Shoulder Anatomy, Disorders, and Exercises

Close up of woman's shoulder
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The shoulder (glenohumeral joint) is a very unique joint in the sense that it permits significant mobility and range of motion. Due to this joint freedom, we are able to pitch a fastball as well as swim rapidly through the water. The excessive motion lends the joint to being a bit unstable, though.

Shoulder Anatomy and Injury

The three bones that form the shoulder joint are secured in place by a number of ligaments, as well as the ever important rotator cuff muscles.

The rotator cuff is comprised of four muscles that combine at the shoulder to form a thick "cuff" over the joint. The rotator cuff has the important job of stabilizing the shoulder as well as elevating and rotating the arm. Each muscle originates on the shoulder blade (scapula) and inserts on the arm bone (humerus).

The ball and socket structure is the reason the shoulder is one of the most flexible joints in the body. As a result of this freedom, though, the shoulder is the site of many common injuries. Repetitive overhead motions place the muscles and tendons of the shoulder in a vulnerable position. Therefore, many shoulder injuries occur in people with occupations that require overhead work. Most shoulder injuries can be treated conservatively with rest, ice, mobilization, and physical therapy. However, other shoulder injuries require surgical intervention.

Common Shoulder Disorders

  • Frozen Shoulder: Frozen shoulder, or adhesive capsulitis, is a medical condition that involves progressive pain and loss of motion in the shoulder joint. The exact cause of frozen shoulder is not known, but it is more common in females than males. Frozen shoulder results from a thickening and shortening of the capsule that surrounds the shoulder joint.
  • Biceps Tendonitis: The biceps muscle in a large muscle in the arm that works to bend the elbow as well as elevate the shoulder. This muscle is connected to the bones above and below the arm by a thick strong tendon. Biceps tendonitis results in a painful sensation at the upper shoulder that occurs with movement of the arm.
  • Shoulder Separation: A shoulder separation injury involves a disruption of the acromioclavicular (AC) joint. The most common cause of shoulder separation, or AC joint disruption, is a direct fall onto the shoulder. This fall injures the tendons that provide stability to the joint.
  • Bicep Tendon Rupture: Rupture of the bicep tendon occurs when the tendon becomes frayed under the shoulder joint. This results when the tendon is placed under friction during repetitive movement of the arm. Symptoms of biceps tendon tears include sudden sharp pain, as well as tenderness to touch in the upper shoulder region.
  • Thoracic Outlet Syndrome: Thoracic outlet syndrome results when there is compression of the neurovascular structures that are located in the neck. Symptoms of thoracic outlet syndrome include shoulder or arm pain, tingling or numbness (paresthesias), and varying degrees of muscle weakness.

Shoulder and Rotator Cuff Exercises

  • Post-Operative Shoulder Exercises: A thorough post-operative exercise program is essential for adequate recovery after shoulder surgery. Muscle weakness and stiffness of the shoulder joint result too often due to delayed initiation of a rehabilitation program. As a result, it is essential to incorporate a doctor/therapist-approved strengthening and stretching exercise routine as soon as possible after surgery. Making this a priority will maximize your recovery, and you should work to closely follow the program devised for your specific condition.
  • Pectoral Muscle Stretches: Tight pectoral muscles can be the result of poor posture, weight lifting, or other daily activities. Learn how to loosen up these muscles.
  • Rotator Cuff Exercises: These muscles are prone to inflammation and tears during overhead activities. An important way to reduce tears in the first place is to strengthen these muscles.
  • Exercises After Shoulder Arthroscopy: Rehabilitation after shoulder arthroscopy is one of the best ways to achieve a full recovery. Learn four easy exercises to help regain function after shoulder surgery.
  • Frozen Shoulder Exercises: These exercises are perfect for improving the range of motion of your shoulder if you have adhesive capsulitis.

If you have any shoulder pain, you should check in with your doctor and then visit your physical therapist to learn the cause of your shoulder pain and to get started on the correct treatment right away.

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Article Sources
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  • American Physical Therapy Bulletin, "Taking Care of Your Shoulder." Patient Information Guide. Jan. 20, 2008
  • David M. Quillen, M.D., Mark Wucher, M.D., and Robert L. Hatch, M.D., M.P.H. "Acute Shoulder Injuries." American Family Physician. Vol. 70/ No. 10, Nov. 15, 2004.
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