A torn rotator cuff equals a trip to the surgeon and thousands of dollars, right? Not so fast! It is possible to use yoga as a tool for recruiting the help of our healthy muscles to take over for the injured muscle, allowing us to maintain our range of motion. We can use yoga to unleash the most powerful healing instrument available, our own bodies!
The saying ‘A chain is only as strong as its weakest link’ seemingly does not apply to the rotator cuff. If a runner sprains their ankle in a race they might be able to finish if their fellow mates lend them a shoulder to lean on to take up the slack so they don’t have to use their injured ankle. It’s the same concept with bringing mobility back to the shoulder except we’re relying on new muscles to shoulder the load (pun slightly intended).
A Groundbreaking Clinical Study
Clinical studies have shown that performing a variation of the classic headstand arm position, called Triangular Forearm Support or TFS, can change the way the muscles in the shoulder operate. In a study by Loren Fishman, this technique was successful in reducing pain and restoring movement in 46 of 49 patients. The results demonstrated that pain reduction and the restoration of the range of motion is much greater from this form of recruitment than arthroscopic surgery!
In this trial 50 participants with torn rotator cuffs completed the TFS exercise and their progress was monitored for 2 years. On average the participants more than doubled their range of motion (150%) and could lift their arms normally. Studies of comparable tears being treated through surgery typically result in improvements in range of motion between ~20-30%. The average pain reduction for 46 of the participants was 82% with many participants reporting being pain free (3 reported no improvement and 1 dropped out of the study).
How Does It Work?
Let’s take a quick look at how the muscles of the rotator cuff works to help us raise our arms, an action we use constantly throughout the day, every single day.
Take a moment and slowly raise your arm from your side to over your head. The deltoid muscles initiate the movement to raise the arm to about 60º – 80º. Next, the muscles of the rotator cuff contract to raise the arm to around 110º, a little higher than holding your arm straight out in front of you. The supraspinatus muscle does most of this work. The deltoid muscles take over once again as the prime movers to raise the arm up by your ear to around 180º.
The rotator cuff is comprised of four muscles (the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis, and teres minor). Our brains are wired so that our default programming uses the supraspinatus as the main initiator to help raise the arm. When the supraspinatus tendon is torn (the tendon securing the muscle to the humerus bone in the upper arm) like during a torn rotator cuff, the muscle can’t function properly and our ability to move our arm is highly limited.
Practicing the TFS technique rewires our brains to recruit the other muscles (mainly the subscapularis) of the rotator cuff to perform the movement of raising the shoulder instead of the supraspinatus, creating a new mind-body connection. The supraspinatus muscle is not healed through this process. However, the subscapularis is trained to take over for the injured muscle to regain a normal range of motion without any pain. Instead of running headfirst over and over into a locked door, we can climb through the open window! We can teach our body to adapt to our current situation and be more efficient!
How To Perform TFS
TFS uses the same arm preparation as the classic handstand position.
- Interlock your fingers and place your forearms against the wall, creating an equilateral triangle. If you need help setting up the triangle you can place your hands on opposite elbows against the wall and keep your elbows stationary as you fan your hands out until they meet at the top point of the triangle.
- Place the crown of your head in the center of the triangle just below your hands. Relax your head and neck.
- Slowly walk your feet away from the wall to gain some leverage. This will cause your body to take on a slanted look.
- Lower your chest and keep pressing your elbows and forearms against the wall.
- Draw your shoulder blades, back, down, and apart from another. Imagine drawing the bottom tips of your shoulder blades out towards your elbows. This will help to keep your shoulders depressed away from your ears.
- Maintain this pressure for around 30 seconds.
- Slowly walk back towards the wall to straighten your body. Release your hands and stand up straight.
- Raise your arms overhead as high as you can and feel the difference!
In Conclusion: The Best Things In Life Are Free
Our bodies have a high degree of plasticity and adaptability. You can teach an old dog a new trick or how to perform the same trick a different way! In the case of a torn rotator cuff you can save up to $12,000 and find immediate and longer lasting pain relief without months of recovery that can cause other complications!
In some cases this technique will not be successful and surgery may be necessary, especially for people with highly developed shoulder muscles like musicians who play string instruments. In that case consult your physician to discover what course of action is best for you. But for the vast majority of us, we can apply this simple wisdom and profoundly transform our relationship with our bodies!
Sometimes the simplicity of ancient wisdom beats the advancements of modern medicine. After all, the best things in life are indeed free.