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The ABCs of Shoulder Injuries

From chronic shoulder pain to sports-related injuries that require immediate action, shoulder problems plague many patients. Here's what you need to know about shoulder injury and your treatment options.

Shoulder injuries run a wide gamut of age, cause, pain level and treatment options. In today’s world where many people work desk jobs, almost everyone experiences a certain amount of shoulder pain throughout their life. So how can you know when it’s time to book a massage or when it’s time to call the doctor? Here are a few things to consider as well as what you need to know about your possible treatment options.

What kind of shoulder pain requires treatment?

In the world of shoulder injuries, it’s easiest to consider them in two categories: acute and chronic.


Acute shoulder injuries are those that come as a result of a fall, an accident or a sports injury. They are, in short, shoulder injuries caused by trauma to the body and shoulder region. This is the most common group of injuries that are good candidates for surgical intervention. Think things like acute rotator cuff tears, fractures, etc.


Chronic shoulder injuries or chronic shoulder pain, on the other hand, are conditions that have developed over years. These can be bony cartilage problems like arthritis or they can be degenerative as well, such as degenerative rotator cuff tears. Chronic shoulder injuries can be more difficult to pinpoint cause than acute injuries, but sometimes can have a wider range of treatment and pain management options than acute injuries as well.

No specific demographic is more likely to wind up with a shoulder injury than another, and no matter what kind of injury you’re dealing with, medical attention is recommended when the pain is interfering with your daily life. Christopher Kim, MD sports medicine specialist at The Iowa Clinic notes that athletes in high-contact sports do have higher instances of shoulder injuries than non-athletes or those in lower-impact sports.

“There’s no proven formula, and we see anyone and everyone for both acute and chronic shoulder issues, but when your profession or main extracurricular activity includes a lot of high-impact moments, it can be more common to see shoulder and other bone and joint injuries in that field.”

How do you know when it’s time for surgery?

Short answer: There is always a non-surgical treatment option for pain management. The long answer, however, is a little more complicated than that. While shoulder surgery isn’t always the answer to healing a shoulder injury, the risks involved in shoulder surgery must be heavily considered. That’s why, even when surgery may be the recommended route, Dr. Kim notes that there is always a non-surgical alternative for treatment and pain management. If a patient chooses to forgo surgery when it is the recommended course of treatment, the risk of reinjury or a worsened injury is often much higher.

“Of course there’s always a non-surgical route. But for me it’s really about making sure the patient understands the full scope of risks and benefits associated with each treatment option. There are certainly risks with shoulder surgeries, but there are also risks to not having surgery, too. My goal is to make sure each patient is fully informed and completely understands so they can make the best choice for their life and, more importantly, their quality of life long term,” Dr. Kim said.

Knowing when it’s time for surgery is a personal decision that should be made based on your specific injury case alongside your full team of care providers. The first step to deciding if surgery is an option or the right one for you is meeting with a specialist to receive an assessment. You can schedule an appointment with Dr. Kim online or contact The Iowa Clinic for more information.

What to expect when you see a doctor for your shoulder injury

When you see a specialist for your shoulder injury or chronic shoulder pain, you should expect just to spend a large portion of the first assessment discussing your current condition. Dr. Kim notes that understanding the full scope of the injury and its impact on your mobility, lifestyle and other factors is an incredibly important step to determining what treatment plan will work best.

“The shoulder is a complex joint and there are a lot of things that can factor into a shoulder injury. How we treat each patient is very individual to that particular patient, so we work hard to ensure we have all the information we need to come up with the best plan possible,” Dr. Kim said.

Things like lifestyle and livelihood will factor into the treatment plan, and even if surgery is the recommended option, Dr. Kim notes that there is always also a non-surgical choice for pain management. At the end of the day, it comes down to weighing the benefits and understanding the risk of re-injury or worsened injury if you choose a non-surgical route.

What does recovery after shoulder surgery look like?

There’s no easy way around it: shoulder surgery recovery is a lengthy and intense process. The typical recovery period for shoulder surgery is 4 to 6 months. For athletes, Dr. Kim said that while the recovery time is grueling and can take an athlete out for an entire season, understanding the risk of not undergoing surgery is a critical component to that decision.

The bulk of your recovery time after shoulder surgery will be spent on physical therapy exercises and resting well. These two components and how you work the recovery routine at home as well as in the office for your physical therapy sessions will determine how well and how quickly your recovery progresses.

“That’s one thing I always try to stress with my surgery patients,” Dr. Kim said, “Is that if they don’t do the work at home, they’re going to make things harder on themselves. Physical therapy is such an important part of the recovery process, and we don’t have full control over that. The patient has to be as committed to their recovery as we are for it to go smoothly and for full mobility to be restored.”

Should I treat my shoulder injury?

At the end of the day, whether or not you do something about your shoulder pain is up to you. However, Dr. Kim says that timing is of the essence when it comes to treatment and recovery options. The longer a patient waits to get assessed, the less effective treatment may be. In the case of a fracture or traumatic shoulder injury, less than two weeks is the ideal time frame to see a specialist, receive a diagnosis and decide on a treatment plan.

When soft tissue injury is involved, seeking treatment within 6 weeks is recommended and preferred. The longer a shoulder injury goes untreated, the higher the likelihood of complications, additional or ancillary injuries and the lower the chance that your treatment will be as effective as possible.

At The Iowa Clinic, specialists like Dr. Kim work alongside your other care providers to understand the full picture of your health, risk-factors and more with our Coordinated Care model. This 360-degree view of your healthcare history ensures the treatment options for your specific scenario are appropriately tailored to your individual health needs. Contact The Iowa Clinic to schedule your shoulder assessment with Dr. Kim today.

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