The Rotator What? – the Rotator Cuff and Grumbling Shoulders

Young woman feels pain on her neck and shoulder while exercising.Has your shoulder ever started grumbling – out of the blue? You haven’t done anything to it, haven’t fallen, bumped it, been wrestled by an over-enthusiastic child, but still it hurts? You waited, hoping it would just go away, but annoyingly it hasn’t and in fact it might even be getting worse?

Sometimes the ‘Rotator Cuff’ is the problem. The ‘Rotator Cuff’ is a term sometimes used with a degree of imprecision, often by sports commentators. It is simply, a group of small muscles (and their tendons) that sit deep within the shoulder joint – but the role it plays is important to normal, pain free shoulder function.

The shoulder is a ball and socket joint – the ball being formed by the top of the humerus and the socket by the side of the shoulder blade. The role of the rotator cuff is to center the ball in the socket so that, as we move our arm, the polished joint surfaces stay aligned.

The Rotator Cuff muscles are physically located on the top-side and under-side of the shoulder blade.

When we adopt a round shouldered posture or slump, the shoulder blade creeps forward on the ribcage and the length of the rotator cuff muscles change – some become short and floppy, and others become long and stretched. As you can imagine this makes it difficult for them to do their job properly. They can’t center the ball in the socket well, and it will lean or knock onto other structures. Things are ‘out’, feel weird, it’s just not right.

A thing as simple as poor posture (in front of the computer a lot?) can lead to structures in the shoulder joint – like tendons, bursae, and joint surfaces – becoming sensitive or worn, when you haven’t ‘done’ anything.

Happily, you can start treating a grumbling shoulder by being more conscious of your posture. Sit and stand taller (you’ll have to catch yourself during the day because habits are hard to break) and feel a gentle widening of the front of your chest.

But if everything feels a bit too tight or tense or weak remember physios are here to help. So if you feel your shoulder would benefit from something more targeted come and see us, your shoulders will thank you for it!

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About the Author

Uta completed a Bachelor of Applied Science (Physiotherapy) at Sydney University in 1991. She worked in the public hospital systems in Newcastle and Canberra and moved into private practice in 1994. She enjoys treating a wide variety of musculoskeletal problems with a special interest in neck and shoulder pain.

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