Dr. John Kirsch, Stevens Point, was hiking with his kids in Peninsula State Park in Door County in 1983 when he stumbled upon an idea that helped change his thoughts about the human shoulder.
“We hiked and we came across a horizontal ladder station… (The kids) went across like monkeys,” said Kirsch, an orthopedic surgeon who practiced in Stevens Point for many years. “I attempted to get to that second rung and I knew, I immediately knew, why I was having trouble with my shoulder.”
Kirsch’s realization was that human shoulders in their modern contexts become misshapen, weak and prone to injury over time. The solution, said Kirsch, both as treatment and prevention, is to re-engage the shoulder’s natural movement by hanging from an overhead bar.
“I cured myself in six months, but I didn’t fully understand it,” said Kirsch.
In 2004, while working in Beaver Dam, Kirsch used a CT machine to study the shoulders of live subjects in hanging positions.
Kirsch’s research lead him to a deeper understanding of the shoulder and spawned a manuscript and a 600-slide power point presentation that evolved into a book called “Shoulder Pain? The Solution and Prevention.” Kirsch recently revised the book for its fourth edition, which will be released later this summer.
“It’s the first one that comes up, if you type ‘shoulder pain’ on Amazon,” said Kirsch, who founded the Kirsch Institute for Shoulder Research as a way to reach out to more people after publishing the second edition of the book.
“I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of people whom I’ve helped,” said Kirsch, who has received emails from people with shoulder issues from all over the world, including everyone from a violin teacher to a one-time Mr. Universe contender.
Kirsch’s idea, as one critical review on Amazon points out, is fairly simple, “Fix your shoulder by hanging from a pull-up bar.”
Kirsch said the simplicity is part of the point. “I didn’t write this book to make money,” said Kirsch. “I wrote this book because it is a moral obligation to share something as simple as this solution… people do not use the shoulder as it was designed to be used.”
Kirsch said humans – in the same family of primates as orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees and gibbons – are built to swing from tree limb to tree limb, a means of locomotion called brachiation. “Man has not adapted from his arboreal past and men still have the shoulders of an arboreal creature,” said Kirsch. “It’ll be millions of year before man adapts to walking on two legs… (Meanwhile) Humans have gone from rocks to computers in a few thousand years.”
This evolutionary disconnect, represented in his children’s success and his failure at the horizontal ladder, began Kirsch down a road of further research into the human shoulder and the development of a way to simulate the brachiation absent in modern human life.
The Kirsch’s Institute protocol calls for hanging from a horizontal overhead bar and light weight lifting. For most people this means hanging for about 30 seconds three times a week, and lifting a light weight over their head with each arm for 30 to 40 repetitions a couple of times a week.
This amount of effort, said Kirsch, is enough to reshape the space in the shoulder, reducing shoulder pain, while also strengthening the muscles that move the arm. Kirsch claims that this protocol can be expanded to deal with more complicated issues including rotator cuff tears and frozen shoulder.
“It’s equally beneficial to get up and put some weight on it,” said Kirsch of partial hanging for people with limited hand strength or excess weight. He said the hanging itself is initially painful as it reshapes bone in the shoulder, but that it is not harmful to the shoulder’s tissues as believed by some of his peers.
Kirsch has relied heavily on testimonials to support his claims. In the fourth edition of the book, the title will be appended as “The Kauai Study” in reference to a study Kirsch presented this spring at the first combined Australian/American meeting of the American Association for Surgery of the Hand in Kauai, Hawaii, that showed 90 of 92 subjects with shoulder problems were “restored to comfortable activities of daily living” using Kirsch’s non-surgical approach to the shoulder.
Kirsch said many in his profession are skeptical of the approach, though it is gaining some momentum. “Some physical therapists are starting to understand the need to simulate brachiating,” said Kirsch, who said he recently received his first email inquiry from an orthopedic surgeon interested in the technique.
Kirsch, an early member of the American Arthroscopy Association of North America, began his career at the Rice Clinic in Stevens Point in 1979 when the demand for his arthroscopic surgery services, a procedure that allows doctors to repair joints with minimally invasive surgery, was high. Kirsch’s work, mostly on knees, meant elevating his arms up to eye-level for long periods of time, which is when his shoulder issues first began.
Kirsch also had a private practice at the Bone and Joint Center of Stevens Point and founded the Scopes for Russia project, volunteering throughout the 1990s to train surgeons, gather arthroscopic equipment and build a hospital wing in Stevens Point’s Russian sister city of Rostov-Velicky.
For more information about the book and the Kirsch Institute for Shoulder Research visit kirschshoulder.com.