Workouts at the gym, swimming, playing baseball or football with friends in the park, climbing a ladder, cleaning your house, gardening—all of these daily activities can cause shoulder pain. Shoulder injuries are really common, and acupuncture is a great way to treat them.

Shoulder pain is often related to the rotator cuff, a group of muscles and tendons that help attach the humerus, or upper arm bone, to the shoulder socket. The rotator cuff helps the humerus with many motions, including internal and external rotation, and abduction (lifting the arm away from the body).

The rotator cuff consists of four muscles—the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis. Of these muscles, the subscapularis is the strongest and most commonly injured.

The subscapularis is the muscle that lies underneath the shoulder blade. It internally rotates the humerus, and helps pull the humerus forward and downward when a person raises her arm. Subscapularis injuries can occur in many ways—throwing a ball, opening a jar or door, playing tennis, reaching behind yourself to lift a heavy bag of groceries and bring it forward. This muscle is involved in many everyday actions; you don’t have to be an athlete to injure it!

Many acupuncturists consider the subscapularis the “bully” of the rotator cuff, because it is involved in so many shoulder injuries. Frequently clients may feel like they have pain in other, more superficial muscles, or even the deltoid muscle (another muscle also involved in lifting and rotating the arm), when really the culprit is the subscapularis. 

How Can I Find Out If My Subscapularis is Making My Shoulder Hurt?

Several orthopedic tests can determine if your subscapularis is the cause of your pain. One easy test is to sit upright and bend your elbow at a 90 degree angle, with the elbow pinned to your side. Hold your palm out, and internally rotate your arm while a friend tries to resist your movement. Does the resistance aggravate the pain in your shoulder? If so, that could indicate a subscapularis injury.

Another test involves placing your hand, palm out, on the small of your back. Hold your hand a few inches away from your back. Now have a friend apply pressure to your hand and try to resist dropping it down to your back. If you can’t hold your hand in place or resisting your friend’s pressure causes pain, this could indicate a subscapularis injury.

OK, My Subscapularis is Injured, How Do I Find Pain Relief?

Acupuncture is a great solution for shoulder pain. Acupuncturists believe that channels of qi (energy) and blood flow throughout the body. Pain often happens when qi and blood become stagnant, due to channel disruption by physical trauma, aging, or muscles atrophying or being overused. By stimulating points on these channels with needles, acupuncturists can effectively help with pain management.

Many acupuncturists also use “motor points” to help reset muscles and allow them to relax and go back to their natural resting state in the body. “Motor points” are the most electrically active centers of a muscle. By stimulating these points with a small metallic needle, which conducts electricity, the muscle relaxes and a person has pain relief. Usually orthopedic acupuncture specialists use a combination of channel points and motor points to treat injuries and help with pain relief.

Still Not Convinced? Here’s Some Recent Research:

Research studies have looked at how acupuncture can help treat shoulder pain. A few abstracts are listed below, if you’d like to do further reading:

German Randomized Acupuncture Trial for chronic shoulder pain (GRASP) – a pragmatic, controlled, patient-blinded, multi-centre trial in an outpatient care environment.

Two-year follow-up of low-level laser therapy for elderly with painful adhesive capsulitis of the shoulder.

Treating postlaparoscopic surgery shoulder pain with acupuncture.

Randomized trial of trigger point acupuncture treatment for chronic shoulder pain: a preliminary study.

Acupuncture for shoulder pain after stroke: a systematic review.