The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body. It offers a tremendous range of motion and flexibility, allowing it to perform a wide range of movements, such as abduction, adduction, flexion, extension, internal and external rotation, and 360° circumduction.
The remarkable mobility of the shoulder joint enables the human body to perform various tasks and activities, such as throwing, reaching, lifting, and more. Unfortunately, this also makes the shoulder joint susceptible to injury, resulting in shoulder joint pain.
Shoulder joint pain is a common condition among 18-31% of the population. However, it is more prevalent among athletes across a range of sports. This is due to the repetitive motion, high-impact forces, and demanding physical activities they perform, placing them at a higher risk of shoulder injuries and pain.
Sports Where Athletes Experience Shoulder Joint Pain
Virtually all sporting events call upon the shoulders to perform various feats of strength, speed, and endurance. Often, these involve repetitive work and being subjected to heavy loads for long periods, placing enormous stress on the shoulders.
Unfortunately, the shoulder’s structure isn’t well-suited for this type of work. Although it offers remarkable mobility, it is also inherently unstable, making it more vulnerable to injury than any other joint.
The following are some examples of sports where shoulder pain is a common issue among athletes:
Baseball and softball place a significant amount of stress on an athlete’s shoulders, leading to a high incidence of shoulder injuries among players. In fact, shoulder injuries represent the most common type of injury in Major League Baseball, accounting for nearly 17% of all player injuries. This is mainly due to the repetitive motions involved in batting, catching, and fielding. Pitching places even more stress, with players sometimes throwing powerful pitches over a hundred times per game, contributing to inflammation and overuse injuries.
Racket sports like tennis and badminton take full advantage of the full range of motion provided by the shoulders. In these events, athletes exert enormous amounts of force to execute powerful serves and smashes, increasing the risk of overloading the structures around the shoulders.
Subjecting the shoulders to further stress can result in tightness and weakness in these structures, creating imbalances that raise the risk of developing shoulder joint pain even further. During the early stages, even slight pain can limit the athlete’s ability to perform powerful serves or backhand and forehand strokes.
Swimmers are also prone to a wide range of shoulder injuries exacerbated by the repetitive overhead motion of swimming. These can include rotator cuff tendinitis (inflammation of the tendons), rotator cuff tears, and impingement (more commonly known as “swimmer’s shoulder”). The root causes of these injuries are often poor techniques like incorrect stroke mechanics and improper breathing, as well as overtraining, especially when focusing excessively on a single stroke.
Football is a highly physical sport that imposes extreme stress on the shoulder, with every position on the field at risk of shoulder-related contact. Actions such as blocking, catching, tackling, and passing all have the potential to cause trauma to the shoulder and neck. Despite advancements with better equipment and rules to minimize injuries, players’ shoulders are only marginally protected from the force of impacts during play.
As a result of the sport’s intensity, several common shoulder injuries afflict football players, including shoulder instability, rotator cuff injuries, and tendonitis. These issues can be exacerbated by repeated blows and tears to the tendons, as well as dislocations. Despite the preventative measures in place, the very nature of football ensures that the risk of shoulder injuries remains a constant concern.
Shoulder pain ranks as the third most common injury among male and female volleyball players and follows patellar tendinopathy as the second most frequent overuse injury. It accounts for 8-20% of all volleyball-related injuries, with elite female athletes being more prone to shoulder pain than male athletes.
Common Sports-Related Shoulder Injuries
Most sports-related injuries affect the shoulder joint’s muscles, tendons, cartilage, and ligaments. These injuries can range widely in severity and symptoms, resulting in moderate to severe pain.
The following are some of the most common shoulder injuries in sports:
- Rotator Cuff Injuries: The rotator cuff is a group of tendons that provide movement and stability in the shoulder. Repeated heavy lifting or overhead throwing can result in tendonitis or tears, causing pain that radiates from the front to the side of the shoulder. If left untreated, this injury may result in the loss of motion and strength in the shoulder.
- Labral and SLAP Tears: Tears can also occur in the labrum, a cartilage surrounding the socket of the joint, and the superior labral anteroposterior (SLAP), the top part of the labrum. These tears commonly develop after the shoulder receives a direct blow or impact after a fall but may also develop due to throwing or pulling injuries.
- Shoulder Dislocation: Traumatic dislocations are one of the most painful forms of shoulder injuries. They can occur when a significant amount of force, such as a hard tackle, pulls the shoulder out of the joint. Typically, the shoulder can be “popped” back into place but may still require treatment due to the increased risk of further dislocation.
- Bone Fractures: Most sports-related shoulder injuries involve the muscles, ligaments, or tendons. However, in rare cases, it can include fractures in the bones. Athletes engaged in contact sports or activities with a high risk of falling have a higher risk of bone fractures in the shoulder. These are caused by impact, collisions, or awkward landings and can lead to fractures in the clavicle (collarbone), scapula (shoulder blade), and proximal humerus (upper arm bone).
- Minor Injuries: In most cases, shoulder pain, even among athletes, can be caused by overuse, everyday wear and tear, or a minor injury, such as a sprain, strain, contusion, bone spur, or muscular imbalance.
Regardless of the level of pain or discomfort, the existence of these injuries makes it more challenging to perform and compete, which is why it’s crucial to visit a physician when you experience shoulder pain.
Gain Access to Personalized Treatment Plans
Dr. Benjamin Domb, M.D., of the American Hip Institute, is a nationally recognized orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine, regenerative medicine, and arthroscopic surgery of the shoulder. If you are an athlete or active individual dealing with shoulder pain, Dr. Domb can guide you through the treatment process and help you find the most suitable plan tailored to your specific injury and lifestyle goals.