Owner's Manual: Listen to Your Shoulders

Listen to Your Shoulders

Crunch. Creak. Ouch. That's what your poor, overworked shoulders grumble at you. Get to "aah" and "thanks" with good info and a few life tweaks.

The Basics

  • Three bones make up the shoulder: the scapula, humerus, and clavicle.
  • The shoulder can rotate 270 degrees — the most of any joint in the body.
  • Human pitches can hit 100 mph; no other animal can throw as fast. When chimps are trained to throw, they max out at around 20.
  • It took for 4 million years for the shoulders and core to evolve so we could reach back and throw — an essential skill for hunting.
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Their Superpower Is Also Their Downfall

Unique shoulder joints give you the ability to move your arms in almost any direction, letting you do everything from reach behind you to zip up a dress to swim laps in the pool. The arm rests in the socket like a golf ball on a tee, as opposed to being embedded in it (like your hip). That makes the joint very mobile, but not so stable. The tissues around it (muscles, tendons, and ligaments) do the difficult job of keeping the shoulder in place, making them prone to injury, especially with overuse and age.

About 16 million people a year — the majority of them women, thanks to our looser joints — check in with a doc for a shoulder woe. Most won't need surgery: Nearly 70 percent of problems can be fixed with physical therapy, anti- inflammatories, and rest, says Nikhil Verma, MD, a professor of orthopedic surgery at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

Frozen Shoulders Can Be "Thawed"

Women between the ages of 30 and 60 are particularly vulnerable to "frozen shoulder" — all of a sudden, you realize you can't grab a book from a high shelf or reach back to hook your bra. For unknown reasons, the lining of the joint becomes inflamed, tightens, and makes your shoulder stiff. If you control the inflammation and diligently work on the tissue (get exercises from a physical therapist), you can bring movement back and even speed up the thawing by a couple of months, says Verma. Cortisone shots, heat, and acupuncture can help too.

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Where to Press for Relief

When your shoulders tense up and won't let go, try this: Roll a tennis ball between your back and a wall. The prime spots to go over tend to be right above each shoulder blade in the upper back and in the soft area between the blade and the spine, says Paula Ludewig, PhD, a professor of physical therapy and a shoulder researcher at the University of Minnesota. This can relax the muscle tissue and promote blood flow, which helps ease things up. To stay loose even when the stress around you is rising: Shrug your shoulders up and down every 30 minutes or so, or rotate them in circles.

This story originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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