My Frozen Shoulder

A funny thing happened on the way to Ann Arbor.


This past weekend, I spent a lovely few days in Ann Arbor, Michigan, speaking at an integrative medicine conference hosted by the U-M Department of Pediatrics and attended by folks from the U-M integrative medicine program. One week prior, I thought there was no way I’d ever get there. What happened on the way to Ann Arbor?

I awoke that Sunday in excruciating pain. My left shoulder felt as if someone was roasting – no, boiling – marshmallows inside it. I was feeling a bit sore the few days prior, but chalked it up to a minor aggravation of an old rotator cuff injury. I knew something was really not right – I literally could not move my left arm – it was frozen. So I made my way to the ER, more for pain relief than anything else. Pain is a remarkable thing; acutely, all I wanted was to make it go away. I would do anything. After an xray and orthopedic consultation, it was clear that I had what’s called calcific tendonitis; basically a big chunk of rock sitting in my rotator cuff tendon area. The recommended treatment was a shot of cortisone mixed with a pain killer into my shoulder, which would acutely relieve the pain and inflammation. Long-term? Honestly, that was not my concern at the moment. As I said, even with my integrative background, I was all for anything that worked immediately.

After not one but 2 shots, I was OK – for about 12 hours. After that, the pain killer wore off, and my shoulder started to throb again. We’re talking eleven on a scale from one to ten. Our current medical system is wonderful for acute, traumatic care. But as I’ve long suspected and was now experiencing, many chronic issues (and I assumed my shoulder situation would be a long-term concern) are not adequately addressed by conventional medicine alone. As it turns out, even the research on acute treatment of shoulder pain with cortisone is sketchy.

So I turned to my alternative bag of tricks. First thoughts – other, more natural anti-inflammatories. I was already taking omega-3 fatty acids in the form of fish oils, and I was using topical ice, of course. Then I started on a mixture of herbal and enzyme products, including bromelain, boswellia, curcumin (turmeric), and quercetin, as recommended by a local naturopath. Next step – an urgent acupuncture visit, a therapy I found to be the most helpful, in conjunction with physical therapy, the last go-round with this type of pain. As with most conventional treatments, there’s mixed data on acupuncture for shoulder pain, and on physical therapy for shoulder pain, but the combination seems better than either individually. Lastly, I asked my nurse and local Reiki master, Karen, to do some of her magic as well. This was partly for the stress of the whole situation, with my trip in the balance, but also because I believed it would help with the pain and mobility issue; there’s one interesting article on this that’s been published.

What happened? Between Monday and Thursday, not much. I think the trauma of the injections and the surrounding muscle inflammation/tension created as much pain as the disease. Then, slowly and surely, by Friday morning (the date of my flight out to Michigan), I started to feel better. There was actually no pain at rest, and I had limited mobility. By Saturday, the date of the conference, I could move my arm about 50% of normal range of motion, and felt little pain with movement. By Sunday, one week after the ER visit, and the date of my trip back home, I was at about 80%, I’d say. Now I don’t know which therapy helped – and frankly, I don’t really care. I like to think it was the integration of conventional and CAM therapies that, together, helped me heal as optimally as I could. I know there’s more work to do – physical therapy, acupuncture, for sure. And, most importantly, working to prevent this from happening again, if I can – through exercise, nutrition and mindfulness. But for one week, I felt like the poster child for integrative medicine. And it worked for me.

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