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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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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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How to Assess the Scapula

The latest Inner Circle webinar recording on How to Assess the Scapula is now available.

How to Assess the Scapula

How to assess scapular dyskinesisThis month’s Inner Circle webinar is a live demonstration of How to Assess the Scapula.  In this recording of a live student inservice from Champion, I overview everything you should (and shouldn’t) be looking for when assessing the scapula.  When someone has a big nerve injury with significant winging or scapular dyskinesis, the assessment of the scapula is pretty easy.  But how do you detect the subtle alterations in posture, position, and dynamic movement?  By being able to identify a few subtle findings, you can really enhance how you write a rehab or training program.

In this webinar, I’ll cover:

  • What to look for in regard to static posture and scapular position
  • How to check to see if static postural asymmetries really have an impact on dynamic scapular movement
  • What really is normal scapulothoracic rhythm (if there really is a such thing as normal!)?
  • How to reliably assess for scapular dyskinesis
  • How winging during the concentric and eccentric phases of movement changes my thought process
  • How to see if scapular position or movement is increasing shoulder pain
  • How to see if scapular position or movement is decreasing shoulder strength

To access this webinar:

 

 

 

A Simple Test for Scapular Dyskinesis You Must Use

A common part of my examinations includes assessing for abnormal scapular position and movement, which can simply be defined as scapular dyskinesis.  Scapular dyskinesis has long been theorized to predispose people to shoulder injuries, although the evidence has been conflicting.

Whenever data is conflicting in research articles, you need to closely scrutinize the methodology.  One particular flaw that I have noticed in some studies looking at the role of scapular dyskinesis in shoulder dysfunction has involved how the assess and define scapular dyskinesis.

Like anything else, when someone has a significant issue with scapular dyskinesis it is very apparent and obvious on examination.  But being able to detect subtle alterations in the movement of the scapula may be more clinically relevant.  There’s a big difference between someone that has a large amount of winging while concentrically elevating their arm versus someone that has a mild issues with control of the scapula while eccentrically lowering their arm.

Most people will not have a large winging of their scapula while elevating their arm.  This represents a more significant issue, such as a nerve injury.  However, a mild amount of scapular muscle weakness can change the way the scapula moves and make it difficult to control while lowering.

 

A Simple Test for Scapular Dyskinesis

One of the simplest assessments you can perform for scapular dyskinesis is watching the scapula move during shoulder flexion.  Performing visual assessment of the scapula during shoulder flexion has been shown to be a reliable and valid way to assess for abnormal scapular movement.

That’s it.  Crazy, right?  That simple!  Yet, I’m still amazed at how many times people tell me no one has ever looked at how well their scapula moves with their shirt off.

However, there is one little tweak you MUST do when performing this assessment…

You have to use a weight in their hand!

Here is a great example of someone’s scapular dyskinesis when performing shoulder flexion with and without an external load.  The photo on the left uses no weight, while the photo on the right uses a 4 pound dumbbell:

scapular dyskinesis

As you can see, the image on the right shows a striking increase in scapular dyskinesis.  I was skeptical after watching him lift his arm without weight in the photo on the left, however, everything became very clear when adding a light weight to the shoulder flexion movement.  With just a light load, the ability to prevent the scapula from winging while eccentrically lowering the arm becomes much more challenging.

I should also note that there was really no significant difference in scapular control or movement during the concentric portion of the motion raising his arms overhead:

scapular winging concentric

This person doesn’t have a significant issue or nerve damage, he simply just needs some strengthening of his scapular muscles.  But if you didn’t observe his scapula with his shirt off or with a dumbbell in his hand, you may have missed it!

 

How to Assess for Scapular Dyskinesis

In this month’s Inner Circle webinar, I am going to show you a live demonstration of how I assess scapular position and movement.  I’ve had past talks on how to assess scapular position and how to treat scapular dyskinesis, however I want to put it all together with a demonstration of exactly how I perform a full scapular movement assessment and go over things I am looking for during the examination.

I’ll be filming the video and posting later this month.  Inner Circle members will get an email when it is posted.

 

 

 

How to Coach and Perform Shoulder Program Exercises

The latest Inner Circle webinar recording on How to Coach and Perform Shoulder Program Exercises is now available.

How to Coach and Perform Shoulder Program Exercises

How to Coach and Perform Shoulder Program ExercisesThis month’s Inner Circle webinar is on How to Coach and Perform Shoulder Program Exercises.  While this seems like a simple topic, the concepts discussed here are key to enhancing shoulder and scapula function.  There are many little tweaks you can perform for shoulder exercises to make them more effective.  If you perform rotator cuff or scapula exercises poorly, you can be facilitating compensatory patterns.  In this webinar, we discuss:

  • How to correctly perform rotator cuff and scapula exercises
  • Coaching cues that you can use to assure proper technique
  • How to enhance exercises by paying attention to technique
  • How to avoid compensation patterns and assure shoulder program exercises are as effective as possible

To access this webinar:

 

 

 

5 Tweaks to Make Shoulder Exercises More Effective

The latest Inner Circle webinar recording on 5 Tweaks to Make Shoulder Exercises More Effective is now available.

 

5 Tweaks to Make Shoulder Exercises More Effective

5 Tweaks to Make Shoulder Exercises More EffectiveThis month’s Inner Circle webinar is on 5 Tweaks to Make Shoulder Exercises More Effective.  Over the years, you tend to pick up on the little things that can make a big difference.  I’m always reading the latest research to find simple little tweaks that I can make to an exercise to change the desired result.  Maybe I’m trying to optimize the mechanics of the scapula, or trying to enhance EMG activity of a certain muscle, or even change the ratio of activity between two muscles.

In this webinar, we discuss:

  • Why little tweaks can make a big difference
  • Why integrating the kinetic chain into a shoulder exercise may be effective
  • How altering hip and trunk movement during exercises change the muscle activity
  • How you can put this all together and make your own functional exercises specific to each person

To access this webinar:

 

 

 

A Better Way to Perform Shoulder Exercises?

It’s pretty obvious that the shoulder is linked to the scapula, which is linked to the trunk.  So why do we so often perform isolated arm movement exercises without incorporating the trunk?  It’s a good question.  The body works as a kinetic chain that requires a precise interaction of joints and muscles throughout the body.

 

The Effect of Trunk Rotation During Shoulder Exercises

A recent study was published in the Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery that examined the impact of adding trunk rotational movements to common shoulder exercises.

The authors chose overhead elevation, external rotation by the side, external rotation in the 90/90 position similar to throwing, and 3 positions of scapular retraction while lying prone (45 degrees, 90 degrees, and 145 degrees) that were similar to prone T’s and Y’s.  The essentially had subjects perform the exercise with and without rotating their trunk towards the moving arm.

A Better Way to Perform Shoulder Exercises?

EMG of the the upper trapezius, middle trapezius, lower trapezius, and serratus anterior were recorded, as well as 3D scapular biomechanics.

There were a few really interesting results.

  • Adding trunk rotation to arm elevation, external rotation at 0 degrees, and external rotation at 90 degrees significantly increased scapular external rotation and posterior tilt, and all 3 exercises increased LT activation
  • During overhead elevation, posterior tilt was 23% increased and lower trap EMG improve 67%, which in turn reduced the upper trap/lower trap ratio.
  • Adding rotation to the prone exercises reduced upper trapezius activity, and therefore enhanced the upper trap/lower trap ratio as well.

 

What Does This All Mean?

I would say these results are interesting.  While the EMG activity was fairly low throughout the study, the biggest implication is that involving the trunk during arm movements does have a significant impact on both muscle activity and scapular mechanics.  Past studies have shown that including hip movement with shoulder exercises also change muscle activity.

This makes sense.  If you think about it, traditional exercises like elevation and external rotation involve moving the shoulder on the trunk.  By adding trunk movement during the exercises you are also involving moving the trunk on the shoulder.

This is how the body works, anyway.  Most people don’t robotically just move their arm during activities, the move their entire body to position the arm in space to accomplish their goal.

It’s also been long speculated that injuries during sports like throwing and baseball pitching may be at least partially responsible for not positioning or stabilizing the scapula optimally.  I think this study supports this theory, showing that trunk movement alters shoulder function.

Isolated exercises like elevation and external rotation are always going to be important, especially when trying to enhance the strength of a weak or injured muscle.  However, adding tweaks like trunk rotation to these exercises as people advance may be advantageous when trying to work on using the body with specific scapular positions or ratio of trapezius muscle activity.

 

5 Tweaks to Make Shoulder Exercises Even More Effective

I’m a big fan of understanding how little tweaks can make a big difference on your exercise selection.  If you are interested in learning more, this month’s Inner Circle webinar will discuss 5 Tweaks to Make Shoulder Exercises Even More Effective.  The webinar will be Tuesday August 25th at 8:00 PM EST, but a recording will be up soon after.

 

 

 

How to Improve Overhead Shoulder Mobility

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

 

How to Improve Overhead Shoulder Mobility

Improving Overhead Shoulder MobilityThis month’s Inner Circle webinar is on how to improve overhead shoulder mobility.  In this webinar I’ll discuss:

  • We we are losing overhead shoulder mobility
  • Why it matters
  • The 4 main reasons why we lose overhead mobility
  • How the body compensates when we lose overhead mobility
  • How to assess for a loss of overhead shoulder mobility
  • What you MUST stop doing immediately with people that have lost overhead mobility – you are making them worse!
  • Corrective exercises to enhance overhead position
  • Manual therapy techniques to improve mobility

 

To access this webinar:

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