Athlete’s Shoulder – Resolving Shoulder Injuries with Active Release Techniques (ART)
By: Dr. David Westmacott
Athletic activities require a considerable amount of strength, coordination, and flexibility from the shoulder. As a result, athletes participating in sports such as swimming, paddling, golf, baseball, and tennis, commonly develop shoulder injuries. Unfortunately, when shoulder injuries occur they not only prevent optimal performance, but they often progress to the point of preventing competition and training all together. To make matters worse, many of the most common shoulder conditions are slow to respond to traditional types of treatment and often result in months of frustration for the athlete.
Fortunately, a new treatment technique known as Active Release Technique (ART) is proving to be a very successful method to combat many common shoulder problems and get athletes back in the game quickly and effectively. But before we talk about why ART works so effectively, first we need to understand how the shoulder becomes injured in the first place.
Shoulder Basics – The high cost of mobility
The shoulder joint consists of the round head of the upper arm connecting to the flat surface of the shoulder blade. This “round-on-flat” relationship is different from most other joints in the body, and as a result is capable of providing a great deal of movement. For example, most joints allow only one direction of movements (i.e. ankle, knee, elbow, fingers). In comparison, the architecture of the shoulder allows us to reach up overhead, back behind the body, across the chest, and into internal and external rotation.
Over time the muscles become strained and develop small scale injury known as micro-trauma. Initially this micro-trauma is not painful, but may be perceived as a mild ache or tightness in the muscles. Although only small, the damage still needs to be repaired. The body responds to tissue injury in a very predictable way – by laying down new tissue to repair the damaged tissue. With micro-trauma the body repairs the strained tissue by laying down small amounts of scar tissue in and around the injured area. The scar tissue itself is not a problem – in fact it is a normal and necessary part of healing.
The problem occurs when the shoulder is repeatedly subjected to the same high force athletic movements. This in turn causes the same muscles to become strained and subsequently repaired over and over again. Over time scar tissue will build-up and accumulate into what we called adhesions. As these adhesions form they start to affect the normal health and function of the muscles. In fact, they will often lead to pain, tightness, stiffness, restricted joint motion, and diminished blood flow.
As these scar tissue adhesions accumulate in the shoulder region, it places more and more strain on the muscles as they must now stretch and contract against these adhesions in an attempt to move and stabilize the shoulder. This places even further strain on the shoulder muscles, which in turn leads to more micro-trauma. Essentially a repetitive injury cycle is set-up causing continued adhesion formation and progressive shoulder dysfunction.
As the cycle progresses the ability of the muscles to contract properly is affected and the stability of the shoulder becomes compromised. At this point it is not uncommon for the muscles to give way, resulting in a more severe and debilitating pain. In fact, many athletes come into our office explaining how they have hurt their shoulder during a routine task that they have done thousands of times before. When further questioned these athletes almost always describe some mild pain or tightness in their shoulders that has been building over time. As you can see from the explanation of the repetitive injury cycle, these types of injuries build-up over time and the more acute injury is often just the “straw-that-broke-the-camels-back”.
How are Shoulder Injuries Best Treated?
The Traditional Approach
In the attempt to relieve shoulder, a variety of treatment methods are used, either on their own, or in combination with other methods. Some of the more common approaches include anti-inflammatory medications, rest, ice, ultrasounds (US), muscle stimulation (E-Stim), steroid injections, stretching, exercise, and when all else fails, surgery. Unfortunately, most of these traditional techniques generally require a long period of time before they provide any significant relief, and in many cases, provide only temporary relief from symptoms instead of fixing the underlying cause of the problem. This can be a huge problem as athletes often want and need to get back to training and competition as soon as possible.
The main reason these traditional approaches are often ineffective is they fail to address the underlying scar tissue adhesions that develop within the muscles and surrounding soft tissues. It is these adhesions that are binding the tissues together, restricting the normal movements, and interfering with the normal flexibility, and contraction of the muscles in the shoulder area.
Passive approaches, such as medications, rest, ice and steroid injections, all focus on symptomatic relief and do nothing to address the muscle restrictions and dysfunction. More active approaches, such as stretching and exercises, are often needed for full rehabilitation of the condition and to restore full strength and function of the muscles, however, they themselves do not treat the underlying adhesions. In fact, without first addressing the scar tissue adhesions, stretches and exercises are often less effective and much slower to produce relief or recovery from the shoulder condition.
One of the best things about ART is how fast it can get results. In our experience, the majority of shoulder injuries respond very well to ART treatment, especially when combined with the appropriate home stretching and strengthening exercises. Although each case is unique and there are several factors that will determine the length of time required to fully resolve each condition, we usually find a significant improvement can be gained in just 4-6 treatments. These results are the main reason that many elite athletes and professional sports teams have ART practitioners on staff, and why ART is an integral part of the Ironman triathlon series.
To book an appointment to see if ART will be able to help with your elbow injury, simply call our office at 403-278-1405.