Massage Therapy For Frozen Shoulder
A comprehensive treatment should incorporate a number of rehabilitation strategies based on patient-specific assessment findings including, but not limited to:
• Manual Therapy (nerve mobilization, soft tissue massage, triggerpoint, IASTM)
• Acupuncture (local, segmental and distal stimulation sites)
• Education on Psychosocial Factors (eg. BPS framework of pain, fear avoidance)
• Remedial Loading Programs (eg. static stretching, concentric, eccentric, isometric)
Patients benefit from the early diagnosis and proper treatment of frozen shoulder
This post is a brief look at related research, ideally it will serve as a starting point - providing massage therapists and researchers some points of considerations.
The development of a frozen shoulder is often classified as idiopathic (primary) or following shoulder surgery or trauma (secondary). Traditionally it has been taught that regardless of therapeutic intervention the affected shoulder will eventually improve or "thaw out".
This long held idea of complete resolution without treatment for frozen shoulder is unfounded. In most cases an understanding of the pathophysiology of frozen shoulder will lead to improved treatment outcomes, reduced pain and suffering associated with the condition (Wong et al. 2017).
The progression of the frozen shoulder is a complicated process, involving a cascade of molecular and cellular events.
Diabetic patients are more likely to develop frozen shoulder, but there are other comorbidities that exist. The storage of leukocytes and chronic inflammatory cells is thought to play a fundamental role in the development of frozen shoulder.
In this condition on going inflammation feeds into a cycle and is responsible for the upregulation of pro-inflammatory cytokine production, namely transforming growth factor beta (TGF-β). Which may be further perpetuated by sympathetic dominance of autonomic balance, and neuro-immune activation (Pietrzak 2016).
Impacting inflammation with manual therapy and gentle stretching
The responses to massage therapy are multifactorial - physiological and psychological factors interplay in a complex manner. A biopsychosocial framework is a practical approach for investigating the complex interplay between massage therapy and the experience of pain.
Additionally, based on available evidence gentle mobilization serves to interrupt the sequelae of pathological healing. This is most likely not in a single unified response, but as a collection of interconnected adaptive responses within the nervous system and soft tissue structures.
Attenuating Tissue Levels of TGF-β1 - As a therapeutic intervention massage therapy has the potential to attenuate TGF-β1 induced fibroblast to myofibroblast transformation. Recent studies have looked at the effect of modeled massage therapy and mechanical stretching on tissue levels of TGF-β1 (Bove et al. 2016). In this study it was demonstrated that mechanical stretching has the potential to attenuate tissue levels of TGF-β1 and the development of fibrosis. This is potentially impactful in the treatment of frozen shoulder because TGF-β1 plays a key role in tissue remodeling and fibrosis.
Impacting Inflammation - Persistent inflammation has the potential to interfere with the remodeling of tissue. Modeled experiments have demonstrated the impact of stretching on inflammation-regulation mechanisms within connective tissue (Berrueta et al. 2016). Additionally, studies have suggested that the application of massage induces a phenotype change, prompting the transition of M1 macrophages (pro-inflammatory) into the M2 macrophages (anti-inflammatory) (Waters-Banker et al. 2014).
Postoperative frozen shoulder is a serious complication after shoulder surgery, with an incidence of 11% (Koorevaar et al. 2017). If clinically translatable, prophylactic massage treatments could make a large impact for post-operative patients. The hypothesis that massage therapy effects the progression of post-operative frozen shoulder by inhibiting inflammatory processes and affecting the development of fibrosis by mediating differential cytokine production warrants further research.
The complex clinical picture of frozen shoulder
A treatment plan should be implemented based on patient-specific assessment findings and patient tolerance. I often treat this area while passively moving the arm through a wide range of motion. Gently stretching the muscles, neurovascular structures and investing fascia of:
• the rotator cuff
• teres major
• triceps brachii
• pectoral muscle group
• serratus anterior
• latissimus dorsi
More to Explore
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Bove, G., Harris, M., Zhao, H., & Barbe, M. (2016). Manual therapy as an effective treatment for fibrosis in a rat model of upper extremity overuse injury. Journal of the Neurological Sciences. (OPEN ACCESS)
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