Shoulder pain in older adults often appears suddenly, as if caused by a sudden trauma or injury. But for many, says Chicago physical therapist Dr. Marc Gregory Guillen, shoulder injuries are often the result of musculoskeletal conditions directly associated with aging and, more specifically, weakening posture.
“Some people may think ‘I must have slept wrong’ or ‘I must have pulled something in my shoulder,” but the truth might point to something more long-term,’” said Dr. Guillen, owner at Free Body Physical Therapy & Wellness in East Humboldt Park / Wicker Park. “The pain typically develops over time, due to imbalances that occur with sustained postures.”
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 Dr. Guillen, is the result of chronic and repetitive compression of the rotator-cuff or biceps tendons in the shoulder, causing inflammation, pain, weakness, and a decreased range of motion in the joint. The condition can be caused by repetitive movements that people perform with sport/work related activities or general day to day activities (such as lifting a baby, carrying groceries etc…)
However, Dr. Guillen 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 or biceps tendon to start to fray and tear,” Dr. Guillen said. “This can lead to tendinopathy and even tears in both tendons.”
The key to preventing shoulder impingement as you age, Dr. Guillen says, is regular mobility – moving and stretching your shoulders daily in order to stay loose and counteract the effects of declining posture.
Because postural imbalances vary in person to person, an individualized assessment is required. This will include assessing the flexibility/strength in your spine, shoulders and shoulder blades as well as your movement pattern which can impact the overall health of your shoulder.
“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,” Dr. Guillen 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.”