How to maintain a healthy shoulder

Whether you’re a weekend warrior or Olympic athlete, ensuring good shoulder health minimises the risk of non-contact injuries and contributes to a healthy work-life balance.

Modern Life means modern stress. And our shoulders take much of the strain. A growing number of people now suffer recurrent shoulder problems; all of which can limit their activity and all have one thing in common – it’s not sport’s fault…  

We cannot underestimate our lifestyle’s impact on our bodies. Tablets, phones, laptops and ever more miniaturised technology has brought about a dramatic shift in how we spend the vast majority of our day.

It’s essential to know how our posture poses risks for our shoulder joints and that there are some easy-to-follow strategies to limit the risk of pain and immobility. But first, the science…

Shoulder Anatomy – A Closer Look
In simple terms the humerus (upper arm bone) and the scapula (shoulder blade) are connected by a ball-and-socket arrangement together known as the glenohumeral joint. This part of our anatomy also includes the acromioclavicular (AC) joint, a small joint at the highest point of the scapula and the sternoclavicular joint, between the sternum (breastbone) and clavicle (collarbone). 

All this impressive engineering is controlled by two types of muscles – ‘stabilisers’ and ‘mobilisers’ – that govern both fine (local) articulations and major (global) joint movements. 

One such group, known as the rotator cuff, plays a key role here. It is a complex system of four muscles, which envelop the shoulder joint. These muscles synergistically produce the intricate movements of the ball-and-socket joint, while maintaining alignment and maximising stability.

The Problem…
Muscle tissue is designed to contract, relax, stretch and be tested to its limits. Olympic athletes examine every one. The more we use this tissue through its full length, the more pliable it becomes, and the less it is challenged, flexibility declines.  

So sat at our desks, using laptops, smartphones or driving, we inevitably use the muscles in the frontal plane most. For our shoulders, this means mainly the pectoralis major – the ‘pecs’ muscle – and, to a lesser extent, the latissimus dorsi, in the middle of the side and back. 

For long periods of the day, these muscles are not stretched and moved as much as they should be. As a result, over time, they shorten and atrophy, limiting function. In turn, this lack of use causes an imbalance between the global stabilisers and affects the rotator cuffs’ ability to operate efficiently.  

These changes present when we stress the joint, playing golf, tennis, squash etc, or load the joint, as in the gym. This can lead to rotator cuff injuries such as subacromial impingement, bursitis of the shoulder and tendinopathies.

The Solution…

Luckily, there are some straightforward stretches and exercises you can perform that will maintain and improve muscle flexibility, minimise the risk of injury and encourage good shoulder health. These exercises will ensure the global stabilisers are stretched and challenged. Most athletes carry out these stretches as a part of their everyday routine.