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The Dragon's Head Blog: Taoist Tai Chi® Arts Help Frozen Shoulder

Jenny (third from left) outside the Fremantle branch clubrooms on the Swan River.
Jenny (third from left) outside the Fremantle branch clubrooms on the Swan River.

Around April 2014 I developed a frozen right shoulder. Essentially that’s a tightening of the underside of the capsule of the shoulder – in your armpit, so to speak. There are actually changes in the cells of the capsule tissue for a period of about eighteen months (if you are unlucky, it’s longer).

The classical way this presents is increasing stiffness in the first six months, then increasing pain and stiffness in the second six months, and finally in the last six months stiffness subsides. In theory you get back to perfectly normal again. The night pain means you often only get an hour’s sleep. If you move suddenly, pain can feel like lightening. The treatment your GP would normally prescribe is pain medication if you need it, otherwise wait it out.

I’m a physiotherapist and I have seen plenty of these frozen shoulders over time. At the onset of my symptoms the practice was busy and my co-workers historically were not keen on shoulders so I really didn’t get onto any early treatment for my own condition. I kept my tai chi going. I found Danyus and Toryus really fatiguing. I could sometimes only do twenty of them. The shoulder range was of course limited, but this was like real heart fatigue, not just when you have done a lot and the muscles say stop. It’s a horrible feeling and I couldn’t work out why I felt like that. The second standing exercise was also painful, it felt like elastic bands in my forearm and hand were being deprived of oxygen, every time I tried it.

Around comes a two day workshop in Perth and I decided to really give this thing a push. I remember thinking that the Repulse Monkey move should be on the money, these shoulders hate that direction of movement and a nice big reach should give this thing a nudge, so I really stretched with Repulse Monkey during the workshop.

A nasty surprise awaited me a few days down the track. I developed right low back pain – which I never get. I worked out it was a hyperextension injury and thought, now, how did I get that? The penny dropped. As I had pushed that right arm backwards in Repulse Monkey there really wasn’t the range. We are connected by fascia from head to foot. The tight capsule is part of that system and it led to hyperextension in other areas.

A few months later we did an Awareness Day in Perth and during the demonstration we had a huge video screen outside our State library to replay some of the footage one of our members had filmed of us doing the set. I remember looking up and seeing one of these characters with quite a large lordosis (inward curve in the lower back) and I realised it was me!

A month later I was fortunate to go to an International Workshop with Tony Kwong in Tauranga, New Zealand. During a question and answer session I asked Tony about the timing of the hands in the Toryu. As you are in the forward position how do you bring those hands across the midline before the sit and not tighten the chest muscles? Stupid me. Should know better. Next thing I’m up there Toryu-ing away while Tony walks around and around, checking what I am doing. Everyone observes patiently.

After a good amount of time, Tony begins to correct the timing and angles of my hands. Interestingly, he doesn’t appear to be concerned about the timing of the hands at the forward part of the Toryu, but certainly puts a lot of time into the opening of the hands in the sit position. Then he goes to the back — to my sacrum and pushes that down. He is lengthening my spine. Still not satisfied, he works on the hands again. Then back to my spine. This time a wooden spoon pressing in my low lumber area centrally. An ‘aha’ moment! That is the exact spot I recognised in the video as being too sharp an angle.

Now I understand, he wants that area of the spine to drop and me to sit more. To augment that flattening he also poked me in the belly with the spoon. Now I am sitting better, the correction of the opening in the chest can happen. My shoulder begins to relax. Now just push out from the back foot and Tony seems happier. After this I notice the arm and hand feels less strangled by elastic bands. And I can feel my proprioception (position sense) of the shoulder is returning. I feel lighter – the shoulder range improves 10% overnight.

Later in the workshop, lots of Wave Hands correction. Overnight the range of my arm and shoulder has come up another 20 or 30 degrees. So all that facial connection that was tight from my right shoulder down to my right foot is releasing. I never realised the shoulder is connected to the foot. Tony explained, until I could sit and open the pelvis, the chest and therefore the shoulder would not correct.

A big thank-you to Tony, the Workshop team, Kitchen crew and the billets for an incredibly welcoming and awesome workshop.

Jenny Andrews is a physiotherapist practising in Perth, Western Australia.

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