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Tai Chi - Relieving a Painful Shoulder Injury

by Leslie Morris(more info)

listed in chi energy martial arts, originally published in issue 51 - April 2000

Like the majority of people in the West, I had very little knowledge of Tai Chi. I knew of its existence and had seen examples of it being practised, mainly by Chinese octogenarians, on television. I did have some exposure to the martial arts through hard styles, such as Karate and Tae Kwon Do, but the soft styles were a complete mystery to me. Someone once told me that Tai Chi was very good for relieving painful joints and for general health, but I was only tempted into practising it as a last resort.

2 Even the 'salute to the sun' was possible

2 Even the 'salute to the sun' was possible

4 Concentrating and beginning the form

4 Concentrating and beginning the form

Too Small for Rugby

Rugby has always been a passion of mine. Ever since my schooldays I have taken every opportunity to play. Unfortunately, at five feet six inches, I wasn't really built for the game and was always the smallest member of the team. Although I was faster than most of the others it was always hard work avoiding the crunching tackles.

In my mid twenties, I was playing for a Royal Navy team against a team from Northumbria Police. As you can imagine they were all much bigger than me. Minutes into the game I came up against one of their huge second row forwards. He towered over me and I would be surprised if he even noticed my attempted tackle as he burst through our defence to score a marvellous try. As he celebrated, I was helped from the pitch to recover from the collision. I climbed into the back of a waiting ambulance as the throbbing pain, from my now immobile right arm, began to spread across my chest and back.

When I arrived at casualty, I joined the queue of young men kitted out in various sports strips. Apparently Saturday afternoon was always quite busy. At least three of us had suspected dislocations. After an X-ray and an examination I was told that my shoulder joint had separated but luckily, it had relocated quite easily. My arm was put into a sling and I was sent home with some pain killers.

Over the next year, I had two recurrences of the dislocation and after a great deal of thought I took my doctor's advice and hung up my rugby boots for good. The bigger problem was that it wasn't just rugby that I could no longer manage. My shoulder joint was, by now, damaged to the extent that even some simple everyday tasks caused me a great deal of discomfort. Reaching for anything above my head or even lying awkwardly in bed resulted in pain and even another dislocation. I spent most of the following few months either strapped up or on pain killers before my doctor decided that he had done all he could for me. He referred me to an orthopaedic surgeon for further examination and, hopefully, treatment and a cure.

Examinations and Anaesthetic

I was admitted to hospital on a warm and sunny summer day. The old Victorian hospital building looked slightly out of place surrounded, as it was, by the houses, shops and blocks of flats that had sprung up around it in recent years. At reception I was given directions up to the male orthopaedic ward. The ward was filled with men who, like myself, had just been admitted. They were suffering from a combination of knee, shoulder and back injuries. Most of them were there for surgery the following day. I, on the other hand, had a more uncertain timetable ahead of me.

The following day brought the usual hospital checks. My blood pressure and pulse were taken and I gave enough blood to fill a milk bottle. After a series of X-rays had been taken, I was examined under general anaesthetic. My shoulder joint was deliberately dislocated in order to check just how easily, and under what circumstances, it would pop out. They allowed me a day to recover before another round of tests began.

This time I was given a local anaesthetic. A steel catheter was pushed just under my right collar bone and into the shoulder joint in order to fill it with dye. I was then placed onto a CAT scanner and had to stay completely still for thirty minutes while the scanner took a series of cross-sectional pictures. Back onto the ward again and another day to recover.

Now came my first real meeting with the consultant. We spoke at length about the injury and what my options were. He explained that there were two surgical procedures that would help to stabilise the joint and reduce the risk of another dislocation. On the down side, he told me that both operations would lead to a long recuperation and a lot of physiotherapy. At the end of it I would be left with reduced mobility in my arm. He said that in my case I could alter my lifestyle slightly, to take account of the injury and avoid repeat dislocations almost as effectively without the discomfort of surgery or loss of mobility. We agreed that this was my best option and I was discharged the next day after being given some advice from a physiotherapist on some exercises that might help. She was the first person to suggest Tai Chi.

Discovering Chi

After avoiding everything that might cause a problem, I still suffered a recurrence of the injury every couple of months. I had, by now, resigned myself to having to live with it as I still did not want to go ahead with any surgery. A year passed and I had started looking for some kind of exercise class that I could attend. I needed something to keep me fit but which was also safe for my shoulder and hopefully would help it a little. I spotted an advert in a local newspaper which said: "Learn Tai Chi. Suitable for all ages. Good for orthopaedic injuries." I made a note of the beginners' class start time and decided to give it a try.

The Tai Chi school was on the second floor of an old factory building. The signs outside advertised not just Tai Chi but also Jujitsu, Karate, Kick boxing and Hypnotherapy. I walked through the brick archway and made my way up the stone steps to the second floor. The Tai Chi school was a huge room, through a door at the top of the stairs. The floor was of polished wood and one wall was completely covered with large mirrors. It was only the various sized punch bags hung in each corner that told me I hadn't inadvertently entered a dance studio.

Obeying the sign, I removed my shoes and socks in the little area just inside the door and made my way across to the middle of the room. Looking around for someone who looked like the instructor I noticed a man who appeared to be in his mid forties, though it was hard to tell, with a shaven head. He noticed me and came over.

I introduced myself and we had a quick chat about what I wanted to gain from Tai Chi. I told him about my injury and he invited me to join the class and, to begin with, just follow what I could. Looking at the other students I was surprised by their age range – the youngest being in her early twenties with a man in his seventies being the oldest. There were also two heavily pregnant women.

The class started with some light stretching before I got my first taste of Tai Chi. The instructor went through the first section of the Form as the pupils followed his lead. I spent most of my time trying to figure out where my hands and feet should be. It was surprisingly strenuous and I soon worked up a sweat. The instructor then split the class into groups who went through the Form in their own time and once again he approached me for a chat.

The first thing he taught me was how to stand still and how I should be breathing. As we spoke he also manipulated my shoulder to find out in what positions I experienced pain so that he knew what I had to avoid. Unlike the examination in hospital I was in no discomfort during or after. Putting my shoes and socks back on afterwards I decided that I would return for the next class.

Over the following few weeks I was taken gently through various stretches that would help my suppleness and mobility. At the same time I was learning the start of the Form. Without putting my joints under any stress I was slowly toning up the muscles around them. This would help to hold my shoulder together. I realised that it had been a month or so since the last bout of pain and even longer since the last dislocation.

I was also increasing my muscle control through practising the slow, fluid movements of the Form. This was added to by my subsequent training in meditation. Beginning with only ten minutes at a time, I found it hard to sit completely still and empty my mind but after a while, I began to at least understand what I was trying to achieve. Along with this came my introduction to the concept of Chi energy.

This was described to me as a ball of energy in the centre of my body that, with thought and meditation, I could control. This ball could be moved around and even outside my body. It was difficult for my Western mind to grasp and proved to be even harder to harness.

Trying to combine the Form, my breathing, meditation and Chi all at the same time was, I thought, something that took years of diligent practice. Even so, in my short time as a student I was now able to relax more. I was also not having to concentrate so much on the mechanics of the Form and could put my energy into the meditation aspect.

Relaxed and Pain Free

My first year of study at the Tai Chi school had proved to be very beneficial. My shoulder hadn't separated since I started. The pain I normally suffered from had virtually disappeared and I was now able to forget that I had the injury instead of working my life around it. All the things I had been advised not to do, such as lifting and reaching above my head, were no longer a problem. Along with all of this I was now fitter and more supple than I had been in a long time.

Today I find it hard to attend the class because of the hours I work, but this does not stop me from practising in my own home. I am still feeling the benefits from everything I have learned.

Tai Chi has definitely had a profound effect on my life. Relaxed and with a more positive outlook on life, I do not suffer from the work-related stress of which many of my colleagues complain. As soon as my children are old enough I will be introducing them to the wonders of Tai Chi and I will continue to recommend this wonderful art to everyone I speak with.


  1. Michael Mac said..

    Leslie, I like your story and I know, as you do, you are on a good path.. I am wrestling with rotator cuff injury (both front and rear major tendons torn completely). At 67 years of age I also have found this gentle art of life and put a lot of faith in the practice. (loosing 30 pounds will help a lot as well) Working with the Veteran's Administration health in the U.S. is a bit slow to come around. Just diagnosed with a blocked artery and heart valve issue, It just "ticked" me off enough to get serious about my Ti Chi practice. Keep up the good work! Michael

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About Leslie Morris

Leslie Morris is 32 and married with two young children. He works full time as an electronics engineer and part time as a freelance writer.

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