For young athletes, summer is prime time to get out there to train, compete or even just to engage in sport for fun and relaxation with friends. However, increased sporting engagement also means a rise in shoulder instability cases.
It is recognised that a trauma to the shoulder, such as a fall, can cause shoulder instability and many people know someone who has dislocated a shoulder.
However popular summer sports such as swimming, volleyball, tennis and cricket, can lead to shoulder instability, due to repetitive actions involving arm rotation. Shoulder instability can be painful and it can also put you out of action.
What is shoulder instability?
Shoulder instability presents itself in numerous ways including a full dislocation, a partial dislocation (subluxation) and mild looseness (laxity). It occurs most dramatically when the ball (head) of the upper arm (humerus) is forced out of the socket (glenoid). In doing so, the ball can tear a ring (the labrum) that runs around the socket The problem is that once shoulder instability occurs, it is likely to recur. In repetitive sports, the injury to the labrum can be less acute and develops over a period of time.
There are a number of ways to classify shoulder instability. These include the cause of the instability – trauma, natural laxity, poor muscle patterning – the direction of the instability – anterior, posterior or multidirectional – the degree of the instabilty and the anatomic site of any injury within the shoulder.
The most common problem experienced by young athletes is anterior instability. It occurs largely in men aged between 18 and 25 and accounts for approximately 85% to 95% of shoulder instability cases. The most likely cause is trauma causing a complete dislocation, though subluxations are also common. If there is a complete dislocation, patients can sometimes relocate the shoulder themselves, however often they need to attend hospital to have it reduced.
In the case of a subluxation, the shoulder only partially comes out and then slides back into joint by itself. This can still be painful and result in ongoing symptoms, such as pain when trying to rotate the shoulder. Very occasionally, the instability can be associated with altered sensation within the arm.
At the London Shoulder Specialists, we first assess the cause of the instability, as to whether it is the result of a trauma, natural joint looseness (hyperlaxity) or due to poor muscle control. It may be possible to utilise physiotherapy to help strengthen and coordinate your shoulder muscles and thereby reduce any instability symptoms, or the risk of a further significant event. We are often asked about the use of braces and, in certain circumstances, these can be helpful.
However, particularly in the younger population, surgery may be the best course of action to reduce the risks of further problems.
Surgery could reduce need for follow-up procedures
Research carried out by the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, has shown first time dislocation surgery significantly lowers the risk of re-injury and reduces the need for follow up procedures.
Within the study, 121 patients, with an average age of 19, were examined on average, 51 months after surgery. The group included 68 patients who had a first-time dislocation and 53 who had experienced several dislocations after initial non-operative treatment. Results showed that just 29% of first-time dislocation patients experienced further shoulder instability issues after arthroscopic surgery, compared to 62% in the patients who hadn’t undergone surgery.
This was a long-term, in-depth study which recorded data from 2003 to 2013. The results clearly highlight the benefits of first-time surgery for shoulder instability cases, providing hope for young athletes. It supports a number of other studies, which have shown similar findings. Indeed many of these have shown even better results for patients undergoing surgery. One area that has improved the results of surgery is better selection of patients and matching patients to the surgical options.
Most patients who suffer from first-time shoulder instability are understandably worried. This new research eases that worry and demonstrates that sometimes surgery can be the best way forward to protect their athletic career.