The Chinese call it the 50-years shoulder…doctors call it adhesive capsulitis…in the US, folks usually say frozen shoulder…and anyone who suffers from this malady, calls it a major pain in the you-know-what.

With frozen shoulder, extending the arm—to reach, lift, get dressed, style hair, etc.—becomes not only increasingly painful, but nearly impossible. The shoulder literally feels locked in place as the inflamed connective tissue around the joint thickens, contracts and loses elasticity. Keeping the shoulder still only makes matters worse by reducing production of lubricating fluids and allowing scar tissue to form. The condition most often develops in midlife (hence the “50-years” moniker), and almost 70% of those affected are women. The exact cause is unknown, but people with a thyroid disorder, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes or a history of shoulder injury are at increased risk.

Left untreated, frozen shoulder usually heals on its own—but this can take up to two years! And typical conventional treatments may not help much…can have side effects (for instance, corticosteroid injections can lead to infection, loss of skin color and tendon damage)…and, in the case of physical therapy, can be effective but time consuming.

Good news: Acupuncture can help, according to Fred Lisanti, ND, LAc, a naturopathic physician and licensed acupuncturist who specializes in pain management. “Acupuncture helps loosen tight connective tissues, muscle fibers and scar tissue in the shoulder. It also increases blood flow, and where blood goes, nutrients go—and these help scavenge inflammatory particles, thus promoting healing,” he explained.

Recent scientific evidence supports the use of acupuncture for frozen shoulder. For instance, in one 2010 study, 86% of frozen shoulder patients who received acupuncture showed improvement. Acupuncture may be especially helpful when combined with physical therapy, another study showed. In that study, patients who got acupuncture alone experienced better pain control than those who did only physical therapy exercises…those who got physical therapy alone experienced more improvement in range of motion…and those who got both treatments benefited most.

What to do: If you have symptoms that suggest frozen shoulder, see your doctor to rule out other possible causes, such as arthritis, dislocation or a rotator cuff tear. If you decide to try acupuncture, alone or as a complement to physical therapy and/or other treatments, you can find a licensed practitioner through the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.

What to expect: Based on a thorough exam, the acupuncturist chooses the appropriate acupuncture points. The hair-thin needles cause little or no discomfort and are left in place for about 30 to 40 minutes. Dr. Lisanti typically uses five to 10 needles in the shoulder plus eight or so in the legs, arms and/or hands along the energy “meridians.” He usually sees his frozen shoulder patients two or three times a week for six to eight weeks. Some patients also benefit from periodic follow-up sessions. Acupuncture sessions range from $75 to $200 apiece and often are covered by insurance.

While acupuncture cannot guarantee a 100% cure for frozen shoulder, Dr. Lisanti reported that at least half of his patients start feeling better and enjoying increased range of motion after just a few treatments.