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Staying in the Game: Overcoming Shoulder and Elbow Setbacks for Active Individuals

  • 03 Jun 2024
  • 5 mins

Have you thrown a killer pitch and felt a twinge in your elbow? Or have you woken up with shoulder pain after a weekend warrior basketball game?

The shoulder and elbow joints are crucial for many sports activities, allowing various motions and movements. However, their complex structures also make them susceptible to various injuries, especially in athletes and active individuals.

A 2023 study of 532 overhead youth athletes in Singapore revealed significant shoulder overuse injuries. 31.3% of these athletes sustained shoulder overuse injuries, and 9.2% suffered elbow overuse injuries. Although shoulder overuse injuries were more common, the impact of elbow injuries was generally more severe.

The complex anatomy of our shoulders and elbows allows for impressive motion, but this intricate design also makes them susceptible to injury. Let us learn more about these common injuries, their causes, and the proper management, which is essential to maintain optimal performance and prevent long-term complications.

What constitutes a common injury?

Dr. Ruben Manohara, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon at Farrer Park Hospital (FPH), explains that shoulder and elbow injuries can arise in two ways: acute trauma and chronic overuse.

Acute trauma occurs from a sudden impact, such as a fall, collision, or forceful movement. These injuries range from mild strains to severe dislocations, fractures, or ligament tears.

Meanwhile, chronic overuse develops gradually due to repetitive motions typical in many sports and activities. This repetitive stress can lead to inflammation, tendonitis, and other soft tissue problems.

Below are three common shoulder and elbow injuries that can affect any active individuals and athletes:

1. Shoulder Instability (Labral Injuries)

What is it?

Shoulder instability occurs when the shoulder joint becomes loose due to tears or stretches in the surrounding tissues (labrum and ligaments).

What causes this?

This can happen from acute traumatic events or repetitive overhead activities that wear down the tissues gradually.

2. Rotator Cuff Tears

What is it?

The rotator cuff muscles and tendons keep your shoulder stable. A tear will disrupt this function.

What causes this?

Falling onto an outstretched arm or a forceful impact to the shoulder, repetitive motions (racket sports, swimming, or lifting weights), age-related changes, and degeneration of the rotator cuff tendons make them more susceptible to injury.

3. Tennis Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis)

What is it?

Tennis elbow is a pain in the outer elbow caused by inflammation or tiny tears in the tendons. Despite its name, it can occur in individuals who don’t play tennis.

What causes this?

Acute trauma or sudden forceful movements, overuse of forearm muscles (gripping, twisting, or lifting activities), or activities that require repetitive wrist movements, such as painting, typing, or using tools.

Early Warnings Signs

Seek a medical evaluation if you experience any of the following in your shoulder or elbow, especially if they are persistent and worsening:

  • Pain, weakness, or stiffness: Especially during specific movements, not relieved by rest, ice, or medication.
  • Shoulders: Feeling instability (feeling of “popping out”), clicking or grinding with pain, numbness or tingling.
  • Elbows: Tenderness, swelling, locking or catching during movement.

Prevention is Key!

The good news is that common shoulder and elbow injuries can be prevented with the following strategies:

  • Proper Warm-up and Stretching: Prepare your muscles and joints for activity by warming up and stretching before exercise or sports.
  • Strength and Conditioning Exercises: Building strength, stability, and flexibility around your shoulders and elbows can significantly reduce injury risk.
  • Technique and Form Correction: Working with a coach or trainer can ensure proper form during exercise or sports, minimizing joint stress.
  • Adequate Rest and Recovery: Allow sufficient rest between workouts and competitions to avoid overuse injuries.

Treatment Options: Getting You Back on Track

While prevention is ideal, sometimes injuries occur. Here's an overview of standard treatment options:

  • RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation): The initial approach for many injuries involves resting the affected area, applying ice to reduce inflammation, using compression bandages, and elevating the limb.
  • Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation: Physical therapy plays a crucial role in recovery, helping to restore range of motion, strength, and function through targeted exercises and treatments.
  • Medications and Injections: Depending on the severity, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), corticosteroid injections, or platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections may be recommended to manage pain and inflammation.
  • Surgical Interventions: In severe cases, surgical procedures like arthroscopy or open repairs might be necessary to restore joint function and stability.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution. An individualised treatment plan is developed to meet each patient's needs and goals. Coordinated care involving the orthopaedic surgeon, physical therapists, athletic trainers, and the patient themselves is essential for achieving the optimal outcomes for a safe return to activities,” explains Dr Manohara.

Remember, Prevention is Key! Don't Hesitate to Seek Professional Help.

By prioritizing prevention and understanding the causes and symptoms of these common injuries, you can significantly reduce your risk and keep your shoulders and elbows healthy. However, if you experience persistent pain, movement limitations, or concerning symptoms, don't hesitate to seek professional medical advice. Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment by a qualified healthcare professional, such as an orthopaedic specialist, can ensure a swift recovery and a safe return to your favourite activities.

“Shoulder and elbow injuries can be frustrating and debilitating, but with proper care and attention, many of these injuries can be prevented or managed effectively,” concludes Dr Manohara. “By seeking prompt medical attention and following an appropriate treatment plan, individuals can facilitate a successful recovery and safe return to their desired activities.”

Are you looking for expert guidance on shoulder or elbow injuries?

FPH offers a complete care approach, including consultations with experienced orthopaedic specialists who routinely manage high-demand individuals and athletes. With our multidisciplinary network of radiologists, sports physicians, and physiotherapists, we can assess you and arrange for necessary tests, injections, convenient physiotherapy, and even surgery, if needed.

Find out how Madam Sakina, an avid yogi, overcame shoulder arthritis here.

Contributed by

Dr. Ruben Manohara
Orthopedic Surgeon
Shoulder | Elbow Orthopaedic Clinic