This is a long story, that hopefully is coming to an end.
Here I’d like to talk about some pain I’ve had in my right shoulder from doing kyudo. Perhaps there is some information here that may be of help to you. Perhaps you have some valuable information I’m missing, in that case please comment or send me an email!
As a disclaimer, I am not medically trained and have a relatively short history with the bow. My answers are by no means absolutely correct or set in stone, but rather just my small personal experience.
Many people may think that kyudo is a peaceful art with no chance of injuries since you’re not moving around much and don’t have a partner to wrestle with, but that is far from the truth. In my short history with the bow I’ve torn the skin on my thumb making a lump of stuff (maybe scar tissue) that won’t go away for years, if ever, have had the string slap my head, ear, and arm repeatedly, and most recently pain in the right shoulder. The thing with kyudo injuries is that they won’t usually be single major incidents that create an immediate injury, like a collision resulting in a broken bone for example, but rather start out small and build with time. By the time you decide that that strange feeling is in fact real pain, you may already be far down the path of an injury that will take a long time to heal. As archers we must be careful to use gear that is suitable to us, use proper form, and allow injuries to heal when needed. Because I have ignored these three points I have found pain in my right shoulder.
So here’s the story. It’s a long one though, so recommend getting your best blog-reading beverage and getting comfortable. Or just waiting for the next blog post in case this isn’t what you’re looking for.
Last year I moved up from using a 15.5 kg bow (I thought it was 17kg [accurately measure your bow if you’re not sure how strong it is and looking to pull a stronger one!]) to a 19kg bow. The bow was strong but felt great, however after a couple months I ended up re-tearing the skin on left thumb in February and waited for about 3 weeks while it healed. When I came back in March I started with the 15.5kg bow for a couple days, but because there was a big tournament coming up I really wanted to use the 19kg bow. In a few days I made that jump to the strong bow way too quick and trained way too much and started to feel slight pain in the shoulder. I ignored it and went to the tournament using that bow. During the tournament I couldn’t shoot the bow like I normally did and distorted my form to avoid igniting the pain in my shoulder. Afterwards I realized how messed up this was and rested for about two weeks. (Maybe I should’ve rested 3 or 4.)
I came back in April and started using the 15.5kg again. The pain wasn’t so bad, but I could feel “something.” It was in the front of my shoulder, where it felt like my shoulder and arm and chest all connected. I continued to train and things weren’t so bad, but I could always feel “something” in the shoulder area. In a few months the prefectural tournament was coming up and so we had competitions over the course of a month in June to decide who was going to go. With this in mind I trained hard and did everything I could to hit the target, which meant over-practice and I started trying to pull the bow in impossible ways which probably irritated the shoulder (mostly pulling the bow too far, I think). I made the team for the prefectural tournament, but soon after tore the skin on my thumb again after trying to pull a stronger bow again. (In my experience that happens from gripping the bow too hard, and the chances of happening are increased when using stronger bows and after shooting a lot of arrows in a single day). Luckily I had time until the prefectural tournament in September and so I took another 3 weeks off.
At this point my shoulder was mostly better, and I came back to practicing with the bow slowly. My hand was better, but to ensure I wasn’t going to tear it I used a leather cover for the thumb. (This did in fact keep my hand from tearing, but affected my technique for the worse, keeping me from properly using my left hand, specifically the tenmonsuji line which made me yurumu [let up the tension of the bow] at the last moment of the release sending arrows in all different directions and making the string slap my arm).
Coincidentally I ended up going back to Toyama for the Obon holiday and shot with my original teacher for the first time since moving to Kyushu. He noticed my bad habits immediately and said the reason was because my right shoulder and elbow was too high in the full draw. (I think I wrote some posts about this soon after meeting with him around August or September). There are a lot of details to this, but simply put, I started to realize perhaps what I thought was the “right way ” to shoot was actually impeding my form and creating pain in my shoulder. I was raising my right shoulder in uchiokoshi, and putting it too far over my head in daisan in order to try and make my right forearm parallel with the ground, and then using my shoulder or biceps too much in the draw, and keeping my shoulder and arm too high in the full draw, which made for a really strange release. I started to rethink my form from the full draw, but I didn’t realize that the problems started before and during uchiokoshi by not sinking my shoulders down enough and using the muscles in my arms instead of proper form.
This is where teaching and learning can be really complicated in kyudo. Because you’ll get a lot of teachers telling you different ways of pulling the bow. Perhaps the core principles are the same (tsumeai (form), nobiai (expansion), tateyoko jumonji (horizontal and vertical crosses), but the way they do it can vary greatly. Some ways suit us, and others may injure us. I was unfortunate to run into a method of shooting that was hurting me (raising the right shoulder and trying to hard to make my forearm parallel with the ground in daisan), and didn’t have the right eyes to recognize what was happening and help me change my form. It would be a few more months until finally finding a teacher that could help me.
To be honest, I think it was probably more my misinterpretation, or lack of complete understanding of what I was taught, and less what the high ranking teacher was actually doing. Taking what one teacher says too literally and exaggerating it in your practice is another easy way to warp your form and invite injury.
Anyway, I was getting ready for the prefectural tournament and the 15.5kg was too light for me, but I wasn’t ready for a 19kg (way too big of a jump to make in my opinion now), so I was looking around for something around the 17kg range. Luckily someone had a 17.5 I could use and it felt perfect.
So, I was using the 17.5 and had about 2 weeks of training for the big tournament. Because I wanted to do well, I trained too hard and started to distort my form. I was hitting the target when I was comfortable, but was slowly wandering down a dark path that would fill my shooting with bad habits and increase pain in the shoulder and hand.
By the time the tournament came I was alright, but I was sore and shooting with distorted form. When the tournament finished I felt like a huge burden was lifted, took a week off, and finally got my shoulder checked out at the doctor.
I originally thought the problem was in my rotator cuff, but after examination the doctor thought it was actually a problem with my biceps where the biceps connects with the shoulder. The rotator cuff could also be affected, he said, but it seemed like the issue was mainly in the biceps. I took an MRI and came back a week later to check out the results with a specialty doctor that came to hospital once a week from Oita City. Much of the same conversation was had, and the MRI revealed some inflammation, but nothing that time wouldn’t heal. The doctor said that if I stopped pulling the bow for about 3 weeks it should be healed. A month later I was heading back to the States, so I decided to keep shooting with limited amount of practice for the next month, and take 3 weeks off around the time I headed back home.
I was sensitive to my shoulder the whole time I was away and used a gomu-kyu (rubber training bow) a couple times a day. The gomu-kyu didn’t hurt my shoulder, but I noticed that when I slept on my right shoulder the pain increased a lot. Ideally I probably should’ve been careful not to sleep in a position that irritated my shoulder and not touched the gomu-kyu at all.
By the time I came back to shooting, there wasn’t so much pain when I shot, but could always feel “something” in my shoulder. I expected the pain to be gone completely, so I was a little disappointed. At this time I started to meet with A-Sensei, a teacher who finally saw the main problems in my shooting and started to help me fix my form. I noticed that when I followed his advice, there was no pain in my shoulder. When I started to stray from what he said and pull the bow too far sending my right elbow behind me instead of out to the side like it should, I felt pain in my shoulder. A-Sensei said people injure themselves all the time in kyudo and just label it “getting old” when really it’s their warped form that causes the pain. I thought about this a lot.
Over the winter I took another 2 weeks off to see if that would be enough to fix my shoulder for good. I came back again, and while there isn’t serious pain, there is still “something”. At this point I’m tired of not knowing what’s going on and want to get more information.
I done some research on the internet concerning biceps tedonitis, and found out that it seems to occur often with tennis, golf, and weight lifting. I read a really interesting article about golf injuries and how they often happen with people who have little experience but want to shoot like a pro immediately. (Haha, I guess I could fit into that category with the bow pretty easily.) Also, one must respect their bodies and do proper stretching before serious activity. This is one point I agree with completely and spend on average of ten minutes stretching my whole body before practice, which seems to be about 10x longer than any one else I see doing kyudo. (Interestingly enough I was talking about injuries before shooting with some practice mates and teachers and they talked about the importance of stretching before shooting. Then immediately after someone said, “Alright let’s get to it!” without stretching. WHAT?!?!?! Let’s stretch for a minute!)
I found some videos of a weight lifter doing exercises to help clear up biceps tendonitis. My question to this is, should I rest more, and then eventually start doing these exercises? Instead of resting, should I do these exercises and then return to the bow later? Should I practice these exercises while continuing my practice of the bow? My biggest issue with talking to doctors and people who practice other sports is that they don’t understand the exact movements that happen in kyudo, the affect of the gear, and the affect of proper vs. improper shooting, and so I can’t help but feel like I’m getting a complete opinion.
It must be pretty shocking for those who have thought, “Why don’t you look up injuries in archery?” And since I’ve realized that only just recently, I am equally shocked. After just a little bit of time researching I’ve found that injuries in the right shoulder are not uncommon and so I’ll be doing a lot more reading in that area. (I think there’s a whole world of gems waiting to be discovered, or at least taught, concerning the connections between archery and kyudo. Why isn’t more of this happening?)
I’ve been asking everyone around the dojo about injuries, specifically those related to the shoulder. My main teacher has had trouble with his left shoulder and back, and has taken time away when things have been painful, but still to this day has some pain and practices through it. He says its because they are injuries that won’t just go away with time, unless he completely quit kyudo which is not something he wants to do, and so he’s learning how to use his form more properly and not do things to make the pain worse. He says the pain is worse in winter so he doesn’t shoot as much as other seasons, takes more time to warm up, uses a lighter bow, and will spend more time at the makiwara before going to the target. I think these are some pretty good ideas and thinking about how to apply them to my own practice.
I’ve talked to my main practice partner who sometimes has pain in his shoulders. He seems to accept it and try not to aggravate any painful areas too much. Talking to other archers it seems like most people have “something” if they’ve been practicing long enough and learn to deal with their relative injuries. Initially this idea really bothers me, thinking that I’m limiting myself with a limited body and just going to be a crippled old man one day because I decided to shoot the bow and arrow. This is why I’m thinking about all this so much and trying to get as much information as possible.
I talked with a fellow archer in Oita City who is a medical student and he asked me some questions about the pain and it sounds like it’s related to the biceps muscle and possibly the rotator cuff. But since he’s just a student he said I should go to an experienced orthopedic specialist and recommended one in Nakatsu where I live.
At the latest training session with A-Sensei I met another archer who said he used to have pain in his right shoulder. He said it happened because he was pulling too far and using warped technique, and once he started using proper technique his shoulder naturally healed and now he has no pain. Wow! This seems to be the best stuff I’ve heard yet. Advice from an experienced and skilled archer about pain in his right shoulder, and all of it with a positive outcome.
At this very point right now, my shoulder feels better than it has since initially getting hurt last March. In reflection, it probably needed some time to rest, which I gave it, and now instead of resting more, I think I should just do my best to not pull the bow too far and use proper technique, while not shooting too much. Because of all these questions and conversations, I’m still going to go to the orthopedic doctor in Nakatsu tomorrow because that’s what I said I was going to do last week. Perhaps I can get some helpful information concerning:
-How should I go about practicing?
-What kind of timeline can I expect for recovery?
-What can I do to help speed up the healing process of my shoulder?
I suppose the best thing that could happen is that I could find a great doctor who can answer all of these questions. At the worst, he’ll just say I need to stop doing kyudo.
I’ll post again after meeting with the doctor and share what he says.
Anybody else have problems with their right shoulder? Or any other injuries in kyudo for that reason? Share in the comments section or send me an email!
Onward and upward.