Last month's article introduced causes of shoulder pain and focused on the structure and general function of the shoulder through ranges of motion. As a ball and socket joint, it high-lighted the importance of the ball staying well centred in its socket as you move your arm, so as to avoid injury or irritation to the various soft tissues around the shoulder. That being said, it is possible to have "damage" to your rotator cuff without any symptoms. Research using diagnostic imaging (i.e. MRI/ultrasound) has shown that up to 40% of elite overhead athletes have asymptomatic rotator cuff tears. They are also found in the general population at an increasing frequency with advancing age. Up to 1 in 5 people aged 60 to 69 and 31% of those aged 70 to 79 have been shown to have symptom free cuff tears. This clearly shows that normal function can be preserved despite structural changes and offers encouragement that satisfactory function can be restored after an injury even when incomplete healing occurs.
So, this begs the question "What can be done to preserve or optimize shoulder function?" Maintaining good posture is a good place to start. This allows the shoulder blades, the "sockets", to move as they should, stay out of the way, and keep "the ball" well positioned. To illustrate this, stand with an intentionally poor posture with your mid back and shoulders hunched as much as possible. Now try to raise your arms forward and up as high as you can and take note of your range. Then, stand with good posture - back erect and your shoulders pulled back slightly - and raise your arms again. If done properly you should notice that the range of your shoulder motion is greater with better posture. The shoulder blades can tip backward as needed and not be limited by the rib cage, thereby allowing your arms to end up near your ears. Therefore, if you need to reach high for things or are doing overhead exercises, be sure to start with a good posture. A good overall posture also decreases strain on the neck, which is often an overlooked source of pain that is perceived at the shoulder.
Improving mid back mobility is also important. While lifting your arms as described above, your mid back should extend slightly to assist the motion. However, this area of the back, the thoracic spine, is commonly stiff due to the many hours we spend being sedentary with a slouched body position and doesn't move as freely as needed. Fortunately there are a number of things you can do to improve mobility here. Starting simply, you could lie on the floor with a small, rolled-up towel lying under and across your mid back. As you relax and lay flat this will arch your back slightly, and you can also adjust your body up or down to target different areas. To get more aggressive over time you can use a foam roller to increase the arch even further.
Maintaining the health and flexibility of shoulder soft tissues, rotator cuff muscle strength and stability, and other shoulder blade motions are additional aspects of a well functioning shoulder. However, unlike the above considerations that are almost universally applicable, what may be needed for each individual is quite variable and is best assessed on a case by case basis by a skilled health care professional.
This article is for general information purposes only and is not to be taken as professional medical advice.