Are you suffering from SLAP shoulder?

Date Published: 
January 5, 2018

It sounds strange and, no, it’s not caused by getting slapped in the shoulder. Before you let your sense of humor run away with you, you should know that it’s no joking matter. SLAP shoulder, also known as SLAP tear, can be quite painful and it can limit your mobility. Young or old, you can be diagnosed with SLAP shoulder, and that’s why we’re going to look at what it means and what you need to know to help yourself or someone you care about.

SLAP is an abbreviation. It stands for superior labrum anterior and posterior tear. It’s an injury to the labrum. The labrum is located in the shoulder. It’s a ring of cartilage that surrounds the socket of the shoulder joint and it also serves as a point of attachment for many of the ligaments that you have in your shoulder.

The labrum has two jobs. It serves to stabilize the shoulder joint and its movement. It also helps in deepening the socket of the joint. One of the challenges here is that the area where SLAP tears occur in the labrum is particularly at risk of injury because blood circulation isn’t the greatest there. That makes healing more difficult, as compared to other parts of the labrum that tend to heal more easily because of a stronger supply of blood, which improves healing.

The causes of a SLAP tear can range from acute trauma to damage as a result of repetitive shoulder motion. Athletes who participate in sports that involve throwing or lifting or using a racket or a golf club are a big risk group, because any sport that involves the shoulder in repeated motion will leave you vulnerable to SLAP shoulder over time.

The risk factors also include jobs or hobbies that involve a repetitive shoulder motion. Injury of this nature can also occur from falling or a car accident. Specific injuries can also be the culprit. Shoulder dislocations are a classic example of an injury that cause SLAP shoulder.

Just as important a factor is aging, which makes sense when you think about it, because just like these repetitive injuries we’ve been talking about, when you look at the big picture, you use your shoulder for many tasks over the course of a lifetime. Logically, you can see how the wearing down of the labrum will slowly occur as time passes. That’s why people over 40 can experience a SLAP tear from the ongoing process that occurs with aging.

The symptoms of SLAP shoulder can include pain when you move your shoulder or when you feel pain when your shoulder is in specific positions. You may feel a sense of a popping, grinding, locking or catching issue in your shoulder. Another sign is if you notice you have less shoulder strength or experience a decrease in your typical range of motion. Another symptom is the feeling of pain when you lift something and that pain may also be experienced or become more noticeable when you lift something over your head.

Because the symptoms of SLAP shoulder are very similar to a variety of other shoulder problems, you need professional evaluation. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, don’t wait to make an appointment with a medical professional to get a proper diagnosis.

Before you go to your appointment, you need to be organized with the proper information. Write down the details of what you’ve been experiencing. Remember to include when the problem began. Did you injure yourself recently? Did you fall? Do you have an old injury to your shoulder?

Have you experienced any recent changes to your activity level that involve your shoulder? Does your job involve repeatedly using your shoulder? How about a recent special project you’ve been doing that has involved shoulder movements? Do you participate in a hobby or sport that involves your shoulder?

All of the details you can share will help your doctor get a better picture of your situation. Don’t forget to include as complete a description as possible of exactly where the pain is occurring and anything you may have tried to alleviate the pain, including any medications, using heat or cold or any type of treatment. Complete the information you are compiling with a complete list of any medicines, vitamins and supplements you might be taking, and include all your health issues.

Expect that your doctor will conduct a thorough exam to determine the exact nature of your problem. Your doctor might include some diagnostic tests to get a full picture. If your doctor diagnoses you with SLAP shoulder, don’t be surprised if you are referred to a physical therapist.

If you’re referred to a physical therapist, expect your first appointment will involve a conversation and evaluation by your physical therapist, who will also work with your doctor to get a complete picture of your situation. As with your doctor, the details are critical to create a customized treatment plan to help you achieve the best possible outcome.

Your physical therapy may involve a specific set of exercises designed to restore movement and strengthen your shoulder. The approach may include flexibility and range-of-motion exercises. Keep in mind that the plan devised for you is aimed at strengthening the muscles that support your shoulder to relieve pain, prevent further injury and improve movement.

It’s the totality of the approach that gets you on track again. Expect that your program of physical therapy could last from three to six months or longer, depending on your needs. Remember that everyone has different circumstances and issues that may impact recovery and what will work for you.

If this non-surgical approach does not work for you, it is possible that your doctor could recommend surgery.

As the new year gets under way, I look forward to our monthly meetings here through Coastal Point and working together to help you get the help you need. My wish for 2018 for each of you is a year of discovery. Discover what you can do to make your quality of life the best it can be, no matter what your situation.

Here’s to making your resolution and sticking to it by promising yourself you’re going to be active, look for opportunities to improve your health and living each day to the fullest.

Bob Cairo is a licensed physical therapist at Tidewater Physical Therapy. He can be reached by calling (302) 537-7260.