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  • Writer's pictureDr Daniel Mogoai

How to manage shoulder impingement as an athlete!

Updated: Apr 23

Athletes who are mostly involved in sports activities requiring repetitive overhead use of the arm are susceptible to developing injuries like impingement, regardless if they are amateur or professional. Once the shoulder is impaired, the pain or lack of range of motion may impact the athlete's performance. Shoulder impingement is a common condition that occurs when the tendons of the rotator cuff muscles become compressed between the bones of the shoulder. It can cause pain, weakness, and a limited range of motion. Learn more about the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for shoulder impingement.

athlete completing overhead movement

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In this blog, you can learn about the following:

  • Which athletes are most prone to shoulder impingement syndrome?

  • What happens at the shoulder when impingement occurs?

  • How to know if you have a shoulder impingement?

  • Can you still play sports with a shoulder impingement?

  • How do you fix shoulder impingement?

Which athletes are most prone to shoulder impingement syndrome?

The shoulders are the most flexible of all the joints in our body. And while it’s extremely convenient to move or extend in any direction, that flexibility can also make the shoulders more susceptible to injury than other joints.

As an athlete, knowing how to take care of your body is important because this is the key to optimal performance, whether in a competition or training. Therefore, athletes must understand how it works.

When your shoulder suffers from a repetitive injury like shoulder impingement, you may experience pain even when not performing your sport, such as reaching overhead to stretch or getting a cup from the cupboard.

This pain is normally felt along the top of the shoulder with overhead lifts due to the location of the tissue (tendon or bursa) being impinged.

CrossFit athlete completing overhead press with shoulder impingement and pain

Swimmers, Olympic weightlifters, and baseball pitchers are more susceptible to shoulder impingements as the movements require a greater balance between the muscles that produce power and the stabilisers of the shoulder and scapula.

Also, with repetitive use, muscles surrounding the shoulder can become strong, tight and short, leading to a disproportionate activation of the large muscle groups over the rotator cuff, which stabilises the shoulder.

Ready to say goodbye to chronic pain? Our Osteopath can help. Book your appointment now and start your journey to recovery.

What happens at the shoulder when impingement occurs?

The shoulder joint is made of three bones, this includes;

  • Humerus, Scapula and Clavicle (Collar bone)

The acromion process of the scapula and the coracoid process of the scapula is connected via the coracoacromial ligament, creating the coracoacromial arch and sitting above the head of the humerus as seen below.

Diagram of the acromion process  of the scapula and the coracoid process of the scapula

Underneath the coracoacromial arch lies the supraspinatus tendon and the subacromial bursa.

When the muscles surrounding the shoulder joint, such as the latissimus dorsi, pectoralis major and anterior deltoid, get stronger and tighter, they cause the humerus bone to internally rotate and impair the normal biomechanics of the shoulder joint.

This can be seen in shoulder impingements, where you go to raise your arms overhead. Still, the subacromial bursa and supraspinatus tendon are pressed up against the coracoacromial arch, effectively creating a roof for the head of the humerus.

Over time as the head of the humerus continuously compresses the bursa and tendon, small amounts of tissue damage occur, causing inflammation within the area. The inflammation can sometimes come with the pain or be the cause of the pain itself.

How to know if you have a shoulder impingement?

Special tests, called orthopedic tests, can be performed to assess the likelihood of shoulder impingement. These are usually performed by a physical therapist such as an Osteopath or Physiotherapist. Daniel, our Osteopath, is trained in assessing shoulder impingements and can be reached via our website.

Following the special tests, further clarification of shoulder impingements can be made with plain film x-ray, ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

athlete getting treatment for shoulder impingement by osteopath

Can I play sports with shoulder impingement?

A conservative approach is typically taken with shoulder impingements to avoid further inflammatory responses of the tendon and bursa. Continuing to play sports, particularly for high-level athletes, will put you at risk of the inflammation of the tissues getting worse and recovery taking longer.

As an athlete, reducing your training load and practising skills over powerful-based movements is best advised until conservative management is underway and shoulder pain is less common.

How do you fix muscle impingement?

Depending on your case's severity, various ways are available to treat muscle impingement. The main objective of treatment for impingement syndrome is to ease the pain and restore its function.

See below for the most recommended tips when managing shoulder impingements:

  • Rest the part where impingement occurs, and the inflammation subsides.

  • Avoid strenuous exercise or any movements that make the pain worse.

  • Complete mobility/ stretching exercises of the latissimus dorsi, pectoralis major and anterior deltoids. Contact our strength and conditioning coach for the most helpful exercises.

  • Perform a strength and conditioning program that contains gentle exercises to rebuild strength and range of motion with the help of an Osteopath to prevent the impingement from occurring again.

Having an impingement injury may be painful and can greatly impact your daily activities. However, most people fully recover within a few months. In some cases, all you must do is rest it for a while.

doorway stretch for back, deltoids and pectoral muscles

Suppose you have followed a mobility and strength training program and have yet to get relief, or your injury has worsened. In that case, it is recommended to seek advice from a medical professional regarding surgical options.

For further questions regarding supplements or nutritional strategies for faster recovery or rehab exercises, click here to connect with Daniel, our Osteopath and Strength and Conditioning coach.


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