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Prevention and Rehabilitation Guide to Treating Shoulder Joint Problems in Athletes

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medically reviewed by Dr Naveen Chandran

Dr J S S Dev

Updated on April 13, 2024

Do you know what Serena Williams, Sachin Tendulkar, Tom Bardy, and Tiger Woods all have in common? They all have had shoulder injuries that could have threatened their sports career. As an athlete or a sportsperson, injuries to the shoulder are prevalent and risky. 

In this blog, let us look at the common shoulder problems an athlete or a sportsperson can encounter and how to prevent them. Please continue to read to find out more.

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Understanding Shoulder Injuries in Athletes

How a swimmer uses a shoulder will differ from how a golfer uses it. The same goes for shoulder injuries among the athletes. It will be different for different sportspersons. The following table will give you an idea of the types of shoulder injuries different athletes can be prone to.

Sports Shoulder Injury 
TennisRotator cuff tendonitis, bicep tendonitis, AC joint sprains, SLAP tears
VolleyballRotator cuff tendonitis, AC joint sprains, SLAP tears
SwimmingImpingement syndrome, bicep tendonitis, labral tears
GolfRotator cuff tendonitis, bicep tendonitis, SLAP tears
BaseballRotator cuff tears, SLAP tears, labral tears

Do you need clarification on seeing the types of shoulder injuries? What are they? Let me help you. 

Rotator Cuff Tendonitis 

It is one of the most common types of shoulder injuries in athletes. The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles and tendons around your shoulder joint that helps in shoulder movements like lifting and rotating your arms. Inflammation or irritation to the tendons of the rotator cuff (primarily due to overuse and repetitive overhead movements of the shoulder) results in a painful, stiffened and weakened shoulder. 

AC Joint Sprains

One of the most severe shoulder injuries, the said injury involves the ligaments connecting the tip of your shoulder blade to your collarbone. Based on the severity of the injury, you can grade this type from mild to severe. Severe cases need surgical correction. In athletes, falling onto an outstretched arm, repetitive overhead movements, and direct injuries to the shoulder result in AC joint sprains.

Bicep Tendonitis

The condition is also most commonly caused by overuse or repetitive overhead movements. It is an inflammation of the biceps tendon, a cord-like structure that attaches your biceps muscle to your shoulder bone. The biceps muscle, located at the front of your upper arm, is primarily responsible for bending your elbow and rotating the forearm.

Slap Tears

Slap tears, also known as Superior Labrum Anterior to Posterior tears, refer to the long tear you may have on the delicate rubbery cartilage of your shoulder joint, the labrum. With slap tears, you may face difficulty holding your shoulder in position (shoulder instability).

Impingement Syndrome

You will mainly observe this type of injury in swimmers due to the overhead activities of the arm, which causes pain, weakness, and inflammation of the joints. It may occur when your rotator cuff muscles rub with the bony projection on your shoulder blade (acromion).

Significance of Proper Sports Technique to Minimise the Risk of Shoulder Injuries

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Prevention is always better than a cure. Proper technique and form are essential for minimising the risk of shoulder injuries in sports. Why? Improper technique can cause excessive stress on the shoulder joints and surrounding muscles and tendons.

Here are some general tips for proper sports techniques to prevent shoulder injuries:

  • Maintain Proper Posture: Keep your shoulders back and down, and avoid slouching or hunching over.
     
  • Keep Your Elbows Close to Your Body: Avoid swinging your arms too widely, which can place excessive stress on the shoulder joint. Since this movement is necessary for some athletes, try to avoid these types of movements in times other than playing your sport.
     
  • Use a Controlled Range of Motion: Don't overextend or force your arms into unnatural positions.
     
  • Listen to Your Body: Stop the activity and rest if you feel pain.

Here are some specific examples of proper techniques for different sports:

  • Tennis: Keep your elbow bent and your wrist firm when hitting strokes. Avoid serving with a "whipping" motion.
     
  • Volleyball: Keep your shoulders back and down when spiking or blocking. Avoid diving or rolling on the floor.
     
  • Swimming: Keep your arms close to your body when pulling and pushing strokes. Avoid overreaching or overexerting your arms.
     
  • Golf: Keep your elbow tucked in close to your body when swinging. Avoid overswinging or hitting the ball off balance.
     
  • Baseball: Use proper pitching mechanics to avoid shoulder strain. Avoid throwing too hard or too often.

Conditioning and Strength Training: Enhance Shoulder Stability and Prevent Injuries

Conditioning and strength training are essential for preventing shoulder injuries in sports. We recommend these activities because they can help improve shoulder stability, flexibility, and strength.

Here are some specific conditioning exercises for shoulder injury prevention:

  • Shoulder Shrugs: This exercise helps to strengthen the trapezius muscles, which support the shoulder joint.
     
  • Internal and External Rotation: These exercises help to improve shoulder range of motion and flexibility.
     
  • Pendulums: This exercise helps warm the shoulder joint and improve circulation.
     
  • Wall Push-Ups: This great exercise helps strengthen the chest and shoulder muscles.

Here are some specific strength training exercises for shoulder injury prevention:

  • Lateral Raises: This exercise helps strengthen the deltoid muscles, which are mainly responsible for shoulder abduction.
     
  • Front Raises: This exercise helps strengthen the anterior deltoid muscles responsible for shoulder flexion.
     
  • Rotator Cuff Exercises: These exercises help strengthen your rotator cuff's muscles, stabilising the shoulder joint.
     
  • Planks: This exercise helps strengthen the core muscles supporting the shoulder joint.

Working with a certified personal trainer or a physical therapist is essential to developing a conditioning and strength training program appropriate for your needs and sport-specific demands.

Warm-Up and Cool-Down: Reduce the Likelihood of Shoulder Strain

Warm-Up and Cool-Down: Reduce the Likelihood of Shoulder Strain

Warming up and cooling down are essential for preventing shoulder injuries in sports. Warming up helps to prepare the muscles and tendons for activity, while cooling down helps to reduce inflammation and promote recovery.

General Tips for Warming Up

Here are some general tips for warming up before sports activities:

  • Do Light Cardio: Start with 5-10 minutes of light cardio, like jogging or jumping jacks.
  • Dynamic Stretches: Perform dynamic stretches that mimic the movements of the sport you will be playing.

General Tips for Cooling Down

Here are some general tips for cooling down after sports activities:

  • Static Stretches: Hold static stretches for 30 seconds each.
  • Foam Rolling: Use a foam roller to self-massage your muscles and promote recovery.

Warming up before and cooling down after sports activities can help reduce the likelihood of shoulder strain and other injuries.

Sports-Specific Rehabilitation in Shoulder Joint

Recovering from a shoulder injury requires a tailored rehabilitation program that addresses the specific demands of the athlete's sport. Sports-specific rehabilitation aims to restore your shoulder joint's optimal range of motion, stability, and strength while addressing any other issues that may have contributed to the injury.

Critical Elements of Sports-Specific Rehabilitation

Individualised Assessment

As said, each athlete is different, and so are their shoulder issues. A thorough assessment of the athlete's injury, sport-specific demands, and movement patterns is crucial to developing an effective rehabilitation program.

Targeted Exercises

Here, we have to target an area. Rehabilitation exercises should focus on strengthening the muscles around the shoulder joint, improving flexibility, and enhancing proprioception.

Progressive Loading

Exercises should gradually increase in intensity and complexity to challenge the healing tissues and prepare the athlete for the proper demands of their sport.

Functional Integration

Rehabilitation activities should incorporate sport-specific movements and drills to ensure a safe and triumphant return to competition.

Physiotherapy and Recovery

Physiotherapy has played a considerable role in many athletes' lives. It is, in fact, responsible for the resilience of many athletes after an injury. Physiotherapists play a central role in the recovery of athletes with shoulder injuries. They provide a comprehensive rehabilitation program that includes:

Manual Therapy

Techniques such as joint mobilisation, soft tissue massage, and neuromuscular re-education can effectively help to improve the range of motion, reduce pain, and restore muscle function.

Therapeutic Exercises

A personalised exercise program tailored to the athlete's injury and sport-specific needs is essential for regaining strength, stability, and proprioception.

Modalities

Physiotherapists may utilise ultrasound, electrical stimulation, and cryotherapy to manage pain and inflammation and promote tissue healing.

Education and Self-Management 

Providing athletes with education about their injuries and empowering them with self-management strategies can help them make informed decisions and promote a faster recovery.

Returning to Sports

Returning to sports after a shoulder injury is a gradual and natural process that requires careful planning and monitoring. The athlete should return to the entire competition once they have:

Achieved Pain-Free Range of Motion

The shoulder joint should be able to move through its full range of motion without pain or restriction.

Restored Strength and Stability

The muscles around the shoulder joint should be strong enough to support the demands of the sport, and the joint should have regained its stability.

Completed Functional Training

The athlete should be able to perform sport-specific movements and drills without any pain or compensation. 

Received Clearance from a Healthcare Professional

A physician or certified athletic trainer should assess the athlete's readiness to return to competition and provide guidance on a safe return-to-play plan.

How Can Ayurveda Help?

How Can Ayurveda Help.jpg

Ayurveda can do a lot for your recovery, rehabilitation and prevention of shoulder injuries. Some of them are:

  • Panchakarma Therapies: Ayurvedic procedures like abhyanga (medicated oil massage), kizhi or pinda (herbal poultice massage), and other such therapies can help an athlete recover faster and can also help prevent such shoulder injuries by strengthening their shoulder. Ayurveda physicians will assess the athlete's condition and choose a therapy that suits them best.
     
  • Rejuvenating Therapies: These special therapies include consuming medicines that help the athletes stay energised, fit and healthy. This will help prevent injuries and maintain the athlete's form.
     
  • Yoga: Therapeutic yoga can help athletes keep their shoulders healthy and aid in recovery.

The Final Thoughts

Shoulder joint problems are a potential threat to an athlete's career. Always taking preventive steps is the first fundamental thing to note. As athletes push their limits to excel in sports, their shoulders often bear the brunt of rigorous training and competition. By understanding the specific challenges athletes face and implementing preventive measures and tailored rehabilitation techniques, athletes can safeguard their shoulder health, prevent injuries, and achieve optimal performance.

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