An unstable shoulder joint can be the cause or the result of a labral tear. “Labral” refers to the glenoid labrum—a ring of cartilage that surrounds the base of the shoulder joint. Injuries to the labrum are common, can cause a great deal of pain, and may make it hard to move your arm. A labral tear can occur from a fall or from repetitive activities or sports that require you to use your arms raised above your head. At Progressive Physical Therapy some labral tears can be managed with physical therapy by our highly-skilled therapists; in severe cases, surgery may be required to repair the torn labrum.

What is a shoulder labral tear? 

The glenoid labrum provides extra support for the shoulder joint, helping to keep it in place. A labral tear occurs when part of this ring is disrupted, frayed, or torn. Tears may lead to shoulder pain, an unstable shoulder joint, and, in severe cases, dislocation of the shoulder. Likewise, a shoulder dislocation can result in labral tears.

When you think of the shoulder joint, picture a golf ball (the head of the upper-arm bone, or humerus) resting on a golf tee (the glenoid fossa, a shallow cavity or socket located on the shoulder blade, or scapula). The labrum provides a rim for the socket (golf tee) so that the humerus (golf ball) does not easily fall off. If the labrum is torn, it is harder for the humerus to stay in the socket. The end result is that the shoulder joint becomes unstable and prone to injury.

Because the biceps tendon attaches to the shoulder blade through the labrum, labral tears can occur when you put extra strain on the biceps muscle, such as when you throw a ball. Tears also can result from pinching or compressing the shoulder joint when the arm is raised overhead. There are 2 types of tears:

  • Traumatic labral tears usually happen because of a single incident, such as a shoulder dislocation or an injury from heavy lifting. People who use their arms raised over their heads—such as weight lifters, gymnasts, and construction workers—are more likely to have traumatic labral tears. Activities the force is at a distance from the shoulder, such as striking a hammer or swinging a racquet, also can create shoulder joint problems.
  • Nontraumatic labral tears most often occur because of muscle weakness or shoulder joint instability. When the muscles that stabilize the shoulder joint are weak, more stress is put on the labrum, leading to a tear. People with nontraumatic tears tend to have more “looseness” or greater mobility throughout all their joints, which might be a factor in the

How can a physical therapist help?

When shoulder labral tears cause minor symptoms but don’t cause shoulder instability, they usually are treated with physical therapy. Your physical therapist will:

  • Educate you about positions or activities to avoid
  • Tailor a treatment plan for your recovery
  • Design specific shoulder strengthening exercises, such as external rotation and internal rotation exercises, to help support the joint and decrease strain on the glenoid labrum
  • Design stretching exercises, such as the cross-body stretch or the doorway stretch, to help improve the function of the muscles surrounding the shoulder
  • Perform a special technique called manual therapy to decrease pain and improve movement

In more severe cases, when conservative treatments are unable to completely relieve the symptoms of a labral tear, surgery may be required to re-attach the torn labrum. Following surgery, your physical therapist will show you how to slowly and safely return to your daily activities.

A surgically repaired labrum takes 9 to 12 months to completely heal. Immediately following the repair, you should avoid putting excessive stress or strain on the repaired labrum and should increase stress to your shoulder slowly over time. Your physical therapist is trained to gradually introduce activity in a safe manner to allow you to return to your usual activities without re-injuring the repaired tissues.

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