Shoulder injuries and shoulder pain are relatively common among athletes and can range widely in their severity and symptoms. In many cases, it can be difficult to diagnose the specific type of shoulder injury when it first occurs, so early evaluation and intervention by an orthopedic sports medicine specialist is essential.

Some of the most common causes of shoulder pain in athletes are shoulder dislocations, acromioclavicular joint injuries, rotator cuff tendonitis and tears, labral and superior labral anteroposterior tears, fractures and arthritis as well as activity-specific injuries such as “thrower’s shoulder,” “swimmer’s shoulder” and “rugby shoulder,” among others.

Shoulder Dislocations

The shoulder joint is the most mobile joint in the body, which also makes it the most vulnerable to dislocation. Shoulder dislocations can be caused by major trauma as well as by seemingly atraumatic or non-traumatic factors.

In terms of athletes, traumatic dislocations are the most common type of dislocation, and this type of injury generally ensues as a result of a certain force, such as a hard tackle, pulling the shoulder out of the joint. This can be highly painful, and after the shoulder has been “popped” back into place, it might be necessary to wear a sling around your arm and shoulder, ice your shoulder regularly, rest and see a physical therapist, especially since once a shoulder has been dislocated, the chance of it happening again is greatly increased.

Rotator Cuff Tendonitis and Rotator Cuff Tears

Two other relatively common injuries among athletes are rotator cuff tears and rotator cuff tendonitis, also known as subacromial impingement, bursitis, impingement syndrome and supraspinatus tendonitis.

The rotator cuff is a group of tendons that provide stability and movement to the shoulder, and injuries to the rotator cuff can result in severe shoulder pain and weakness. Rotator cuff tendonitis in athletes is commonly caused by repeated heavy lifting or overhead throwing. These movements can cause inflammation of the rotator cuff and cause pain radiating from the front of the shoulder to the side of the arm during active use of the shoulder and during rest.

If left untreated, rotator cuff tendonitis may result in loss of strength and motion of the shoulder. For both rotator cuff tendonitis and tears, arthroscopic surgery may be needed, so a sports medicine or orthopedic trauma physician should be consulted immediately after an injury occurs or after the initial pain develops.

Labral and SLAP Tears

Aside from the rotator cuff, tears can occur in several other structures of the shoulder as well, such as labral tears and superior labral anteroposterior (SLAP) tears. The labrum is the “cushion” surrounding the socket of the shoulder joint, and in SLAP tears, the top (superior) part of the labrum is injured. Labral tears commonly develop after a fall or direct blow to the shoulder but may also develop as a result of throwing or pulling injuries. SLAP tears are frequently observed in athletes engaging in overhead throwing (such as in baseball), heavy lifting or tackling sports like rugby. Similarly to rotator cuff tears, arthroscopic surgery may be needed to treat labral or SLAP tears.

There are numerous other injuries and causes of shoulder pain in athletes than those mentioned above, so if you are experiencing persistent or severe shoulder pain, make an appointment with a sports injury doctor sooner rather than later. As with everything else, prevention (or at the very least, early detection and intervention) is often the best treatment strategy, and by effectively stretching and strengthening your shoulders and arms, the risk of sustaining some of these injuries can be reduced.

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