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How to protect your shoulders from rotator cuff injuries

Shoulder injuries are often the result of poor form while lifting weights or because of an un-diagnosed weakness. Here's how you can prevent them

Protect your shoulders from rotator cuff injuries.
Protect your shoulders from rotator cuff injuries. (Istockphoto)

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You will often hear people saying that lifting heavy weights can cause injuries. But what they don’t usually explain is that the injuries occur either because of poor form or an un-diagnosed weakness. This being the case, you don’t need to lift weights in the gym to get injured. You might hurt your back while changing a tyre, you might bust your knee while walking on an uneven road, or injure your shoulder while putting a box on the top shelf of your cupboard. What you need to internalize is that the basic idea for any sort of workout is to progressively build strength in a way that lets you live an injury-free life.

So let’s talk about shoulders, one of the areas of the body that’s most susceptible to injury. The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint, fixing the upper arm bone firmly with the shallow socket of the shoulder. It plays a key role in facilitating shoulder movement and strength. It consists of four main muscles around the shoulder joint—the supraspinatus, the infraspinatus, the tera minor and the subscapularis.

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“Rotator cuff injuries can be either acute or chronic. It is acute when someone introduces new or heavier loads, plays a sport after a really long gap etc. When there is high force applied and the joint is unprepared for it, that is when acute injuries can happen. On the other hand, more active people get chronic injuries which happen when the shoulders are used too much or repetitively,” explains Christopher Pedra, consultant sports physiotherapist at Sir H.N. Reliance Foundation Hospital, Mumbai. 

A rotator cuff injury can get worse with age and the majority of injuries also occur after the age of 60. But that does not mean people younger than that should not be careful. People who participate in sports like tennis, basketball, weight lifting; or those who take up certain house chores like carpentry and house painting can be especially susceptible to this, since these involve frequent overhead arm motions that might cause rotator cuff degeneration over time.

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According to Anup Khatri, consultant orthopaedic surgeon at Global Hospital, Mumbai, the tell-tale symptoms are pain during the night or when lifting or lowering your arm. When moving your shoulder in certain positions, you may get crepitus, or a crackling feeling.

“Be aware of your body's signals. If your shoulder becomes sore after any activity, don't ignore it—if the pain is severe and doesn't go away, see your doctor. Exercise in the proper manner. Before you begin your workout, you should warm up. If you haven't participated in a sport or activity in a long time, begin slowly. Learn the proper technique for lifting weights. In daily life, if you need to access high spots, use a step stool. Place your often-used goods in drawers or on lower shelves,” advises Dr Khatri.

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The only way to prevent injuries is to increase your strength, believes Dr Pedra. “While flexibility and mobility can help, nothing can replace making your muscles stronger. So, if you are going back to a sport after a long time, don’t do anything out of the ordinary.” If injured, he suggests working on range of motion without pain. Once accustomed to it, you can introduce some resistance like with therabands or very light weights. “The basic movements that can be done are pulling (like cable row), pushing (chest or bench press) and rotation (internal and external rotations).”

Do remember that just gaining strength will not be enough by itself. Stretching the muscles that you strengthen is important for restoring range of motion and preventing injury. Gently stretching after strengthening exercises can help reduce muscle soreness and keep your muscles long and flexible. Some of the exercises that can be used as a rehabilitation tool would be pendulum, cross-over arm stretch, passive internal and external rotations, and the sleeper stretch. On the other hand, for strengthening one can choose the elbow flexion, elbow extension, scapula setting and scapula retraction exercises with no-to-minimum weights. 

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