Shoulder Impingement – 3 Keys to Assessment and Treatment

Shoulder impingement really is a pretty broad term that most of us likely take for granted.  It has become such a junk term, such as “patellofemoral pain,” especially with physicians.  It seems as if any pain originated from around the shoulder could be labeled as “shoulder impingement” for some reason, as if that diagnosis is helpful to determine the treatment process.

Unfortunately, There is no magical “shoulder impingement protocol” that you can pull out of your notebook and apply to a specific person. [Click to Tweet]

I wish it were the simple.

A thorough examination is still needed.  Each person will likely present differently, which will require a variations on how you approach their rehabilitation.

But the real challenge when working with someone with shoulder impingement isn’t figuring out they have shoulder pain, that’s fairly obviously.  It’s figuring out why they have shoulder pain.

 

 

Shoulder Impingement: 3 Keys to Assessment and Treatment

To make the treatment process a little more simple, there are three things that I typically consider to classify and differentiate shoulder impingement.

  1. Location of impingement
  2. Structures involved
  3. Cause of impingement

Each of these can significantly vary the treatment approach and how successful you are helping each person.

 

Location of Impingement

The first thing to consider when evaluating someone with shoulder impingement is the location of impingement.  This is generally in reference to the side of the rotator cuff that the impingement is located, either the bursal side or articular side.

shoulder impingement assessment and treatment

See the photo of a shoulder MRI above.  The bursal side is the outside of the rotator cuff, shown with the red arrow.  This is probably your “standard” subacromial impingement that everyone refers to when simply stating “shoulder impingement.”  The green arrow shows the inside, or articular surface, of the rotator cuff.  Impingement on this side is termed “internal impingement.”

The two are different in terms of cause, evaluation, and treatment, so this first distinction is important.  More about these later when we get into the evaluation and treatment treatment.

 

Impinging Structures

To me, this is more for the bursal sided, or subacromial, impingement and refers to what structure the rotator cuff is impinging against.  As you can see in the pictures below (both side views), your subacromial space is pretty small without a lot if room for error.  In fact, there really isn’t a “space”, there are many structures running in this area including your rotator cuff and subacromial bursa.

Shoulder impingement

You actually “impinge” every time you move your arm.  Impingement itself is normal and happens in all of us, it is when it becomes excessive or abnormal that pathology occurs.

I try to differentiate between acromial and coracoacromial arch impingement, which can happen in combination or isolation.  There are fairly similar in regard to assessment and treatment, but I would make a couple of mild modifications for coracoacromial impingement, which we will discuss below.

 

Cause of Impingement

The next thing to look at is the actual reason why the person is experiencing shoulder impingement.  There are two main classifications of causes, that I refer to as “primary” or “secondary”shoulder  impingement.

Primary impingement means that the impingement is the main problem with the person.  A good example of this is someone that has impingement due to anatomical considerations, with a hooked tip of the acromion like this in the picture below.  Many acromions are flat or curved, but some have a hook or even a spur attached to the tip (drawn in red):

shoulder impingement

 

Secondary impingement means that something is causing impingement, perhaps their activities, posture, lack of dynamic stability, or muscle imbalances are causing the humeral head to shift in it’s center of rotation and cause impingement.  The most simply example of this is weakness of the rotator cuff.

The rotator cuff and larger muscle groups, like the deltoid, work together to move your arm in space.  The rotator cuff works to steer the ship by keeping the humeral head centered within the glenoid.  The deltoid and larger muscles power the ship and move the arm.

Both muscles groups need to work together.  If rotator cuff weakness is present, the cuff may lose it’s ability to keep the humeral head centered.  In this scenario, the deltoid will overpower the cuff and cause the humeral head to migrate superiorly, thus impinging the cuff between the humeral head and the acromion:

evaluation and treatment of shoulder impingement

 

Other common reasons for secondary impingement include mobility restrictions of the shoulder, scapula, and even thoracic spine.  We see this a lot at Champion.  In the person below, you can see that they do not have full overhead mobility, yet they are trying to overhead press and other activities in the gym, flaring up their shoulder.

shoulder impingement mobility

If all we did with this person was treat the location of the pain in his anterior shoulder, our success will be limited.  He’ll return to gym and start the process all over if we don’t restore this mobility restriction.

The funny thing about this is that people are almost never aware that they even have this limitation until you show them.

 

 

Differentiating Between the Types of Shoulder Impingement

In my online program on the Evidence Based Evaluation and Treatment of the Shoulder, I talk about different ways to assess shoulder impingement that may impact your rehab or training.  There are specific tests to assess each type of impingement we discussed above.

The two most popular tests for shoulder impingement are the Neer test and the Hawkins test.  In the Neer test (below left), the examiner stabilizes the scapula while passively elevating the shoulder, in effect jamming the humeral head into the acromion.  In the Hawkins test (below right) the examiner elevates the arm to 90 degrees of abduction and forces the shoulder into internal rotation, grinding the cuff under the subacromial arch.

Shoulder impingement tests

You can alter these tests slightly to see if they elicit different symptoms that would be more indicative to the coracoacromial arch type of subacromial impingement.  This would involve the cuff impingement more anteriorly so the tests below attempt to simulate this area of vulnerability.

The Hawkins test (below left) can be modified and performed in a more horizontally adducted position.  Another shoulder impingement test (below right) can be performed by asking the patient to grasp their opposite shoulder and to actively elevate the shoulder.

how to assess shoulder impingement

There is a good chance that many patients with subacromial impingement may be symptomatic with all of the above tests, but you may be able to detect the location of subacromial impingement (acromial versus coracoacromial arch) by watching for subtle changes in symptoms with the above four tests.

Internal impingement is a different beast.

This type of impingement, which is most commonly seen in overhead athletes, is typically the result of some hyperlaxity in the anterior direction.  As the athlete comes into full external rotation, such as the position of baseball pitch, tennis serve, etc., the humeral head slides anterior slightly causing the undersurface of the cuff to impingement on the inside against the posterior-superior glenoid rim and labrum.  This is what you hear of when baseball players have “partial thickness rotator cuff tears” the majority of time.

shoulder internal impingement

 

 

The test for this is simple and is exactly the same as an anterior apprehension test.  The examiner externally rotates the arm at 90 degrees abduction and watches for symptoms.  Unlike the shoulder instability patient, someone with internal impingement will not feel apprehension or anterior symptoms.  Rather, they will have a very specific point of tenderness in the posterosuperior aspect of the shoulder (below left).  Ween the examiner relocates the shoulder by giving a slight posterior glide of the humeral head, the posterosuperior pain diminishes (below right).

how to assess shoulder internal impingement

 

3 Keys to Treating Shoulder Impingement – How Does Treatment Vary?

There are three main keys from the above information that you can use to alter your treatment and training programs based on the type of impingement exhibited:

Subacromial Impingement Treatment

To properly treat, you should differentiate between acromial and coracoacromial impingement.  Treatment is essentially the same between these two types of subacromial impingement, however, with coracoacromial arch impingement, you need to be cautious with horizontal adduction movements and stretching.  This is unfortunate as the posterior soft tissue typically needs to be stretched in these patients, but you can not work through a pinch with impingement!

A “pinch” is impingement of an inflamed structure!

Also, I would avoid elevation in the sagittal plane or horizontal adduction exercises.

 

Primary Versus Secondary Shoulder Impingement

This is an important one and often a source of frustration in young clinicians.  If you are dealing with secondary impingement, you can treat the persons symptoms all you want, but they will come back if you do not address the route of the pathology!

I do treat their symptoms, that is why they have come to see me.  I want to reduce inflammation.  However, this should not be the primary focus if you want longer term success.

This is where a more global look at the patient, their posture, muscle imbalances, and movement dysfunction all come into play.  Break through and see patients in this light and you will see much better outcomes.

A good discussion of the activities that are causing their symptoms may also shed some light on why they are having shoulder pain.  Again, using the example above, if you don’t have full mobility and try to force the shoulder through this tightness you are going to likely cause some issues.  This is especially true if you add speed, loading, and repetition to elevation, such as during many exercises.

 

Internal Impingement

One thing to realize with internal impingement is that this is pretty much a secondary issue.  It is going to occur with any cuff weakness, fatigue, or loss of the ability to dynamically stabilize.   The athlete will show some hyperlaxity in this athletic “lay back” shoulder position.  Treat the cuff weakness and it’s ability to dynamically stabilize to relieve the impingement.  How to treat internal impingement is a huge topic that I cover in a webinar for my Inner Circle members.

 

Learn Exactly How I Evaluate and Treat the Shoulder

If you are interested in mastering your understanding of the shoulder, I have my acclaiming online program teaching you exactly how I evaluate and treat the shoulder at ShoulderSeminar.com!

The online program at takes you through an online 8-week program with new content added every week.  You can learn at your own pace in the comfort of your own home.  You’ll learn exactly how I approach:

  • shoulder seminarThe evaluation of the shoulder
  • Selecting exercises for the shoulder
  • Manual resistance and dynamic stabilization drills for the shoulder
  • Nonoperative and postoperative rehabilitation
  • Rotator cuff injuries
  • Shoulder instability
  • SLAP lesions
  • The stiff shoulder
  • Manual therapy for the shoulder

The program offers 21 CEU hours for the NATA and APTA of MA and 20 CEU hours through the NSCA.

Click below to learn more!

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Which is the Best Position to Immobilize the Shoulder After a Dislocation?

Immobilization is commonly performed after acute first time shoulder dislocations.  The goal of immobilization is to protect the shoulder and allow healing in an attempt to minimize recurrent instability down the road, which isn’t uncommon.

Unfortunately, once you dislocate your shoulder, you have a decent chance of it happening again.


Traditionally, immobilization has occurred with the shoulder in a sling by the person’s side.  This puts the shoulder in adduction and internal rotation.  Considering that most anterior dislocations occur with the arm in an abducted and externally rotated position, this seemed to make sense to take stress of the tissue.

However, a study was published in 2001 by Itoi in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery discussing a new position of immobilization in shoulder external rotation.  

The authors used MRI to examine the capsule in both the position of shoulder internal rotation and external rotation.  They showed that the anterior capsule tissue was better approximated in the externally rotated position.  Other recent studies have agreed with these results.

which is the best position to immobilize the shoulder after a dislocation

This was an interesting finding and lead to a follow up study by the same group that was published in 2003 in the Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery.  In this study, the authors prospectively assessed the recurrent instability rate in people that were immobilized in either internal or external rotation.

The results showed that there was a 30% recurrent instability rate in those immobilized in the traditional internally rotated sling position, compared to 0% in those immobilized in external rotation.

 

Which Position is Best to Immobilize the Shoulder After a Dislocation?

Based on these two studies, many began immobilizing the shoulder after dislocation in this position of external rotation.  There are now many shoulder immobilization braces on the market that position the shoulder in ER.

shoulder immobilization in external rotation

Since these two studies many have tried to replicate the original results of Itoi with mixed results.  

I must admit that any time a novel technique, clinical test, or approach is introduced in the literature and the original author has a 100% success rate, I proceed a little cautiously until others have replicated their research.

Clinically, there appears to be no difference in recurrence rates when comparing immobilizing the shoulder in either internal or external rotation.  This has been shown in several studies.

A recent meta-analysis was published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine that reviewed 6 randomized control trials and found no significant difference in recurrence rate.  This was consistent with a prior systematic review of the Cochran Database, which agreed.

 

Basic Science Vs. Clinical Studies

This is an interesting situation, where basic science studies appear to show that immobilization in external rotation may be theoretically more beneficial after shoulder dislocations, but clinical studies have not shown any benefit or reduced occurrence of recurrent instability.  It appears anatomically that immobilizing in a position of external rotation would put the labral tissue in the best position to heal.

I personally see this as a challenging study as many people are simply not compliant with immobilization after dislocations, especially once the acute trauma tends to settle down.  One particular study reported a compliance rate between 53-72%.  

That’s not great.

As of now, it seems like we need more research to make a more definitive decision.  However, keep in mind that these studies have not shown immobilization in internal rotation to be MORE beneficial, they just showed no difference between the two.  So as of now, if I dislocated my shoulder tomorrow, I would probably immobilize myself in external rotation based on the anatomical studies that show better tissue approximation.

For those out there, what are you seeing clinically in your area?  I would imagine this varies a lot based on your location and physicians you work with each day.  Are docs still immobilizing people in external rotation?  Have you found outcomes to differ from those immobilized in internal rotation?  Comment below and let me know.

 

How Rehab Differs Between Traumatic and Atraumatic Shoulder InstabilityHow Treatment Differs Between Atraumatic and Traumatic Shoulder Instability

If you are interested in learning more on this topic, I have an Inner Circle presentation on How Treatment Differs Between Atraumatic and Traumatic Shoulder Instability.  We discuss this topic, plus a lot more, in much greater detail.

How Rehab Differs Between Traumatic and Atraumatic Shoulder Instability

The latest Inner Circle webinar recording on How Rehab Differs Between Traumatic and Atraumatic Shoulder Instability is now available.

 

How Rehab Differs Between Traumatic and Atraumatic Shoulder Instability

How Rehab Differs Between Traumatic and Atraumatic Shoulder InstabilityThis month’s Inner Circle webinar is on How Rehab Differs Between Traumatic and Atraumatic Shoulder Instability.  In this presentation, I highlight the major differences in the evaluation and treatment process.

This webinar will cover:

  • The difference between traumatic and atraumatic shoulder instability
  • The import factors to consider that will change your rehab progression
  • Should you immobilize or not?
  • The primary focus for rehab for each type of instability

To access this webinar:

 

How to Stabilize the Scapula During Shoulder Elevation

One of the most common compensations we see with people with limited overhead shoulder elevation is lateral winging of the scapula.  Anytime you have limited glenohumeral joint mobility, your scapulothoracic joint is going to try to pick up the slack to raise your arm overhead.

This is common in postoperative patients, but also anyone with limited shoulder elevation.

Stabilizing the scapula during range of motion is often recommended to focus your mobility more on the shoulder than the scapula.  As with everything else, as simple as this seems, there is right way, a wrong way, and a better way to stabilize the scapula during shoulder elevation.

In this video, I demonstrate the correct way to stabilize the scapula, and show some common errors that I often see.

 

How to Stabilize the Scapula During Shoulder Elevation

 

Learn Exactly How I Evaluate and Treat the Shoulder

Interested in learning more?  Join my acclaimed online program teaching you exactly how I evaluate and treat the shoulder.  It’s a comprehensive 8-week online line program that covers everything you need to know about clinical examination, dynamic stability drills, manual therapy techniques, rotator cuff injuries, labral tears, stiff shoulders, and more.
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Is GIRD Really the Reason Why Baseball Pitchers Get Hurt?

Today’s guest post comes from Lenny Macrina, my good friend and co-owner of Champion PT and Performance.  We work with a lot of baseball players at Champion, which makes us really understand one thing – baseball pitchers are unique!  Many of our athletes come to us after going elsewhere for care but not making the progress they want.  I don’t think we are special, we just see a lot of baseball injuries, so we know what to look for in these athletes.  

Lenny does a great job here discussing a very common misconception about pitching injuries and GIRD.  Honestly, GIRD is kind of outdated.  

Lenny has conducted a ton of research on this topic and wanted to share his results.  You MUST understand the science and not get caught up in all the hype on the internet!  Read below and learn more!


 

Baseball pitchers tend to have unique amounts of mobility of their shoulders. Because of this, throwing generates tremendous forces on the shoulder.  This is important to consider when evaluating and treating baseball injuries.

All of this fancy talk basically says that throwing a baseball is technically bad for your body, and many times we see baseball pitchers with hurt shoulders and elbows.

But why?

We believe there are many reasons, but as physical therapists who have to assess and treat these baseball players, we must be aware of their unique presentation and act accordingly.

It has been well established in the literature that pitchers exhibit adaptations to their shoulder mobility from the act of throwing.   Generally, the thrower’s shoulder exhibits less internal rotation but greater external rotation compared to non-throwing side. There are many proposed reasons for these shoulder mobility changes, including bony adaptations, muscular tightness, shoulder blade position, and capsular restrictions.

This loss of internal rotation has received a lot of attention and has even been referred to as glenohumeral joint internal rotation deficit (GIRD).

 

Is GIRD really the reason why baseball pitchers get hurt?

Several authors have stated that GIRD may increase the risk of shoulder injuries in baseball pitchers. This has caused everyone to assume this and treat accordingly.

Our initial research, that we published in 2011, showed pitchers with GIRD had a 1.8 times increased risk of shoulder injury. But it was NOT statistically significant. Since then, we have published more data that shows similar trends, specifically in our paper looking at 8 consecutive seasons of injury data.

While pitchers with measured GIRD had a slightly higher rate of shoulder injury during that season, the relationship was not statistically significant and GIRD did not correlate with shoulder injuries.

Essentially, we have not shown that GIRD correlates to pitching injuries.

 

Total Motion May Be More of the Issue

Perhaps the issue really isn’t GIRD?  A more important measurement to consider in the overhead thrower is total rotational range of motion. Total rotation is defined as the sum of external rotation and internal rotation.

 

Total Rotational Range of Motion

Rather than look at internal rotation by itself, it may be more valuable to look at the combined total rotational motion of both external and internal rotation together.

In fact, we showed that pitchers with greater than a 5 degree deficit in total rotational range of motion displayed a greater risk of injury. In one study, this was a statistically significant 2.6 times increased risk of shoulder injury.

 

What About External Rotation and Shoulder Injuries?

Does GIRD Cause Baseball Pitching InjuriesCuriously enough, we also have shown a relationship between loss of external rotation mobility and shoulder injuries.  Pitchers with external rotation insufficiency were more likely to undergo surgery, 2.2 times more likely be placed on the DL for a shoulder injury, and 4.0 times more likely to undergo shoulder surgery.

Wow!  At first you would think, let’s stretch these guys out and gain external rotation. But hold on one second and let’s get a grip!

If you remember our study from 2011, we showed a high preponderance for shoulder injuries especially in the pitchers whose total motion was greater than 187 degrees.  You don’t want too little or too much motion!

So, as I always tell my students, athletes and fellow clinicians: We’re always walking a fine line between too much and not enough mobility.

 

What About Shoulder Flexion?

While internal and external rotation get all the exposure, shoulder flexion may actually be an area we see tight the most.

I think one interesting finding of our recent research has been the relationship between the shoulder flexion deficit and injury.  Pitchers with a deficit of greater than or equal to 5° in shoulder flexion of the throwing shoulder had a 2.8 times greater risk for elbow injury.

The correlation between shoulder flexion deficit and elbow injury may represent a lack of tissue mobility and overall flexibility (possibly to the latissimus dorsi) in injury-prone subjects.

The baseball pitcher has a unique mobility of the arm.  We need to be careful assuming that these abnormalities and asymmetries correlate to injury.  They often do not.

The challenge is figuring this out and keeping up with the research…as it is always evolving!  The more you work with baseball pitchers the more you appreciate these subtleties.  These are the subtleties that make them unique, and effective as athletes.

 

So, what does all of this mean?

  • Assess motion
  • GIRD not necessarily bad (actually pretty normal)
  • Lacking ER may increase risk of injury
  • Total range of motion deficits increase risk of injury
  • Shoulder flexion deficits increased elbow injury risks
  • Assess and never assume!

GIRD is not as evil as everyone makes it out to be.  Treating them unnecessarily and trying to gain internal rotation may actually make them worse.  Don’t treat without thoroughly assessing, and don’t assume GIRD is the reason why baseball pitchers get injured.

 

 

Assessing the Shoulder Shrug Sign

The latest Inner Circle webinar recording on Assessing the Shoulder Shrug Sign is now available.

Assessing the Shoulder Shrug Sign

Assessing_the_Shoulder_Shrug_SignIn this inservice recording, I overview the two main types of shoulder shrug signs that I see.  The classic shrug sign typically involves either a rotator cuff injury or significant capsular hypomobility.  However, we also see shrugs in people that have poor overhead mobility.

This webinar will cover:

  • What are the different types of shoulder shrug signs?
  • How to tell if you have a mobility or motor control issue
  • The sequence I follow to determine what to choose for my treatments

To access this webinar:

Assessing for Lat and Teres Tightness with Overhead Shoulder Mobility

Limitations in overhead shoulder mobility are common and often a frequent source of nagging shoulder pain and decreased performance.  Any loss of shoulder elevation mobility can be an issue with both fitness enthusiasts and athletes.  Just look at all the exercises that require a good amount of shoulder mobility in the fitness, Crossfit, and sports performance worlds.  Overhead press, thrusters, overhead squats, and snatches are some of the most obvious, put even exercises like pullups, handstands, wall balls, and hanging knee and toe ups can be problematic, especially when combined with speed and force such as during a kipping pull up.

Assessing for Lat and Teres Tightness with Overhead Shoulder MobilityWhen assessing for limitations in overhead shoulder elevation, there are several things you need to evaluate.  I’ve discussed many of these in several past blog posts and Inner Circle webinars on How to Assess Overhead Shoulder Mobility.

I am worried about what I am seeing on the internet right now.

I feel like the mobility trends I am seeing are focused on torquing the shoulder joint to try to improve overhead mobility.  Remember, the shoulder is a VERY mobile joint that tends to run into trouble from a lack of stability.  Trying to stretch out the joint or shoulder capsule should never be the first thing you attempt with self mobilization techniques.  In fact, I have found it causes way more problems than it solves.

Think about it for a second…

If your shoulder can’t fully elevate, jamming it into more elevation is only going to cause more issues. Find the cause. [Click to Tweet]

In my experience, the focus should be on the soft tissue around the joint, not the shoulder joint itself.  The muscles tend to be more of the mobility issue from my experience than the joint.  Just think about all the chronic adaptations that occur from out postures and habits throughout the date.

Two of the most muscles that I see causing limitations in overhead shoulder mobility at the latissimus dorsi and the teres major.

Here’s a quick and easy way to assess the lat and teres during arm elevation.

 

Assessing and Improving Overhead Shoulder Mobility

For those interested in learning more, I have a few Inner Circle webinars on how to assess and improve overhead shoulder mobility:

 

 

How to Assess Overhead Shoulder Mobility

The latest Inner Circle webinar recording on How to Assess Overhead Shoulder Mobility is now available.

How to Assess Overhead Shoulder Mobility

How to assess overhead shoulder mobilityThis month’s Inner Circle webinar is a live demonstration of How to Assess Overhead Shoulder Mobility .  In this recording of a live student inservice from Champion, I overview my process for assessing loss of overhead mobility.  This is a very common occurrence at Champion and something we do all day.  Many people don’t even realize they have a mild loss of mobility.

In this webinar, I’ll cover:

  • Why you must look at the shoulder, scapula, thoracic spine, and lumbar spine
  • What to look for during active elevation
  • How to assess for passive loss of motion
  • A couple of easy tweaks to assess if loss of mobility is coming from the joint or soft tissue
  • How to teach someone self assessments so they can monitor themselves

To access this webinar:

 

 

 

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