Shoulder pain in older adults often appears suddenly, as if caused by a sudden trauma or injury. But for many, says Philadelphia physical therapist Chris McKenzie, shoulder injuries are often the result of musculoskeletal conditions directly associated with aging and, more specifically, weakening posture.
“Some people may think ‘I slept on it wrong’ or ‘I pulled something in my shoulder,” but the truth might point to something more long-term,’” said McKenzie, owner at McKenzie Sports Physical Therapy in Philadelphia. “The pain might be something that’s been developing over time, perhaps due to taking on a tighter, less upright posture as they age.”
According the National Institutes of Health (NIH), anywhere from 44 to 65 percent of all complaints of shoulder pain can be attributed to a condition known as shoulder impingement syndrome – also known simply as “shoulder impingement.”
Shoulder impingement, says McKenzie, is the result of chronic and repetitive compression of the rotator-cuff tendons in the shoulder, causing inflammation, pain, weakness, and a decreased range of motion in the joint. The condition can be caused by repetitive overhead movements such as those performed by golfers, swimmers and racquet sport athletes.
However, McKenzie points out that changes in posture related to aging – tightness in the back and neck coupled with an arching of the spine – can create conditions ideal for the development of shoulder impingement.
“Over time, impingement can cause the rotator cuff to start to fray and tear,” McKenzie said. “This can lead to tendinitis and even tears in the rotator cuff.”
The key to preventing shoulder impingement as you age, McKenzie says, is regular mobility – moving and stretching your shoulders daily in order to stay loose and counteract the effects of declining posture. To do so, McKenzie suggests adults include the following daily exercises as part of their regular regimen as they age:
Back Extension/Shoulder Flexing Stretch: Sitting in a chair, hands clasped together, reach your arms high above your head and slowly reach backward, extending your head and hands behind you. Hold for a few seconds, relax, and then repeat.
Backward Shoulder Extensions: Standing upright, your fingers interlaced behind your back, slowly lift your arms away from your buttocks and toward the ceiling. Lift as high as you can. Keep an upright stance, hold for a few seconds, release, then do it again.
Up-Back Shoulder Reaches: Reach one arm behind your back and, palm facing out, slowly reach up the small of your back toward the space between your shoulder blades. Hold for a few seconds, release, then do the same with your other arm. Repeat one time each.
Down-Back Reaches: Reach your hand behind your head and down your back. Hold for a few seconds, release, and then do the same with your other arm. Repeat one time each.
“Maintaining a healthy shoulder and preventing the onset of shoulder impingement translates into staying active, lifting the grandkids, comfortably reaching that top shelf in your cupboard, and even sleeping more comfortably,” McKenzie said. “A physical therapist can help you get there – or stay there – by thoroughly evaluating your condition and setting you on a personalized path toward pain-free motion.”