Professional athletes aren’t the only people who suffer from unstable shoulders. We’ll walk you through the most common causes of — and treatments for — this condition.
Because professional athletes have undergone intense training to mold their bodies into peak physical shape, it’s easy to assume that they’re immune to the common injuries that affect the rest of us. Recent news, however, has shown that no one is completely protected from injury. For example, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers — two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL — have recently revealed that they are suffering from significant shoulder injuries, with Rodgers potentially missing the remainder of the season due to a broken collarbone.
In fact, shoulder damage is one of the most common injuries for NFL players and laymen alike. Since the shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body, it’s especially prone to problems. For most of us, however, shoulder injuries are caused by gradual wear and tear rather than sudden trauma. While these injuries don’t ultimately result in chronic instability, they can hasten the degeneration of the cartilage in the shoulder, which then can leave the shoulder unstable. Fortunately, these problems can be effectively treated with the help of a qualified orthopedic specialist and a rigorous rehabilitation program.
What Is Shoulder Instability?
Shoulder instability is a chronic condition that leads to frequent dislocations of the shoulder. It occurs when the end of the humerus (the ball of the shoulder joint) separates from the glenoid (the socket of the shoulder joint). These dislocations can be either partial or full.
Shoulder instability has a variety of causes. In many cases, it’s simply a product of previous shoulder dislocations, since a traumatic dislocation often causes tears in the stabilizing cartilage and ligaments. A shoulder is more likely to be dislocated again if it’s already been dislocated. Unusually loose ligaments in the shoulder can also heighten the risk, especially if they’ve been loosened by repetitive motion and strain, as often occurs in football players, swimmers, and tennis players.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
There are several symptoms of a chronically unstable shoulder. One of the most common is frequent subluxation, or repeated partial dislocations. Often caused by overhead motions, these subluxations create a brief feeling of pain and a slipping sensation in the shoulder. In more severe cases, full dislocation may occur, resulting in intense pain and visible abnormalities like bumps in the shoulder. Shoulder instability can also result in a “dead arm”, or a feeling as though a nerve has been pinched.
While you can perform some tests on your own, self-examinations can further aggravate the shoulder — so it’s best to let a professional diagnose your condition. In addition to consulting your medical history, a doctor may move your shoulder into specific positions to test the stability of the joint. If these movements cause pain or further displace the shoulder, it’s likely unstable, and X-rays and an MRI might be needed to determine the extent of the injury.
Non-traumatic shoulder instability can often be treated nonsurgically, through rest, anti-inflammatory medication, and physical therapy. If the instability is the result of trauma and it creates a Bankart lesion (a tear in the cartilage), then arthroscopic surgery is usually necessary to stabilize the joint and prevent recurrent dislocations, which can otherwise lead to degeneration and premature arthritis.
Physical therapy largely consists of various stretching and strengthening exercises that rebuild the joints, ligaments, and muscles and restore their range of motion, stabilizing the shoulder in the process. These exercises are often targeted to strengthen the rotator cuff and the scapular muscle, and can be aided by resistance bands. In addition, your physical therapist will teach you how to properly use your shoulder, reducing the chance of painful subluxation and dislocation while you heal.
If you’re concerned about your shoulder, our team of best-in-class orthopedic physicians at New York Bone and Joint is here to help. With our extensive experience, we have the knowledge and ability needed to help you at every stage of treatment, from diagnosis through rehabilitation. If you’re searching for a reliable and compassionate provider, contact us today to schedule an initial consultation.