While shoulder pain can be caused by a variety of injuries, rotator cuff impingement is one of the more common causes. It can occur in a variety of people, younger and older. The rotator cuff is made up of four muscles on your shoulder blade that stabilize your shoulder joint, as seen below. Impingement occurs when part of the tendon is repeatedly compressed. It is often poorly managed with corticosteroid injections. Mechanical stress that would have caused these tendons to become painful requires mechanical treatments, not a drug, for true correction.
You are at risk for rotator cuff tendon or "subacromial" impingement if you currently have or have had:
1. Decreased total shoulder motion - Can you get your arm straight overhead? Can you touch your hand all the way up to the bottom of your opposite shoulder blade?
2. A rotator cuff muscle or tendon injury, like a strain or a tear - This would have been diagnosed by a medical professional.
3. A “frozen” shoulder - Also would have been diagnosed by a medical professional.
4. Poor trunk and shoulder blade posture - All people are guilty of this at some time or another. We round our backs and let the shoulders rock forward. We drop our heads forward and down.
5. Weak rotator cuff muscles - This applies to many people, even those that have labor jobs or athletes that demand heavy use from their shoulders.
6. Weak shoulder blade muscles - This occurs in most people, unless they are specifically strengthening these muscles and is often a result of the poor trunk posture.
7. Irritable rotator cuff muscle trigger points (aka knots) - Applies to many people, unless they regularly have a deeper massage or routinely dig and smash on those knotted trigger points themselves.
Certain activities also make shoulder impingement more likely:
1. Long periods of work with the arms overhead
2. Participating in throwing sports, like baseball
3. Participating in swimming, especially freestyle, backstroke, and breaststroke
Combine any of these activities with the problems listed above and it is not unusual to start having shoulder pain from rotator cuff impingement.
Here is a list of items you can try to decrease the chance of developing a rotator cuff impingement issue or to address an early rotator cuff problem.
1. Massage the rotator cuff muscles with a ball, like a tennis ball, while leaning against a wall. A couple of these muscles are easy to reach because they are on the back of your shoulder blade. Move your body up and down and side to side while keeping a moderate pressure on the ball. Focus on the more tender areas. Perform for 1-3 minutes.
2. Light rotator cuff muscle activity with your arm at your side. This could be as simple as the “isometric” exercises in the pictures below. Push 5-10 seconds with a minimal to moderate level of pressure. The goal is to perform repetitions without pain, not to create maximum force. More is not always better. Try just 5 repetitions of each position early and if that lowers your pain then attempt to work up to 20 repetitions over one week of time.
3. When sitting or standing, focus on remaining tall with your torso posture. Focus on the shoulder blades squeezing back even if it’s just a little more than your usual. A small change can go a long way toward decreasing stress on the shoulder muscles and tendons.
4. For swimmers, address any swimming technique issues such as crossing midline during the freestyle stroke. You may need to discuss this with a swim coach or a medical professional experienced with treating swimming athletes.
5. Move your keyboard and mouse closer toward your body if you work at a desk in order to keep your arms closer to your side and not reaching forward.
6. Avoid working overhead. This is especially true if you have to push firmly with the arm, like while using a drill or paint roller.
7. Do not completely avoid moving the arm. This increases the chance of developing stiffness in the joint that could lead to adhesive capsulitis, otherwise known as a frozen shoulder. Please don't put your arm in a sling unless a medical professional determines there's a bone broken or you just had surgery on the shoulder.
8. Avoid heavy overhead lifting. Of course, heavy means different things to different people. If you *think* it’s heavy at all, it probably is.
Don’t let your shoulder pain stick around for too long. One to two weeks is reasonable if it is steadily improving from a moderate level of pain. In some instances, these suggestions can help shoulder pain. By no means are they meant to resolve a major shoulder injury though. They are not intended to provide diagnosis or true medical treatment. When in doubt, seek medical advice from a qualified medical professional.
If you have any questions about resolving shoulder pain with your work or hobbies, mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.