Small Muscle Spotlight: Supraspinatus

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I’m used to aches and pains. After all, gymnastics— my sport of choice— places unusual stress on the body, especially to the wrists, shoulders, and back. One day after a workout of repeated round-offs (in which, similar to a cartwheel, a gymnast brings her legs together in the air and snaps them down into a standing position) I left the gym with a twinge in the inside front of my right shoulder. The next morning my shoulder burned with a pain so intense I could barely lift my arm. Fortunately the pain subsided during the day, and after some research I found the culprit: my supraspinatus, one of the four muscles of the rotator cuff, was inflamed. Turns out problems with this tiny wonder are quite common in gymnastics, but they’re also prevalent in throwing sports like baseball and track events.

Get That Shoulder Some Prozac 'Cause It’s Unstable! - The Need-To-Know

The supraspinatus runs along the top of the shoulder blade and inserts via the supraspinatus tendon at the top of the arm (the humerus, or, “funny” bone). It’s responsible for lifting the arm sideways and stabilizing surrounding joints. The rotator cuff muscles work together to move the arm up overhead, rotate it in and out, and anchor the shoulder without hindering movement.

The shoulder’s unique anatomy, which allows the arm to move in multiple directions, contributes to a high incidence of shoulder problems like dislocations (ouch), tendonitis (ouch), and torn rotator cuffs (double ouch). The shoulder, like the hip, is a ball-and-socket joint, which is normally pretty stable since most are comprised of a large “socket” into which the “ball” (end of the bone) fits nicely. The shoulder, however, is made up of a ball larger than its socket to allow for dynamic range of motion. This means all stabilization is left up to the surrounding muscles, ligaments, and tendons, primarily the rotator cuff.

Out of the four muscles of the rotator cuff, the supraspinatus is the most frequently injured because it undergoes the most force. For example, the supraspinatus is the muscle holding a baseball player’s arm in place when throwing a ball or swinging a bat. People are more prone to this injury if they overuse the shoulder, particularly if the arm is at or above shoulder level during activity. This usually involves repetitive overhead motion like painting, washing windows, swimming, tennis, and some weightlifting movements (behind-the-head lat pull downs can be especially problematic). Aging is also another contributor to shoulder problems due to inactivity, natural muscle and ligament atrophy, and a lifetime of listening to Taio Cruz.

Prevention & The Road to Recovery - Your Action Plan

To prevent such injuries, it’s important to strengthen the shoulder and its surrounding muscles. Weak chest or back muscles force the shoulder to work harder to compensate, potentially causing more strain and injury. Make sure to hit all muscle groups to prevent such imbalances; exercises like seated rows, chest presses, or lateral shoulder raises can be especially effective at preventing shoulder problems.

For those experiencing pain, there are a few tests to determine if the supraspinatus is inflamed, injured, or torn. Rest, ice, and heat usually treat an inflamed or mildly injured supraspinatus, but medication and physical therapy can also lessen pain and reduce inflammation. If the shoulder is causing so much pain it’s difficult to move the arm, it might be best to see a doctor. At worst, surgery may be a solution if the tendon is badly injured (triple ouch). But if most stick to just throwing their hands up in the air sometimes, things will likely be fine.

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