The shoulder joint is really four joints—glenohumeral, scapulothoracic, acromioclavicular, and sternoclavicular—that all work in a coordinated manner to maneuver the upper arm. The shoulder blade, or the scapula, is an important player in normal shoulder movement because important muscles and related tissues are anchored in this bone. However, an issue with the scapula is easy to miss when diagnosing a patient seeking care for shoulder pain.
The main reason the scapula is overlooked is that when its position or motion is affected—a condition referred to as scapular dyskinesis—the patient may not initially experience pain or discomfort. However, though the condition may start in an asymptomatic manner, abnormal scapular movement can affect the motion of the rest of the shoulder, which can lead to the type of painful condition that drives a patient to their medical doctor or chiropractor’s office.
Indeed, the available research shows that patients with rotator cuff tears, glenohumeral instability, impingement syndrome, and labral tears often have scapular dyskinesis as well. One review found that between 67% and 100% of athletes with shoulder injuries have scapular dyskinesis. The same review noted that 54% of athletes in sports that require overhead motions had scapular dyskinesis.
Researchers have also observed abnormal scapular kinematics in sedentary, non-athletic individuals due to poor posture that places excessive strain on the upper back and neck to keep the head upright.
What can be done if a patient with shoulder pain exhibits scapular dyskinesis? First, treatment in a chiropractic setting might focus on manual therapies to restore normal motion to the affected joints. A doctor of chiropractic may also provide recommendations with heat and ice or nutrients to reduce inflammation. The patient will also be encouraged to perform at-home exercises as part of the recovery process.
A good starter exercise is to sit up tall by holding the head in line with the thorax (retract the chin), and “kiss” the scapula together followed by rolling the shoulders forward to separate the scapula WITHOUT shrugging the shoulders upward. Repeat this slowly, initially in front of a mirror, and concentrate on moving both sides rhythmically and equally. Eventually, do the same while on all fours or from a push-up position for something more difficult. Exercises that address forward head posture may also be recommended to reduce the load on the scapula caused by slouching.
As with many musculoskeletal conditions, the sooner a patient seeks care, the more likely they will achieve a successful treatment outcome—often in fewer visits—using conservative treatment approaches like chiropractic care.