With simple stretching and light weightlifting you can avoid rotator cuff problems.
The shoulder is the most moveable joint in the body, so it’s no wonder that it is one of the most commonly injured parts.
From rotator cuff tears to dislocation, there are a variety of shoulder injuries that people suffer on a daily basis. Some sports are more conducive to shoulder pains, such as swimming or any activity where you use a throwing motion.
But for the most part there are only two ways to injure your shoulder – the first being degeneration, or normal wear and tear, and the second being excessive force.
The latter is not something that is easily preventable because it occurs when a force is applied to the shoulder in an awkward manner, such as an abrupt fall or lifting something too heavy. You can obviously work on proper mechanics or learn how to crash, but for the most part excessive force injuries are abrupt and hard to avoid.
Then there are the strains or tears, which basically come from overuse of the shoulder or a weak musculature system that works within and among the shoulder. With the right strengthening and stretching exercises, you should be able to prevent those injuries.
Let’s look at how the shoulder works before addressing the preventative measures.
Basically, your shoulder is a place where hundreds of little muscles and tendons come together and attach and interact with each other. The joint, commonly know as the rotator cuff, is compromised of three bones – the scapula (or shoulder blade), which is a free floating bone that is basically embedded in your muscles, the humerus (upper arm bone) and the clavicle (collarbone). The there are two joints that facilitate shoulder movement – the acromion (the roof of the shoulder) and the glenoid fossa (basically the socket where the humerus sits).
Holding the joint together are four major muscles: the subscapularis, supraspinatus, infraspinatus, and teres minor. Your shoulder is also the point of attachment for biceps and triceps, lats and pecs, delts and other little muscles, which is why you need to strengthen the muscles around your shoulder to prevent injury to the joint.
“The scapula has a very shallow socket that allows us a great freedom of motion that we don’t have in a more congruent joint like the hip, which is a deeper socket,” said physical therapist Robert Forster. “The downside is that the shoulder has to rely on the muscles to keep the ball of the shoulder pushed into the socket. In this instance, the muscles blend right into the capsule and influence the movement of it. So what we gain in the shoulder joint, that we don’t have in the hip for instance, is a great freedom of motion, and what we lose is stability.”
Therein lies the problem.
If your joints and muscles aren’t strong enough to keep your shoulder anchored into your socket, injuries can arise.
The most common injury is an impingement syndrome, which is where the muscles aren’t strong enough to keep the bone from riding too high in the socket and rubbing into the roof of the shoulder, creating a pinching sensation in the joint. Eventually, after enough rubbing, small tears will develop in the rotator cuff, especially when you don’t allow enough rest in between workouts.
Outpacing your body’s ability to recover and repair the tissues you’ve broken down through training will cause injuries. In the shoulder this can be magnified. When your shoulder muscles fatigue it becomes hard to realize the damage you are doing to your joint.
One thing is for sure, when you feel pain in your shoulder, stop.
“Shoulder injuries are really nasty,” said Forster, owner of Phase IV, an athletic training facility in Santa Monica. “If you do get them, stop what you are doing and get an evaluation. Analyze what your problem is, that way you won’t have to give up everything, just the stuff that is getting you in trouble.”
Forster said there is another shoulder injury that occurs due to the instability of the shoulder.
“Because the socket is so shallow, the body has developed a gasket around the outside called the labrum,” he said. “The labrum is a soft tissue gasket that deepens the socket, but still allows for flexibility. There are various activities, mainly weight lifting, where you will tear the labrum.”
You can usually rehabilitate out of small labrum tears and most impingement syndromes, but major labrum tears require surgery.
The bottom line for those injuries is that there is only one way to prevent them – by creating the correct posture for the shoulder joint, which means strengthening and stretching the right muscles.
Forster recommends light weightlifting to isolate the muscles around the shoulder that keep the socket in place.
Internal and external rotation exercises are critical to strengthen your rotator cuff. You also need to focus on stretching out your pecs and strengthening your back muscles, that way your shoulder blade will move farther back. And as your shoulder blade moves back so does the whole socket, which allows your shoulder more freedom of movement and less chance of injury.
Exercises such as lat pulls to the chest, cable rows into the stomach and reverse flys are great for strengthening the shoulder. And watch your range of motion on any exercises involving the shoulder. With exercises like bench pressing and push ups, make sure you stop when your elbows reach the plan of your body. If you go beyond that you risk serious chance of impingement.
You also need to incorporate stretches like a cross chest stretch or a penguin stretch, which is where you place your hands on top of each other with your palms up behind your back near your waist and slowly move your elbows forward.
The main thing to focus on is keeping the muscles around your shoulder healthy. Through weight lifting and consistent stretching, you should be able to avoid the common shoulder pains caused by normal wear and tear.