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Physiotherapy for the Shoulder

The function of the human arm is to allow placement of the hand in useful positions so the hands can perform activities where the eyes can see them. Because of the huge range of positions required the shoulder is very flexible with a large motion range, but this is at the expense of some reduced strength and greatly reduced stability. A "soft tissue joint" is often a description of the shoulder, indicating it is the tendons, muscles and ligaments which are important to the joint's function. Shoulder treatment and rehabilitation is a core physiotherapy skill. 

The shoulder joint is constructed from the socket of the scapula and the humeral head, the ball at the top of the upper arm bone. The head of the upper arm is a large ball and important tendons insert onto it to move and stabilise the shoulder, but the shoulder socket, the glenoid, is small in comparison and very shallow. A cartilage rim, the labrum of the glenoid, deepens the socket and adds to stability. The acromio-clavicular joint lies above the shoulder joint proper and provides dynamic stability during arm movements, being made up from part of the scapula and the outer end of the clavicle. 

The major stability and flexibility joints of the upper limb shoulder girdle are the scapulothoracic and glenohumeral joints and these joints are held steady and moved by large and powerful muscles. The pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi muscles stabilise and perform strong movements, the serratus anterior stabilises the scapula on the thorax, the rotator cuff stabilises the humeral head on the socket and the deltoid and other muscles perform movements. The shoulder blade and thorax need to be kept in a stable relationship for the glenohumeral joint to perform precise and controlled movements. 

Around the shoulder all the muscles narrow down into flat, fibrous tendons, some larger and stronger, some thinner and weaker. All these tendons are anchoring themselves to the humeral head, allowing their muscles to act on the shoulder. The rotator cuff includes a group of relatively small shoulder muscles, the subscapularis, the supraspinatus, the infraspinatus and the teres minor. The tendons form a wide sheet over the ball, allowing muscle forces to act on it. The rotator cuff, despite its name, acts to hold the humeral head down on the socket and allow the more powerful muscles to perform shoulder movements.  

As a person ages, the rotator cuff develops degenerative changes in its tendinous structures, causing small tears in the tendons which can enlarge until there is no continuity between the muscles and their attachments. This leads to loss of normal shoulder movement and can be very painful but is not always so and "Grey hair equals cuff tear" is a common saying. Physios work at rotator cuff strengthening, whilst in massive tears the main shoulder muscles can be progressively strengthened to improve function. Surgery is possible for massive, moderate and small rotator cuff tears and physiotherapists manage the post-operative protocols. 

Osteoarthritis (OA) does not commonly affect the shoulder but there is a group of patients who develop severe arthritic problems in the shoulders, whom physiotherapy can help by maintaining joint ranges and muscle power. Once conservative treatments are exhausted then total shoulder replacement (TSR) is possible, either replacing the ball and socket with new components or reversing the combination. Physiotherapy post-operative management is very important as the shoulder is a "soft tissue joint" in the sense that the strength and balance of the shoulder muscles and other tissues is vital for good outcome. 

Many other shoulder conditions are managed by physiotherapists, such as hyper-mobility, dislocations and fractures, impingement and tendinitis. Physios manage shoulder hyper-mobility by patient education and stability training and abnormal muscle activity by teaching correct patterns by repetition and biofeedback. Physiotherapy for impingement involves rotator cuff strengthening, sub-acromial injection or surgical management by acromioplasty and tendinitis by local treatment and strengthening. Dislocations and fractures are managed according to the type and severity of injury and according to the trauma surgical and physiotherapy protocols.


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