Don't Shoulder the Pain

Raise your arms to pull a sweater over your head. Reach for a bowl on the top shelf of your kitchen cabinet. Replace a light bulb on the ceiling. These simple tasks can become a painful problem if you have a shoulder injury.

Millions of people visit the doctor each year for shoulder pain, and more than half are for rotator cuff problems. The four tendons that form the rotator cuff stabilize the shoulder and allow it to move in different directions.

“Inflammation, bruising or tears in the rotator cuff are the most common reasons for shoulder pain,” says Andrew Islam, MD, orthopedic surgeon with TriHealth Orthopedic & Sports Institute.

“As people get into their late 30s through 60s, they start to get some degeneration. There’s a direct correlation between age and shoulder problems,” Dr. Islam says.

Additionally, injuries can occur from poor form in weight lifting, from overuse in sports like baseball or volleyball, or from occupations like electrician or hair stylist.

Stretch and Strengthen

Dr. Islam recommends several tips for keeping your shoulders pain free and moving well.

  • Do internal and external shoulder rotations with light weights to help strengthen your shoulders. Dr. Islam gives his patients a handout from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons called “Rotator Cuff and Shoulder Conditioning Program.”
  • Stretch before and after exercise to minimize your risk of injury.
  • If you’re lifting weights, make sure you use proper form and technique.
  • Lighten the load of backpacks and purses. Don’t carry a backpack on just one shoulder. It’s best to balance the weight on both shoulders and keep the weight close to your body.

What to do for a Shoulder Injury

If you injure your shoulder, Dr. Islam suggests rest, ice and ibuprofen (e.g. Advil, Motrin) as the first line of treatment to reduce swelling and pain. Go to the emergency department right away if you suspect a broken bone.

“A lot of injuries will calm down over a week, and you’ll be able to lift your arm over your head again,” Dr. Islam says. “If your pain doesn’t improve after a week, it’s worthwhile to have a doctor look at it. “

He continues, “The vast majority of people get better with physical therapy, a steroid shot and anti-inflammatory medication.

“There’s no such thing as quick healing for the shoulder,” he cautions, noting that shoulder injuries often take four to six weeks to heal.

If pain persists after six weeks, the doctor may order an MRI to provide information about soft tissues like the rotator cuff. “If your shoulder is functioning and not hurting too much, we avoid surgery, which requires four to six months to heal. If shoulder pain is interfering with daily life or activities you love, however, we can do surgery.”

Surgical Advances

“We’re coming out with lots of newer techniques to address problems,” Dr. Islam says.

Rotator cuff repairs now include use of specialized grafts laid on top of the tendon to create a scaffold to the bone. The patient’s own plasma and bone marrow are used to aid healing.

Shoulder replacements of the entire ball and socket have become more successful for people with severe arthritis or irreparable rotator cuff tears. “They work great for the right patients. People who were living with constant pain are happy to get back to daily activities,” Dr. Islam says.

Tags Orthopedics , Rehabilitation