If you have been following our blog for any amount of time, you’ve become familiar with the wide variety of joints and areas of our boney spine that can be affected by osteoarthritis. From your hands to your toes, any movable joint is subject to this condition of wear and tear on the end surfaces of the bones and their slick, cushiony covering, the cartilage. The older we get, the more likely we are to develop osteoarthritis somewhere in our bodies, including the shoulder area. Seems the magic age is sometime after 50, but if you have sustained a traumatic injury to your shoulder or have the rarer form of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), you could develop the tell-tail symptoms of arthritis-pain, swelling and reduced movement at the shoulder.
I’ve worked with many students and patients over the years with arthritis, and I will mention that the shoulder area is less commonly affected than say the knees, hips or spine. But it does show up now and again. Turns out there are actually two joints in the lateral shoulder area that can develop arthritis.
The first one is where a finger-like projection of the shoulder blade or scapula meets the far end of your collarbone or clavicle at what is technically referred to as the acromioclavicular joint (the AC joint). You can actually feel to the top connection of this joint if you trace your collarbone from your breastbone toward your shoulder area. You’ll note a sudden drop off as you move laterally. That’s where the two bones meet. Arthritis in this joint usually refers pain to the front of the shoulder area.
|Shoulder Joint from Gray's Anatomy|
|Humerous and Scapula from Gray's Anatomy|
Just as we discussed in arthritis of the hip, even with the abnormal changes to the joint that accompany arthritis, it is still essential to keep mobility in the affected joints. In the situation where symptoms are already present, you will want to proceed slowly and mindfully as you begin to experiment with yoga postures that are exclusively non-weight bearing (at least at first). Many of the standing poses, such as Triangle, Extended Side Angle (being cautious not to bear too much weight with the bottom arm for both of those), Warrior 1, 2 and 3 would all be reasonable choices.
Poses that involve more pressure around the shoulder joint, in which there are additional rotational forces, such as Prayer position behind the back, or Eagle arms, may not be appropriate, as they could more likely aggravate the joint than help it. However, working with a teacher, you may gradually be able to add in more complex arm movements if your symptoms stay quiet. Versions of poses you would be likely to encounter in class, such as the ubiquitous Downward-Facing Dog, may be added later if you are progressing, with wall versions, such as Half Downward-Facing Dog at the Wall (see here). And since it is not unusual for the muscles around the affected joint to be atrophied from lack of use when the joint is initially inflamed, holding the arm positions, like Warrior 2 arms, for 30-60 seconds can add strengthening of the muscles to the goal of maintaining mobility in the joint.
In addition, the pain-diminishing effects of pranayama and meditation practices could be very helpful along with your physical poses, and could be substituted for asana during times when your shoulder symptoms flare up and resting your body makes more sense for a while. And, as always, we welcome your comments and experiences with the topics we share with you. So if you have some yoga insights on arthritis of the shoulders, we are all ears (and shoulders, of course!).