You don’t need to hit bowling balls with a golf club in order to avoid shoulder pain. That may have the opposite effect. This article is about how understanding the shape of the shoulder joint can help us to avoid shoulder pain.
How I learned about shoulder pain
Before I studied physiotherapy, I didn’t know, or care, about the anatomy of the shoulder. That changed suddenly in my third year of university, and it wasn’t because of any lecture or lab I attended. It was because of shoulder pain.
Exams were approaching, and my days consisted of long study sessions hunched over a laptop, with the occasional quick gym workout. It turns out that the way I was studying and exercising was a recipe for dysfunction.
The noises came before the shoulder pain. A grinding, popping, sound that came when I tried to roll my shoulder back. Soon, the sounds were accompanied by a burning, inflamed sensation at the top of the shoulder.
Having just studied everything that can possibly cause shoulder pain, I leapt to conclusions. Could I have a torn labrum maybe? Did I sprain my acromioclavicular joint? Panic ensued.
Eventually, I asked one of my teachers who is an experienced clinician. He gave me some advice that has proved to be invaluable in my years working with people who have shoulder pain. To treat the shoulder effectively, we need to look at its shape.
Structure determines function
The extraordinary mobility of the shoulder joint allows it to do amazing things. Without the range of movement inherited from our tree climbing ancestors, we wouldn’t have the effortless Butterfly of Michael Phelps, or Valorie Adams’ ability to hurl a discus.
The shoulder’s mobility is made possible by the ratio of bone to soft tissue around the joint. There is little contact between the ball of the upper arm bone and the socket of the shoulder blade. The junction of the two bones is so shallow, it’s like balancing a bowling ball on a golf tee. As you can imagine, this arrangement is not very stable.
What it lacks in bony contact, it makes up for with a complex array of cartilage, ligaments, and muscles designed to provide stability. Among these is the famous rotator cuff: a set of muscles that encircle the bowling ball and helps to hold it on the tee as we move our arm. When the ball is aligned in the socket, the shoulder moves fluidly without pain.
The outer layers of the shoulder are made up of bigger muscles that connect the shoulder with various parts of the upper body. These muscles are responsible for movement. For example, the pec connects the breastbone and the shoulder and acts to bring the arm forward in front of the body. The muscles of the mid back bring the shoulders back and assist with pulling movements.
Holding the bowling ball in the golf tee is not an easy task
Shoulder pain and dysfunction usually arise when the ball and socket of the shoulder joint are misaligned. Think of the bowling ball being slightly off-center on the golf tee.
This can be caused by an imbalance in the big muscles that move the shoulder. For example, if the pec is tight and the mid-back muscles are weak, the ball is pulled forwards on the socket. The smaller structures responsible for holding the ball in the socket become overloaded trying to fight the larger muscle. Over time, structures like the rotator cuff can become strained and painful.
The position of other joints in the body can also affect the alignment of the shoulder. The shoulder blade, which houses the ‘socket’ part of the joint, is connected to the ribs and spine by muscles. The tension of these muscles, and any restriction in the movement of the ribs or spine, will have an impact on the shoulder blade’s position. This, in turn, can affect the alignment of the shoulder joint, which can cause pain and restricted movement.
How to keep the ball in the socket
To avoid shoulder pain, we need to balance the muscles around the shoulder and maintain mobility in our ribs and spine. This will ensure that the structures stabilizing the shoulder joint don’t become overworked or damaged.
Simply strengthening the rotator cuff is a common treatment, but this is rarely effective as a standalone measure. If the imbalance is not addressed, the cuff will be overpowered by tension in larger muscles and joint restriction.
So, next time you experience shoulder pain, think about what you can do to balance the bowling ball back on the golf tee. It helped me to pass my exams, pain-free.
Phyx is here to help you with shoulder pain
Eliminating muscle imbalances, improving strength and mobility, and fixing posture is easier said than done. The Phyx app can help.
Phyx Premium comes with all the exercises you should be doing to take control of your biomechanics. It doesn’t throw you in the deep end, either. Your prescription starts with a few fundamental movements and gets more complex when you feel comfortable.
Phyx combines clinical exercise progressions with step-by-step guides on how to improve your biomechanics. How to position your shoulders when working on a computer, for example. Top it off with progress tracking, and you’ll be on your way to a pain-free body.
If you subscribe to Phyx Premium this month (costs 15$), you can claim a free telehealth consultation (normally costs 20$) to get your progress kickstarted. Use offer code FREEPHYX at checkout.
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