Below is a description of most common conditions for upper extremity pain. While I hope this info helps to provide some insight, it is not a substitute for a doctor’s visit. There are some other very serious reasons behind pain that may require immediate medical attention, so please don’t take the risk of self-diagnosing. Please see a physician like a Chiropractor who can differentiate between a musculoskeletal cause of your pain, and other more serious conditions.
Feel free to give us a call if you have questions or request a free consult on from this website.
Note that NERVE PAIN is addressed in a different section here.
Where's it Hurt?
The shoulder region is one of the most complicated structures in the body (biomechanically speaking). This is because so many other areas tie into the functionality of the shoulder. Shoulder pain can be produced by a wide variety of issues. Sometimes it isn’t even actually the shoulder that is the problem. In fact, when Tulsa patients tell me their shoulder hurts, my first job is to figure out exactly what part of the body they are referring to. Is it the front of the shoulder around the A/C joint? Is it the top of the shoulder in the upper trap area? Is it the pectoralis region? Is it the rotator cuff or glenohumeral joint? Is it the Scapula? Is it the underlying ribs? Is it actually radiating or referral pain coming from the neck? In no other region in the body are there so many mechanics to check.
Acromio-Clavicular (A/C) Joint
The shoulder girdle is not actually held onto the thoracic cage by any truly supportive or weight-bearing joint. Nope, unlike the pelvic girdle, it is all muscle that bears that burden. There is however one bone that connects the shoulder to the rest of the body. This would be the clavicle. The clavicle connects to the sternum at one end and to the shoulder blade at the other end. It is very important in helping to coordinate the complex movements and incredible range of motion of the shoulder.
The connection between the shoulder blade and the clavicle is termed the acromio-clavicular joint, or A/C joint for short. This joint is surprisingly mobile. If you think about it, it has to be in order for the scapula to move as much as it does. The connection between the clavicle and the scapula is made possible by a strong fibrous ligament called the acromioclavicular ligament (surprise surprise), and two other strong ligaments called the conoid and trapezoid ligaments. These three ligaments help to keep that A/C joint aligned and anchored.
It is common in certain types of trauma, like motor vehicle accidents and sports, for one or more of these ligaments to be torn. This is an A/C sprain. They are often graded by their severity and how many ligaments are involved. The worst ones need to be repaired surgically.
Sometimes repetitive type injuries can also create microdamage to the ligaments causing dysfunction and misalignment of the A/C joint. Either an acute trauma or repetitive chronic trauma can cause instability in the A/C joint and lead to osteoarthritis if left untreated.
If the A/C issue does not require surgery, then conservative physical medicine is warranted. If surgery is performed after a trauma, then physical medicine is warranted after a short healing/resting period. My approach is often a combination of ultrasound, taping, chiropractor upper extremity adjustments, and specific rehab.
Rotator Cuff Pathology
The rotator cuff complex is a group of muscles surrounding the shoulder joint. This includes the supraspinatus, the infraspinatus, the teres minor & major, and the subscapularis. These 5 muscles provide support and stability to the shoulder joint—which is one of the most mobile and therefore unstable joints in the body. It is a ball and socket joint with a big ball and a small socket. This joint would be very unstable if it did not have some means of keeping the ball centered in the socket. This is where those five muscles come in. They envelop the joint and pull the ball tightly into the cup. So, if these muscles become weak or inactive and/or are overloaded by a strong lifting maneuver, they can rip.
If the rotator cuff is compromised, then the joint will likely not stay centered throughout its movement. This can lead to clicking, popping, restricted motion, wear & tear, pain, and eventually degenerative changes. This is why it is so important to ensure proper rotator cuff health or recovery if injured. The most common cause for rotator cuff damage is overhead lifting. But, there are several more mechanisms of injury and much more at play than you might think. Many times a person will simply overload the rotator cuff causing a rip in the muscle or tendon. This can happen when lifting too much weight upwards, but can also happen while lowering something heavy from a high shelf. Other times, it is a repetitive injury that occurs over time. This can happen at the gym, or during a sport like baseball.
You may feel a discomfort or odd movement at the time of activity, but later feel the injury more severely. Sometimes it takes weeks or months for a person to notice significant changes. This is because while the damaged rotator cuff itself may not produce much pain, the resulting abnormal motion causes stress and inflammation that gets worse over time after the initial event.
Researchers are now providing evidence that rotator cuff injury may not happen in a vacuum. This group of muscles may be predisposed to injury in people who have abnormalities in the position of their shoulder blades. People who roll their shoulders forward and down may be putting their rotator cuff muscles in a vulnerable position where they are loaded under additional stress and therefore are prone to injury. You can see that this is true for yourself simply by trying the following:
Why is this? The shoulder blades control the angle of movement of your arms. If your shoulder blades are not positioned correctly, then chances are that your arms are going to have a much harder time moving overhead properly because you are having to fight at an abnormal angle and recruiting additional muscle strength to do so. This puts stress on the rotator cuff and predisposes it to damage. This is why it is often not just enough to address the rotator cuff, but to also retrain the scapula to work correctly again. If you don’t fix this part, you’re likely going to have another episode in the future and cause more damage.
Retraining the scapula usually means getting them to sit flatter on the ribcage along with correcting postural abnormalities of the cervical and thoracic spine (neck and upper back). chiropractic & physical therapy for shoulder are the mainstay of our treatment here at Reactivate. Even if surgery is needed, this treatment is still necessary to retrain the body and correct the underlying issue.
Sometimes the damage is too great, and requires surgical intervention. The general consensus is anything over 50% tear warrants surgery. Though I typically refer for surgical consult for large tears, severe loss of strength, or serious dysfunction that does not improve with conservative treatment. Even after surgery, it still needs to be rehabbed. Those muscles/tendons need treatment and the joint needs to be stabilized once again. Left unattended, rotator cuff problems typically lead to osteoarthritis or even frozen shoulder.
Subacromial refers to the area under the outer shoulder blade. Bursitis is inflammation of the bursa. Bursa are fluid filled sacs that reduce friction from neighboring structures. They are like tough water balloons that allow surfaces to glide past each other smoothly reducing the chances of damage. You have bursa throughout your body including right underneath the outer most part of the shoulder. This bursa is designed to reduce the friction between the bones and the tendons that lie between the shoulder blade and upper arm.
Bad mechanics in the shoulder can lead to damage of the underlying structures including the bursa. If the bursa is inflamed, it swells becoming larger and more painful as pressure and additional friction are created. Subacromial bursitis is often associated with shoulder impingement (addressed below) which can be a mechanism of damage for the bursa.
If you are going to fix the bursitis, you must improve the mechanics in the joint. This typically involves correcting postural abnormalities in the blade and neck/upper back region, manipulating the shoulder joint itself to improve motion and position, and treating any soft tissue abnormalities in the surrounding musculature. I also typically recommend we perform an injection into the shoulder with medication that decreases the inflammation and promotes healing. Usually we can get these bursa to calm down and return to normal using these methods.
If you feel a pinching sensation in your shoulder and/or resistance when you raise your arm up, then you may be experiencing shoulder impingement. Impingement occurs when the arm is lifted up and tendons are pinched between the head of the humerus (ball of the upper arm) and the underside of the acromion (hook of the shoulder blade).
This happens because the humerus is not moving correctly. The upper arm has a big ball on the end of it that fits into a socket on your shoulder blade. It is supposed to roll and glide downwards at the same time so that it stays centered inside the socket. Many people have a problem with this action due to an abnormal muscle activation pattern or imbalance. This causes the downward slide to be restricted and the consequence is the ball rolling up to the top portion of the socket. When the ball rolls up, it bangs into the top part of the shoulder blade where there is an overhanging structure called the acromion. Whatever is in between gets compressed. This is usually the supraspinatus tendon and/or the biceps tendon and/or the joint capsule.
Over time, this can create substantial damage and dysfunction in those tendons and can further drive bad biomechanics in the shoulder region producing inflammation and bursitis. Just like any other biomechanical problem, the idea is to reduce pain and inflammation, then correct the mechanics by retraining the body through rehab and manipulation.
There are a variety of tendinopathies that can occur in the shoulder region. Some of these are due to lifting injuries either acute or repetitive in nature. Some of these are due to impingement syndromes like the one described above. In all of the situations, abnormal biomechanics play a role in the dysfunction and damage done to the tendons that lead to these tendinopathies. The more common
tendinopathies include the rotator cuff complex, the biceps tendons (the biceps inserts into the shoulder region) and pectoralis tendon (both minor and major insert into shoulder region). Some are severe enough to require a surgical consult. Others can be dealt with conservatively. Typical treatment includes ultrasound to help heal and decrease inflammation, manipulation to correct joint mechanics, and rehab to correct muscular balance and movement patterns. Shoulder blade dynamics almost always need to be addressed as well.
While it is a little more rare and less serious to be dealing with a muscle strain in the shoulder area, they do happen, especially in athletes and weight lifters. This occurs when the muscles involved are overloaded. They can include the rotator cuff muscles, the deltoid, rhomboids, and pectoralis muscles. Sometimes the injury is more of a repetitive nature rather than an acute overload. These tend to
heal pretty well with ultrasound and basic rehab. Manipulation of the soft tissue and joints is also warranted.
Glenohumeral Arthritis & Frozen Shoulder
The glenohumeral joint is the shoulder joint. It is the connection between two bones: the glenoid fossa (a cup-shaped part of the shoulder blade), and the head of the humerus bone (upper arm bone). Bad biomechanics typically leads to this outcome. When I say bad biomechanics, I am referring to the position and movement in a joint. If you can imagine a hinge on a door, that hinge is supposed to come together straight and flush so that the door can move correctly. These two things (position and movement) are essential for the door to swing freely and avoid grinding and friction. This is also true of any joint in the body. Problems with position and movement lead to excessive stress, wear, and tear. Eventually the cartilage in the joint is worn down and arthritis sets in.
Osteoarthritis is the wear and tear disease of joints. There is pain, swelling, loss of joint space, deformity in the joint, bone spurs, and several other nasty things that occur in this process. Osteoarthritis is by far the most common kind of arthritis affecting the shoulder joint.
Long standing shoulder dysfunction or short-term dysfunction after major shoulder trauma can even lead to adhesive capsulitis aka frozen shoulder. This condition occurs when the ligaments/capsule around the shoulder become so inflamed and stiff that a person cannot move the shoulder joint. This is why it is so important to get to these problems early on. Don’t mess around with this stuff. Get it checked out ASAP by somebody that deals with biomechanical problems. The longer the problem has existed, the longer the treatment is and the less function we can recover.
So, how do we fix it? We must retrain the body to put that joint in the right position and move correctly again. Manipulation to free up restrictions and improve the position of the joints is first course. Therapies like electro-stimulation and ultrasound can be useful to decrease muscle spasm, pain and inflammation. Rehab to train the muscles to keep the proper position and movement are also essential. I also highly recommend that we do once weekly shoulder injections with medicines designed to deflame the joint and promote healing.
The labrum is the thin fibrocartilaginous lip around the cup of the shoulder socket. Its job is to help keep the head of the humerus (ball) centered in the shoulder socket. There are 3 kinds of labral tears that can occur. They are usually associated with some sort of shoulder trauma.
The most common labral tear is called a SLAP lesion (Superior Labrum Anterior Posterior). It’s basically a lesion in the top part of the labrum from front to back. These are graded in severity depending which structures are involved to which degree. The SLAP lesion can result in instability of the biceps tendon which is attached to the top part of the labrum.
The Bankhart lesion is less common and involves the lower half of the labrum and a ligament called the inferior glenohumeral ligament. This is often seen with shoulder dislocations.
The Bennet lesion is the least common. This occurs to the back part of the shoulder joint and is often associated with rotator cuff tears in the back part of the shoulder joint.
Labral tears often require surgery. It is necessary to acquire advanced imaging like an MRI to find these lesions and make a determination if a surgical consult is necessary. Even after surgery, rehab is still required to treat the biomechanical dysfunction and return as much function as possible to the area.
Rib pain can also express itself as shoulder pain especially in the ribs underneath or near the shoulder blade. I can’t tell you how many times a shoulder complaint actually turns out to be a rib dysfunction. Because the ribs travel right underneath the shoulder blades, it can often be confused for a shoulder blade issue. It is pretty common to see rib heads subluxated (moved out of place) at their connection with the thoracic spine. This sends sharp or stabbing pain around that rib under the shoulder blade and sometimes into the front of the rib cage. Sometimes people even think they are having a heart attack because the pain seems to shoot through their chest. People typically complain of problems breathing with rib dysfunction. Sometimes all that rib requires is a gentle manipulation. Other times we need to dig deeper to figure out why that rib head is subluxating. You can read more on rib pain under the Spine & Ribs Section.
Pain can actually refer down into the shoulder region from damage to structures in the neck or by means of damage or contracture in the muscles connecting the neck and shoulder.
The levator scapula muscle likes to refer pain into the shoulder blade in overuse injuries. It is a muscle that connects the neck to the shoulder. I like to think of this muscle as the first responder. If you have a problem in the neck (like a torn disc), this muscle often shrugs up in an attempt to guard and restrict motion. It may be a neck problem that is the real issue.
A facet joint can refer pain down into the top of the shoulder. This is the joint at the back part of the spine. Irritation of these joints in the region of the neck and upper back can lead to shoulder pain.
Organ pathology can also refer to the shoulder region. Ulcers, gallstones, heart problems, and lung pathology can all produce radiating pain into the shoulder. These sources of referral pain must all be considered.
Radiation indicates irritation or damage to the nerveroots exiting the spine. If one of the nerves in the neck is being pinched, it can send pain down into the shoulder or even the arm or hand. People with true radiating pain will have associated neck pain. They may feel electric-like sensations in the upper extremity, or possibly burning. There may be associated numbness and tingling or weakness.
Nerves are usually entrapped at the bony exit between the vertebra compressing or irritating either the nerve root (branch off of the spinal cord), or in more severe cases, the cord itself could be compressed inside of the spine. Compression can be bony like in stenosis from arthritis, or compression could occur because of a herniated disc. There are some other more rare, but more serious diseases that can compress nerves including cancer or infection and a good Chiropractic physician always bears this in mind when performing an examination.
Arthritis & Olecranon Bursitis
Although the elbow is generally fairly stable, mechanical instability can result from trauma and overuse injuries. The misalignment can result in abnormal wear and tear on the elbow joint leading to inflammation. If the inflammation occurs in the joint, we would call that an arthritis. If the inflammation occurs in the fluid containing bursa, we would diagnose that as bursitis. The two are not mutually exclusive.
The elbow joint is made of three bones. The humerus (upper arm bone), the radius (outside lower arm bone) and the ulna (inside lower arm bone). These three bones come together at the elbow to form three different joints: humerus-radius, humerus-ulna, and Radius-ulna. The connection allows for bending of the elbow and rotation. The first two joints are synovial...they are bathed in fluid and surrounded by a capsule. The latter is simply a fibrous connection between the ulna and radius. Arthritis is most common in the connection between the humerus and ulna that does the majority of bending action. Arthritis can also develop in the humerus-radius connection that allows for rotation. You may notice popping or clicking and pain with movement. Arthritis can be caused by non-mechanical factors such as metabolic disease, auto-immune disease, or infection. These need to be ruled out and would be addressed medically if suspected.
Bursa are sacs of fluid around joints and areas of friction. These structures reduce friction. If there is inflammation in the bursa around the elbow (olecranon bursitis), then the bursa enlarges. You may notice a bump behind the elbow with painful restricted motion. Bursitis is typically mechanical in nature and a result of abnormal wear and tear just as arthritis.
Arthritis and bursitis are treated with modalities and medicines intended to reduce swelling and therapies intended to improve the mechanics.
Various tendons around the elbow are prone to injury and repetitive overuse. The triceps, biceps, and brachioradialis muscles are the more common culprits. This typically occurs in weight lifters and manual laborers. Not only are the tendons involved, but the surrounding connective tissue which the tendon inserts onto can become painfully irritated. This is particularly common of the biceps aponeurosis. Rest and ice are good initial approaches. Machines such as electro-stim and ultrasound can also be helpful to decrease pain, spasm, and inflammation. Trigger point injections are an excellent method as well as any soft tissue methods such as scraping or massage. These problems tend to heal given the chance, but you may have to modify your workout or work methods to avoid future irritation.
If you have pain on the outside of your elbow and into the forearm, you may be suffering from Lateral Epicondylitis, commonly known as “tennis elbow”. This is really less of a problem with the elbow and more a problem with the muscles in the forearm. These muscles run all the way from the hand and inserts onto the top and outside of the elbow region. This group is particularly active in racquet sports and can become damaged (especially at its insertion on the elbow) with repetitive overuse extension of the wrist (back-hand swing): hence the name “tennis elbow”.
Tennis elbow typically affects 30 to 50 year-olds, but it is also common for younger people to acquire this issue especially those who are just beginning a racquet sport like tennis. But, it’s not just racquet sports that can cause the issue, any activity that requires repetitive or forceful extension of the wrist can damage the extensor muscles leading to tennis elbow. Sufferers of tennis elbow typically feel pain with wrist extension, point tenderness in the forearm near the outside of the elbow, and even experience weakness in the hand or wrist (for example opening a jar, turning a doorknob, or shaking hands).
I typically treat lateral epicondylitis with soft tissue techniques; ultrasound or electro stimulation; manipulation of the hand, wrist, and elbow; taping; splinting; and a series of stretches and exercises. Of course, it is wise to discontinue the inciting activity, at least temporarily. The goal of treatment is to realign the fibers of the muscles and allow it to heal, then ensure proper biomechanics through manipulation and rehab.
If you think you have tennis elbow, please do not hesitate to call us. The longer you let this problem go, the more damage occurs, and the harder it is to fix.
Also known as Medial Epicondylitis, Golfer’s Elbow is a repetitive type soft tissue injury of the forearm muscles that creates tension and pain on the inside of the elbow. Besides pain and muscle tension in the forearm, golfer’s elbow can also produce numbness and weakness in the forearm and hand. Tennis elbow is typically caused by overuse of the forearm muscles responsible for gripping and turning the wrist palm downwards (pronation). Constant tension pulls on the muscle’s insertion on the elbow creating inflammation and pain. This does not just happen to golfers. Any activity that overuses the gripping and wrist muscles can cause golfer’s elbow.
Risk factors include age more than 40, obesity, and smoking. Treatment of golfer’s elbow typically includes soft tissue work to the muscles, stretches, exercises, manipulation of the wrist and elbow, ultrasound, and electro-muscle stimulation. Habit modification is also recommended. At times an assessment of the offending activity is necessary to evaluate how these activities can be modified.
Your hand probably has more structures in it than you realize. There are 27 bones, about 30 joints, and a complicated array of nerves, muscles and ligaments involved with movement. For those having hand pain, I’d like to share some of the more common reasons your hand might be hurting.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is a nerve entrapment syndrome that occurs at the wrist. The bones of the wrist make a C-shape like an arch that allows tendons, nerves and vessels to pass from the forearm to the hand. This is the carpal tunnel. If the shape of this tunnel changes or collapses, well then you can imagine that the things that pass through the tunnel can become compressed. This leads to a particular pattern of pain and numbness in the palm, thumb, index, middle, and half of the ring finger. You may notice weakness in the hand, uncoordinated movements, or dropping objects. Fixing this problem usually involves repositioning the bones with manipulation to form the arch again, then doing stretches and exercises to train the wrist to keep the correct shape of the arch. If you want to avoid surgery, try conservative approaches with physical medicine first.
Ulnar Tunnel Syndrome
Ulnar Tunnel Syndrome is another nerve entrapment syndrome, though less common than carpal tunnel syndrome, the idea is the same. There is a tunnel on the side of the hand called the “tunnel of Guyon” and the ulnar nerve passes through it. If the shape of the hand changes, or if there is trauma or inflammation, then this can affect this space and compress the nerve. Ulnar Tunnel Syndrome causes pain and numbness in the pinky and ring finger. We fix this the same way… we reposition the bones with manipulation and retrain the muscles in the hand to hold the position.
De Quervain’s Tenosynoviti
De Quervain’s Tenosynovitis is a mouthful to say, but it’s simple really. There is a set of tendons that cross the wrist in order to move the thumb around. These tendons are covered by a sheath that helps them move smoothly. The tendons and the sheath can become inflamed and irritated. This can lead to scar tissue formation which can cause problems with the tendon sliding inside of this sheath. Pt’s usually experience pain on the side of the wrist at the base of the thumb and across the wrist sometimes into part of the forearm. My treatment for this usually involves ultrasound, soft tissue techniques, manipulation, exercise, and home instructions for icing and splinting.
Ganglion Cysts are also known as bible bumps. They are soft, non-cancerous, but sometimes painful bumps that occur in the hand and wrist as a result of inflammation of the joint or tendon. This inflammation stimulates the over-production of fluid. This can lead to little outpouchings that stick up underneath the skin. Treating the underlying cause of the inflammation is important. This means assessing the hand and improving the mechanics to diminish the cause of the inflammation. Sometimes these go away on their own. Sometimes the go away and come back. Some people have them surgically removed only for them to grow again. So even if you have had surgery or plan on getting surgery, the mechanical dysfunction can persist creating another cyst. Therefore, you should address the underlying dysfunction to truly correct the problem.
Sprains and Strains
Sprains are ligament damage while strains are muscle damage. This is common in falls or sports injuries. A fairly common injury is the classic “stubbed finger”. This typically results in damage to the capsules in the finger joints. Depending on how old the damage is, the treatment varies. The acronym PRICE is great for remembering Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation for acute injuries (recent). But, It is often not enough just to let the damage heal on its own. I can’t tell you how many conditions I end up treating that are old injuries left untreated that turn into osteoarthritis after several years. If the joints are not aligned and a proper recovery is not made, those joints end up having dysfunction that cause excess wear and tear over the years. Just like a misaligned tire, the damage is worse the
more you use it. Get these taken care of sooner rather than later.
Arthritis is often the result of an old injury, as mentioned above, or a repetitive-type microtrauma, osteoarthritis is the leading kind of arthritis we find affecting the joints of the hand. The base of the thumbs is usually the most commonly affected area followed by the wrist joints. The second most common type of arthritis is rheumatoid arthritis. This typically affects both hands and affects the smaller joints of the fingers first. Other types of arthritis like gout affect the hands to differing degrees. Treatment for these different arthritides (plural for arthritis) varies depending on the type, degree, and how long it’s been around.
Trigger Finger is named for the locked position of the finger mimicking the action of pulling a trigger. The lock happens because scar tissue creates a ball that becomes entrapped when the finger is flexed. Imagine a break cable on a bicycle. It is a wire that goes through a rubber or plastic casing. Now imagine that there is a knot in the metal cable and a kink in the casing. The knot gets stuck in the kink and cannot slide through the casing. This is exactly what happens in trigger finger. The cable is the finger tendon, the casing is the sheath of the tendon, and the knot is the scar tissue. The scar tissue causes the tendon to get stuck and not be able to slide through the sheath. This is quite similar to De Quervain’s above. This scar tissue needs to be broken down again for the tendon to be able to slide through and do its job.
If you are having hand pain, we would be happy to see you. We will determine the cause and the appropriate treatment for your condition. Most of these problems get worse with time and become more difficult to treat. So please don’t wait, especially if there has been an injury.
Copyright © 2022 Reactivate Therapy - All Rights Reserved.
Located at 83rd & Harvard