neck, much like vigorous massage. When the patient is relaxed, the practitioner begins to pull on a limb, such as an arm, gradually increasing the range of motion. Yes, it does hurt.

Wang says that the strokes not only are guided stretching, they break down the adhesions in the fascia caused by the tear. Those adhesions prevent the arm from making its full range of motion, and reduce strength.

With the body relaxed, and the adhesions broken down, the body can then heal and regain natural strength and range of motion.

In China, tuina is commonly used by medical doctors to treat all kinds of orthopedic injuries, including fractures, joint dislocation and spinal injuries, as well as joint, muscle and ligament injuries.

He said that he found tuina sometimes is more effective for treating injuries than surgery. To prove his point, he showed me letters from several people who he had successfully treated for adhesive capsulitis, including a Hollywood cinematographer and a pro football player with a Super Bowl ring.

Treatments began in August. Yes, initially it did hurt when he used tuina. The pain did not last long after a treatment.

At first I saw Wang every week, then every other week, then monthly, as before.

Also, he prescribed certain herbs to speed healing.

Chinese herbal medicines are not so much aimed at suppressing symptoms, as with Western medicine. The application of herbal medicines is more concerned with overall stimulating and toning the Qi to remove the stagnation that had caused the original weakness in the shoulder that led to the injury.

Herbal medicines are commonly used in Chinese hospitals. Some herbal formulas have been used for over 2000 years.

Wang also gave me daily stretching and strength exercises for my shoulder. One important exercise was hanging from a chin-up bar with both arms fully extended. My goal was to work up to a slow count of 100.

By mid-October I was shooting my compound bow and hitting short irons. By Christmas I was doing sets of chin-ups and push-ups, shooting my recurve and working on my full-driving backswing. I have since regained 100 percent of my original range and strength.

The origins of acupuncture are not fully known, but one legend has it that a warrior was wounded with an arrow in battle, but found that he felt no pain.

It is said that the attending healer was inspired by that incident to discover how acupuncture can be used as an anesthetic. The rest is history.

Acupuncture and Chinese medicine are rooted in ancient philosophy and observation of the human body.

Western medicine is rooted in natural science. It draws upon the latest science and technology.

Both can help the sportsman heal his or her precious shoulder, and much more.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click here to purchase a copy.

To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.