Every year, nearly eight million people visit their doctors because of a shoulder injury, and about half of these visits concern a rotator cuff injury. Either athletic overuse, in motions like pitching and swimming, or repetitive everyday activities, such as gardening and painting, can trigger such injuries.
Pain is one of the leading indicators of such an injury, but it’s a specific type of pain. In most cases, the shoulder is stiff, and patients experience significantly less range of motion. At the same time, the area feels loose and vulnerable, almost like it could slip out of joint at any moment. Finally, there is a loss of strength that makes it almost impossible to carry out the activities previously performed.
An orthopedic surgeon can best diagnose the nature and extent of shoulder injuries, and based on that analysis, recommend a treatment program for optimal recovery.
Typically, the damage is to shoulder muscles, ligaments, and other such tissue as opposed to the bone, so the injury is degenerative. Making matters worse, many people try to play or work through the pain, mostly because tears sometimes come on so gradually that the pain and decreased range of motion is not necessarily noticeable.
There are basically three major categories of shoulder injuries:
Impingement: Repetitive motion often causes the shoulder’s muscles to rub excessively against the acromion (top portion of the shoulder blade). If these injuries aren’t properly treated straightaway, the inflammation often causes even worse conditions, so it’s important to be aware of shoulder pain and take it seriously.
Instability: This injury feels a little different, because these patients normally only feel pain when they lift their arms, and it may almost feel like the shoulder will dislocate. That’s because repetitive motion has forced one or more of the joints out of its normal position.
Bursitis: Typically, the source of injury (repetitive motion) is the same, but instead of the muscles and tendons, one or more bursae (fluid-filled sacs that reduce shoulder friction) are affected. The pain is usually worse when lying down or when using the shoulder in daily activities, such as hair washing, and the pain may also radiate down to the arm and wrist.
A physical therapist can usually diagnose not only the category but also the severity of the injury, but occasionally, patients also require MRIs or other diagnostic tests.
Treating Shoulder Injuries
Although they are quite painful and disruptive, shoulder injuries are usually not terribly serious if they are properly addressed early on. In most cases, that process involves the P.R.I.C.E. method.
Protection: Priority number one is to prevent the injury from getting any worse. That usually means immobilizing the shoulder. These slings also provide compression, which is another important component of injury recovery.
Rest: It stands to reason that since shoulder injuries are overuse injuries, they will not improve if patients use the affected joints. That being said, it’s also important to perform a few range of motion exercises as directed by your doctor or physical therapist.
Ice: Heavy icing is usually not a good idea, because it eliminates swelling, which is the body’s natural response to muscle injuries. However, twenty minutes of cold therapy has significant benefits in terms of recovery and pain relief.
Compression: Inflammation is a natural response as well, but as mentioned earlier, it’s not one that patients want. So, the compression from the sling, perhaps supplemented with kinetic tape or an ACE bandage, is essential.
Elevation: This component is worth mentioning, although it doesn’t really apply to shoulder injuries, because the shoulder is almost always elevated above the heart. However, be sure and use extra pillows at night.
Shoulder injury recovery time varies significantly but often requires at least five or six weeks. If the injury does not improve after a week or so, the treatment protocol probably needs adjusting. The aforementioned range of motion exercises can usually start after the first couple of week as well.
The bottom line is that a plan of action developed with their doctors or therapists can help patients overcome shoulder pain much more easily.