The shoulder is a unique joint, it provides a stable base for us to use are arms whilst allowing them to move enough to get them into useable functional positions (such as overhead). Shoulder stiffness can impact the performance of athletes or simply lead to pain and injury for every day folk. In this blog we look at several different areas of should function and how they can cause the shoulders to stiffen up.
1. The Shoulder Joint
There are quite a few exercise blogs and YouTube videos focus on the shoulder capsule (particularly the posterior/back of the shoulder capsule) and how it can limit shoulder mobility.
However, this is often the least likely cause of shoulder joint restrictions, it is often the soft tissue that is to blame for shoulder joint restriction. Restrictions in muscles such as the pectoralis muscles, latissimus dorsi, teres major, infraspinatus (very common) and subscapularis muscles are much more common causes of shoulder joint restriction that the capsular structures.
The solution to shoulder joint stiffness - focus on the soft tissue structures first.
2. The Scapula
One of the most common things we do with our shoulders - we pull them back. One of the worst things that we can do to our shoulder function - keep pulling our shoulders back. Often people go to the gym and train their rhomboids to try and correct their rounded shoulders, this may work in the short term, but ultimately it ruins our shoulder function.
Why is this so bad? The tension created by the rhomboids to pull the shoulders back (to correct rounded shoulders) stops the scapula rotating around the ribcage effectively when the arms move overhead. This altered (and unnatural) movement can irritate many of the soft tissue structures around the joint causing them to stiffen up - leading to shoulder joint stiffness.
The solution to scapula issues - stop pulling your shoulders back and focus on exercises to improve how your scapula move.
3. The Thoracic Spine
If you cannot extend your thoracic spine (upper back) you will be limited in how you can get your arms overhead. You can test this yourself, sit in a chair and slouch your upper body, raise your arms up and see how far you can get - you'll find you can't get them anywhere near overhead.
It's not just the slouched position that limits how high you can raise your arms, the rounded position of you thoracic spine actually jams up the movement of the shoulders.
The solution - work on your thoracic extension to free up your shoulders.
4. Lumbopelvic Control
Hyperextension of lumbar spine over time can lead to not using full shoulder range of motion, which in turn can cause them to stiffen up. This comes under the use it or lose it category, meaning that if you extend you lower back to help get your arms into overhead positions, you won't be using the full range of motion of your shoulders. Do this enough, over a long enough period of time and your shoulders will start to become stiff.
The solution - look at your stability around your lower back and pelvis and make sure that when your are stretching/mobilising your arms overhead that you aren't cheating by arching your lower back.
About Colchester Physiotherapy
Colchester Physiotherapy is a physiotherapy clinic based in Colchester in Essex. We specialise in the biomechanics of movement and how poor biomechanics and movement patterns can lead to pain and injury.