Can Acupuncture Help a Rotator Cuff Tear?

Breeze Academy April 11, 2023
Close up of a man's shoulder

The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons in the shoulder that keep the head of the upper arm bone firmly within the shoulder socket. An injury to this area can cause pain in the shoulder which typically worsens at night. Tears to the muscle(s) can also occur and in severe cases may require surgery. Often, rotator cuff injuries are caused by repeatedly performing overhead motions and are common in occupations such as painters, carpenters and other manual labourers. 

In this article, we determine whether or not Acupuncture is a suitable treatment for such injuries. 

So, can Acupuncture help a rotator cuff tear? Acupuncture can help but not heal a rotator cuff tear. It is also unlikely to work alone - it is best used in conjunction with other therapies. Acupuncture is often used as the first line of treatment to help reduce pain and increase range of motion ahead of physiotherapy and exercise therapies. 

Read on to learn more about Acupuncture for rotator cuff injuries, how it works and the other therapies that complement Acupuncture.

Does Acupuncture for Rotator Cuff Injuries Work?

Individuals experiencing rotator cuff injuries are rarely recommended isolated treatments. Instead, many healthcare professionals will recommend a treatment plan that incorporates a range of therapies including physiotherapy, exercise therapy, manual therapy, massage therapy, medication and Acupuncture. 

Often, Acupuncture is used in the early stages of treatment as a way of improving function and reducing pain ahead of physiotherapy and exercise. This is a particularly good option for those that do not (or cannot) respond well to exercise. Acupuncture may also be introduced throughout the treatment journey if progress plateaus. 

Research shows that Acupuncture can promote the release of β-Endorphins and increase the concentration of Serotonin in the brain. This helps to reduce sensitivity to pain and improve joint mobility. 

The bottom line is that Acupuncture is no replacement for rehabilitation, exercise and physiotherapy, but compliments such therapies incredibly well by reducing pain and increasing range of motion. It may also accelerate healing time

How Long Does it Take to Work?

There is no limit on how many Acupuncture sessions are required for rotator cuff injuries, however, if individuals are progressing towards their goals, it would be unusual to have more than 4 treatments. This would typically occur over 2-4 weeks.

When to Try Acupuncture for Rotator Cuff Injuries

Rotator cuff injuries can be unbearably painful and can prevent individuals from carrying out both daily activities and leisure/sport activities. Some tears may require surgery to correct, however, for less severe tears and injuries, Acupuncture is a great first line of therapy. Common reasons that individuals seek out Acupuncture for rotator cuffs include:

  • Living with significant pain for more than a few weeks
  • Pain and limited movement impacts quality of life
  • Other non-surgical therapies have not been a success
  • To help relax muscles and relieve aches
  • As a complementary therapy to help accelerate healing time

Benefits of Using Acupuncture for Rotator Cuff Tears

We know that Acupuncture is unlikely to help heal a rotator cuff injury as a solo treatment, but what benefits does it offer when used in conjunction with other therapies? 

Reduces Inflammation

Some inflammation is a normal response to injury. A large amount of inflammation, however, can delay healing. Acupuncture stimulates the release of natural anti-inflammatory agents to promote healing.

Released Endorphins

Endorphins are known as the body’s natural painkillers. Acupuncture stimulates the release of endorphins which then bind to opioid receptors in the brain, helping to block pain signals. 

Stimulates Blood Flow

Acupuncture helps a number of conditions by improving blood flow and circulation. This helps to deliver essential oxygen and nutrients to the injured area, encouraging a faster healing time. 

Relaxes Muscles

Pain and range of motion can impact the way that individuals move their arm/shoulder. Whilst this may help them to get through the day without causing more pain, it can have a negative effect in the longer-term. Sub-optimal movements can lead to muscle tension and trigger points (knots) that further cause pain and discomfort. Acupuncture can help to relax the muscles and release trigger points.

Accelerates Healing Time

When used in conjunction with other therapies, Acupuncture can help speed up recovery time and allow individuals to get back to their normal routines.

Acupuncture Points for Rotator Cuff Tears

The below Acupuncture points are recommended for shoulder injuries. 

Fan Hou Jue

Located on the back of the hand about a thumb width down from the webbing. Pinch the flesh between the thumb and forefinger on the opposite hand to the affected shoulder. 

Ce San Li

Located on the opposite leg of the affected shoulder, about four fingers width below the knee cap and three fingers width to the outside of the shin bone. This acupuncture point affects nervous and vascular tissues associated with the shoulder. 

Lou Zhen

Located in the depression behind the knuckles of the first two fingers. Good for both shoulder injuries and stiff necks.

Small Intestine 3

This Acupuncture point can be located by having individuals make a fist then following the long palm crease to the wrist, just below the little finger. Apply to the same side as the affected shoulder. 

Gallbladder 21

Located at the top of the trapezius muscle, about halfway between the midpoint and the end of the shoulder. This should help to increase blood flow and encourage healing.

Other Therapies for Rotator Cuff Injuries

Throughout this article, we have mentioned that Acupuncture for rotator cuffs works best in conjunction with other therapies. Here are some such therapies:

  • Formal rehabilitation
  • Physiotherapy
  • Manual therapy
  • Massage therapy
  • Exercise therapy
  • Clinical yoga
  • Medication
  • Surgery (in severe cases)

Final Thoughts

Acupuncture can help a rotator cuff injury but not heal it. It also will not work optimally as a solo treatment. Most healthcare professionals recommend Acupuncture alongside other therapies such as physiotherapy and exercise therapy. Some will recommend the treatment as a first line of treatment in order to reduce pain and discomfort before progressing to exercises. Others may recommend it as a way to progress treatment and accelerate healing.

If you are a healthcare professional interested in using Acupuncture to help with injuries like rotator cuff tears, take a look at our range of Acupuncture courses. We provide you with all the information, knowledge, skills and confidence you need to successfully introduce Acupuncture into your practice. Learn more about our Foundation level course online today.

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