How is shoulder range of motion (ROM) restored in the recovery phase of rotator cuff treatment?

Updated: Oct 25, 2018
  • Author: Gerard A Malanga, MD; Chief Editor: Craig C Young, MD  more...
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After the pain has been managed, restoration of motion can be initiated. Codman pendulum exercises, wall walking, stick or towel exercises, and/or a physical therapy program are useful in attaining full pain-free ROM. Address any posterior capsular tightness because this can lead to anterior and superior humeral head migration, resulting in impingement.

Posterior capsular tightness is common in athletes performing overhead motions (particularly throwers), because the posterior muscles and capsule are greatly stressed during the follow-through phase of the throwing motion. This activity places large eccentric loads on the posterior capsule and posterior rotator cuff musculature and can result in microtrauma and inflammation, followed by scarring and contracture.

Many overhead athletes have a great degree of external rotation with restriction of internal rotation. This was once thought to be a normal adaptation to the demands of the sport. The tight posterior capsule and the imbalance it causes forces the humeral head anterior, producing shearing of the anterior labrum and causing additional injury.

Stretching of the posterior capsule is a difficult task to isolate. The horizontal adduction that is usually performed tends to stretch the scapular stabilizers and not the posterior capsule. If care is taken to fix and stabilize the scapula, which prevents stretching of the ST stabilizers, the objective of posterior capsule stretching is obtained. The focus of treatment in this early stage should be on improving range, flexibility of the posterior capsular postural biomechanics, and restoring normal scapular motion.

Initially, ultrasonography to the posterior capsule followed by gentle passive prolonged stretch may be needed. Closely monitor ultrasonography use to avoid heating an inflamed tendon, which worsens the situation. Instruct the patient about proper posterior shoulder stretches with the scapula fixed, which should be performed after a period of aerobic exercise. Such exercise results in increasing the core body temperature. The increase in core temperature makes the tissues more extensible and allows for greater benefit from stretch. Each stretch should be held for a minimum of 30 seconds, although stretching for 1 minute is encouraged.

Postural biomechanics are important because poor posture (eg, excessive thoracic kyphosis and protracted shoulders) increases outlet narrowing, resulting in greater risk for rotator cuff impingement. Restoring normal scapular motion is also essential because the scapula is the platform upon which the GH joint rotates; thus, an unstable scapula can secondarily cause GH joint instability and resultant impingement. Scapular stabilization includes exercises such as wall push-ups and biofeedback (visual and tactile).

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