Whether it’s a tennis swing that causes a sudden tearing sensation in your shoulder or a slip and fall on the ice that leaves you unable to lift your arm, shoulder injuries are a common problem for adults 50 and older, doctors say. That’s largely because of aging-related changes in this body part, sometimes coupled with decades of overuse from work and play.
On the plus side, shoulder specialists say there’s plenty you can do to reduce the risk of injury and maintain function so that you can keep on enjoying your favorite activities and doing everyday tasks.
Why older shoulders are more at risk
The structure most vulnerable to damage in older shoulders is the rotator cuff, a group of muscles and tendons that surround the joint and keep the head of the upper arm in the shoulder socket.
“Mostly, these are a combination of age-related degeneration, overuse and macro trauma, where someone does something to their shoulder. It’s rare that it’s just an acute injury,” says Gerald R. Williams Jr., M.D., a shoulder specialist at the Philadelphia-based Rothman Orthopaedic Institute.
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Fractures of the bones in the shoulder, often caused by falls, are the second-most common type of shoulder injury among 50-plus adults, according to Williams.
While tennis players and other athletes sometimes develop shoulder problems from overuse, a sedentary lifestyle is often the cause, according to Jamil Neme, M.D., an assistant professor at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine and a sports medicine expert at SLUCare who specializes in the nonsurgical treatment of injuries.
What you can do to keep your shoulders healthy
Although aging makes you more vulnerable to injury, it’s possible to reduce the risk of getting hurt with the right amount and type of exercise, especially if you also change some habits and pay more attention to how you do some activities, experts say. And as Neme explains, working to maintain healthy shoulders has benefits besides just injury prevention. By maintaining a good range of motion, you’ll be able to continue playing tennis or golf, or doing other activities you enjoy, for years to come.
Here are five expert tips for taking care of your shoulders.
1. Build up your shoulders.
Strengthening the muscles around your shoulder will help keep it stable and protect you from injury. But you don’t need elaborate gym equipment to do it. Williams is big on doing exercises with elastic bands, which provide a gradual, steady increase in resistance during a movement. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons offers this rotator cuff and shoulder conditioning program, which includes 18 exercises that target a range of different muscle groups crucial for shoulder health. The routine can be used either for recovering from an injury or maintaining shoulder health.
2. Work on flexibility.
Daily stretching can help maintain shoulder flexibility and a good range of motion, both of which provide some protection against injury, according to Williams. That’s why he and Neme recommend their patients practice yoga, which also improves strength and balance — both of which help prevent falls that can cause fractures.
3. Always warm up.
If you show up at the tennis court three minutes before you’re scheduled for a match, and just take off your jacket and start playing, you’re practically asking for shoulder trouble. “When you’re going to take part in activities, warm up first,” Williams says. A pre-activity routine might include some cardio work, such as jumping jacks, plus some of the stretching and rotator cuff exercises you do in your fitness workouts.
4. Practice moderation.
While exercise is good for your shoulders, overzealousness — especially coupled with poor technique — can increase your injury risk, Williams notes. For example, putting your shoulder in an extreme position and then loading it with resistance can subject your rotator cuff to a tremendous amount of force — possibly more than it can withstand. “Let’s say you’re doing a push-up,” he says. “It’s probably better not to take your chest all the way down to the floor, because your shoulders are significantly extended, and then you push your entire body weight up. You’d be better off stopping where your elbows are parallel with your body.”
And don’t push yourself to extremes with the weights, no matter what you see fitness buffs doing on YouTube. “To most people, what I would say is, just increase your intensity gradually,” Williams adds. Taking more time off between workouts for rest and building some easy days into your routine are also good for injury prevention.
5. Improve your ergonomics.
If you use a computer, how you sit at your desk can make a big difference. Repetitive activity — even something as seemingly harmless as using a computer mouse — can affect the shoulder. “You’d be better off having your computer table relatively high, so your shoulder is not extended all the time,” Williams says. Sitting up straight is also important, since slumping in your chair can result in tight muscles and affect how your shoulders move, Neme says.
Patrick J. Kiger is a contributing writer for AARP. He has written for a wide variety of publications, including the Los Angeles Times Magazine, GQ and Mother Jones, as well as the websites of the Discovery Channel and National Geographic.