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Finding a Solution to Your Shoulder Pain

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"He who treats the site of pain is often lost."
- Karel Lewit

The purpose of this article is to provide some basic information about the importance of understanding the role posture and function have in pain and movement dysfunction. The hope is that you will gain an understanding of why your chiropractor or therapist must evaluate and bring into consideration issues that may not seem related to your pain.
When it comes to dealing with chronic musculoskeletal pain, the site of the pain is rarely the actual source of the pain. This concept is often missing or ignored in traditional North American treatment. Let's look at shoulder pain as an example. All too frequently the shoulder pain patient is provided an evaluation and treatment that is solely focused on the shoulder. Depending on the professional you see, the shoulder is typically treated with any combination of adjustments, passive modalities (ultrasound, electrical stimulation, laser), manual therapy, or shoulder exercises. If those fail, you may be referred for shoulder injections or you may become a potential candidate for shoulder surgery.

Notice the pattern? Everything is focused around the shoulder. That's where the pain is, so that's where my problem has to be, right? The same pattern can be seen with low back pain, neck pain, knee pain, etc. This seems like rational thought, but what if you, as the patient, do not respond? Does this mean that conservative treatment failed? Does it mean you need surgery? What if only focusing on the site of pain caused something very critical to a positive outcome to be missed?

Looking Beyond the Shoulder
Czech physician Vladimir Janda likened musculoskeletal pain and dysfunction as a chain reaction, thus stressing the importance of looking beyond the site of pain for the source of pain. Janda observed that due to the interactions of the skeletal system, muscular system, and Central Nervous System (CNS), dysfunction at any one joint or muscle is reflected in the quality and function of joints/muscles throughout the entire body. This opens the door to the possibility that the source of pain may be distant from the site of pain.

Janda also recognized that muscle and connective tissue are common to several joint segments; therefore, movement and pain are never isolated to a single joint. He often spoke of "muscular slings" or groups of functionally interrelated muscles. Muscles must disperse load among joints and provide stabilization for movement, making no movement truly isolated. Meaning shoulder movement does not occur only at the shoulder, but is dependent upon the function of the spine, rib cage, pelvis, and even the ankles. For example, trunk muscle stabilizers are activated before movement of the upper extremities begin; therefore, shoulder pain can be caused by poor core stabilization.

Hopefully you are coming to realize that while you may have pain in a specific area, it's not always the cause of the pain. Going back to the shoulder, a 2006 study that reported 49% of athletes with arthroscopically diagnosed posterior superior labral tears (SLAP lesions) also have a hip range of motion deficit or abduction weakness. This illustrates a key point. How often do you see shoulder pain/dysfunction treated by correcting hip mobility and stabilization patterns?

Outside of glenohumeral joint range of motion and rotator cuff endurance/strength, has your shoulder evaluation included any of the following items:

#1 - Breathing Pattern
The average person will take close to 20,000 breaths per day but until recently the impact breathing has on movement and dysfunction has been largely ignored. Proper breathing certainly provides great benefit to athletes and individuals who display a variety of movement dysfunction.  Neurologist Karel Lewit said, “If breathing is not normalized, no other movement pattern can be.” Understanding the impact proper breathing has on the body and how to restore ideal breathing patterns is critical in both athletic development and rehabilitation.

#2 - Thoracic and Cervical Spine Function
Spinal posture lays the foundation for shoulder function. Improper function of the thoracic (mid-back) and cervical (neck) areas of the spine will compromise the function of your shoulders. Imagine the spine as a series of cog wheels, movement in one area will impact all areas. This is visualized in the picture below:

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Regardless of whether they are sitting or standing, the majority of people tend to fall into a posture very similar to what is seen on the left. Increased kyphosis of the thoracic spine (rounded mid-back) is a major reason for forward head posture and rounded shoulders. There are seventeen muscles that attach to the shoulder, many of them influencing the position and movement of not just the shoulders, but spine as well. Shoulder function is dependent on proper spinal posture and without correction of spinal posture, the shoulders don't have a fighting chance to stay healthy.

#3 - Mobility of the Opposite Hip and Ankle
The importance of looking at hip mobility was emphasized previously, but let's also consider the ankle. This ankle becomes of particular importance when dealing with overhead throwing athletes. Dysfunction at the ankle will alter mechanics up the kinetic chain and place undue stress on the shoulder and elbow. Correcting any muscular tightness or poor joint movement of the ankle sets the stage for ideal throwing mechanics and the prevention of shoulder injuries.

Closing Thoughts
Despite focusing on shoulder pain, many of these concepts hold true for any type of chronic musculoskeletal pain. Before abandoning all hope or 'learning to live with the pain', consider that being evaluated by a professional who will look beyond your site of pain could be the solution you have been looking for. That's why these concepts form the foundation of the examination and treatment process at Gallagher Performance.
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