Shouldering the Burden of Maintaining Your Ability to Lift and Reach

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • As a kid, our family always joked about my shoulders. In elementary school, one of the requirements in physical education was climbing a rope. I could never do it. I admitted at the time that I was a wimp. I was a bit better by junior high when gym class offered a segment on tennis. I got to be pretty good, developing a great one-hand backhand although I never had a killer serve.


    By middle age, I’ve found that my shoulders can still be a problem area if I’m not careful.  Several years ago, I went geocaching with a friend in a wilderness area and she took us up a sharp hill to hunt for a cache. What comes up must come down, which meant I had to negotiate a steep decline after looking for the cache. I grabbed a tree to help stabilize my descent; that seemed to go well at the time, but a few days later, I was in pain. The discomfort lasted for a while and, while not formally diagnosed, it’s taken some targeted massage therapy and some focused exercises to regain my mobility.

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    My shoulder woes are not uncommon.  One of the most common injuries as we age is to the shoulder area. It turns out that many people have a high risk of tearing a rotator cuff once they turn 40. In fact, researchers have calculated that there’s a 55-percent chance of experiencing this injury if you’re between the ages of 60 and 80 years of age. In 2008, almost 2 million people in the United States saw their doctor because of a problem with their rotator cuff.


    So what exactly is a rotator cuff? This cuff keeps your arm in your shoulder socket. The rotator cuff is comprised of four muscles that come together as tendons and form a covering around the head of the upper arm bone, which is known as the humerus. This cuff attaches this bone to the shoulder blade (also known as the scapula), allowing you to lift and rotate your arm. In addition, the bursa is a lubricating sac between the rotator cuff and the bone on top of the shoulder. This sac allows the rotator cuff tendons to move freely as you reposition your arm. Injury to the rotator cuff’s tendons can result in the bursa becoming inflamed and painful.


    A torn rotator cuff often begins when torn tendons begin to fray. As the fraying continues, the tendon can become completely torn. This can be caused by lifting something heavy. This injury weakens the shoulder and makes daily activities, such as combing their and getting dressed painful and difficult to do.


    There actually are several types of tears. The first is a partial tear, which damages the soft tissue but doesn’t completely sever it. A full-thickness or complete tear splits the soft tissue into two pieces.  This leaves a hole in the tendon when they attach to the head of the upper arm bone.


    Rotator cuff tears can be caused by injury. For instance, if you fall on an outstretched arm or lift a heavy object using a jerking motion, you can experience a rotator cuff tear. You also can experience other shoulder injuries with this type of tear, such as a broken collarbone or a dislocated shoulder.


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    The second cause of this injury is a degenerative tear caused by the wearing down of tendons over time. Not surprisingly, rotator cuff tears are more common in a person’s dominant arm. Furthermore, if you experience a degenerative tear in one shoulder, you face a greater risk for having this type of tear in the opposite shoulder.


    So how can you protect your rotator cuff? The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends focusing on a conditioning program for the rotator cuff and shoulder. With a doctor’s permission, you should focus on strengthening these muscles as well as maintaining flexibility in order to keep a range of motion and prevent injury.  A conditioning program should target the following: the deltoids muscles, which are found in the front, back and over the shoulder; the trapezius muscles and the rhomboid muscles, which are found in the upper back;  the teres muscles, the supraspinatus muscles and the intraspinatus muscles, which support the shoulder joint; the subscapularis muscles, which are in the front of the shoulder; the biceps, which are in the front of the upper arm; and the triceps, which are in the back of the upper arm.


    The Academy recommends 18 specific exercises, which include common exercises such as the crossover arm stretch and the standing row, as well as ones that are not as commonly done. This combination of exercises can condition the shoulder after an injury and also serve as a maintenance program to protect the health of the shoulders for the long-term. It’s recommended that you perform these exercises 2-3 times a week.


    Trust me, you don’t want to suffer a shoulder injury at any age. Therefore, it’s really important to do exercises that will promote shoulder health and will help you keep your whole range of motion. Find some time to do these and you, too, can be able to lift, reach and stretch to get to the highest shelf!


    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

    American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. (2012). Rotator cuff and shoulder conditioning program.

    American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. (2011). Rotator cuff tears.

Published On: August 20, 2014