Shoulder pain in older adults often appears suddenly, as if caused by a sudden trauma or injury. But for many within this demographic, says local physical therapist Barrett Ford, shoulder injuries are often the result of musculoskeletal conditions directly associated with aging.
“Sometimes they think, ‘I slept on it wrong’ or ‘I reached wrong and I injured my shoulder,’” said Ford, co-founder and lead physical therapist at Step & Spine Physical Therapy in Bend, Sisters and Redmond. “But the truth is, it’s probably been sneaking up on them over time. A lot of it has to do with how they’ve tightened up and postural changes that have occurred as they have aged.”
According to Ford, about 70 percent of rotator cuff tears are the result of conditions that develop over time, not by a sudden trauma or injury. The culprit, he says, is chronic shoulder impingement.
Shoulder impingement occurs when the tendons in the rotator cuff become irritated and inflamed, resulting in pain, weakness and a decreased range of motion. Changes in posture related to aging, Ford says – tightness in the back and neck coupled with the arching of the spine – results in conditions where shoulder impingement is likely to occur.
“This causes decreased flexibility, causing the shoulder to become tight,” Ford said. “Over time, the rotator cuff space becomes tight and starts to fray, tear and have issues.”
The key to preventing shoulder impingement as you age, says Ford, is regular mobility – moving and stretching your shoulders daily in order to stay loose and counteract the effects of declining posture. To do so, Ford suggests older adults (50 years or older, at the very least) perform the following daily exercises:
Back Extension/Shoulder Flexing Stretch: Sitting in a chair, hands clasped together, reach your arms high above your head and slowly reach backward, extending your head and hands behind you. Hold for a few seconds, relax, then repeat.
Backward Shoulder Extensions: Standing upright, your fingers interlaced behind your back, slowly lift your arms away from your buttocks and toward the ceiling – lifting as high as you can. Keeping an upright stance, hold for a few seconds, release, then do it again.
Up-Back Shoulder Reaches: Reach one arm behind your back and, palm facing out, then slowly reach up the small of your back toward the space between your shoulder blades. Hold for a few seconds, release, then do the same with your other arm. Repeat one time each.
Down-Back Reaches: Reach your hand behind your head and down your back. Hold for a few seconds, release, then do the same with your other arm. Repeat one time each.
“Maintaining a healthy shoulder and preventing the onset of shoulder impingement translates into keeping up on your golf game, lifting your grandkids, comfortably reaching up to that top shelf in your cupboard, and even sleeping more comfortably on your side,” Ford said. “A physical therapist can help you get there – or stay there – by thoroughly evaluating your condition and setting you on a personalized path toward pain-free motion.”