From brushing our teeth to unloading groceries, we rely on our shoulders to help us complete everyday tasks; an injured, painful shoulder can throw a wrench in our daily life.
The shoulder complex is made up of four joints and five linked bone groups which work together to coordinate movement. As the most mobile joint in the body, the shoulder relies on muscles, ligaments and tendons for flexibility. Because the shoulder allows for such a wide range of motion, it is consequently the most unstable joint in the body.
“Soft tissue is more prone to breakdown and overuse injuries such as tears and strains,” explained Melinda Shearer, a PT at Rebound’s East Bend clinic who is board certified in both orthopedic and sports physical therapy and specializes in post-operative care.
One such overuse shoulder injury (typically caused by repetitive overhead motion) is biceps tendonitis, an inflammation of the tendons that connect the biceps muscle at the front of your arm to the shoulder and elbow. Another common overuse shoulder injury is rotator cuff impingement, which occurs when a tendon inside the shoulder rubs or catches on nearby tissue and bone.
Both orthopedic conditions are often caused by repetitive overhead lifting coupled with poor posture, said Shearer. Physical therapy can address these injuries through postural retraining and exercises targeted at strengthening the back and core muscles, she added.
Rotator cuff tears can occur from trauma or excessive friction on the tendon. For small tears, patients can often avoid surgery by following a physical therapy program focusing on posture and strength. In cases where surgical repair is necessary, patients can greatly benefit from PT prior to their operation.
“We can get other structures of the shoulder stronger and moving while reducing inflammation of the rotator cuff, which leads to much better outcomes post-surgery,” explained Shearer.
Part of her role as a PT involves educating her post-operative patients about the stages of the recovery process. “I explain the healing timeline to my patients — soft tissue injuries take time and you can’t push it (physically) right away,” Shearer said.
Physical therapists also treat patients who have undergone a total shoulder arthroplasty, in which a surgeon removes damaged areas of bone and replaces them with artificial parts in order to relieve pain and other symptoms caused by damage to the shoulder joint (severe arthritis, trauma, etc.).
It is imperative for patients to establish a physical therapy treatment plan after surgery in order to reduce pain, restore movement and return to meaningful activity — whether that’s hitting a tennis ball or holding a grandchild — said Shearer.
With consistent physical therapy, surgical and non-surgical shoulder patients alike can see significant improvement in their overall quality of life following a shoulder injury. “We use our shoulders so much everyday that every little milestone a patient hits in the rehab process is a big victory,” she said. “It’s rewarding to be a part of that process for people.”