Sub-Acromial Shoulder ImpingementSub-Acromial Shoulder Impingement Explained

Functional Anatomy of the Shoulder

The shoulder complex is made up of the gleno-humeral (GH), acromio-clavicular (AC) and sterno-clavicular (SC) joints as well as the articulation between the scapula and the thorax. The GH is enclosed by a loose and shallow joint capsule which promotes a large range of movement at the cost of less joint stability. This lack of static joint stability means that the shoulder complex relies heavily on the rotator cuff muscles for dynamic joint stability as well as control of scapula-thoracic rhythm for optimal shoulder biomechanics and range of movement.

What is the Sub-Acromial Space?

The sub-acromial space refers to the space underneath the acromion of the scapula and the head of the humerus. The tendons of the supraspinatus and long head of biceps muscle pass through this joint space as well as the sub-acromial bursa.

What is Sub-Acromial Shoulder Impingement?

Sub-acromial shoulder impingement refers to the tendons of either or both of supraspinatus and long head of biceps getting compressed in the sub-acromial space. This compression causes irritation of the tendons and the sub-acromial bursa, causing inflammation and a reduction in the sub-acromial space, resulting in further shoulder impingement. This impingement usually occurs with overhead movements of the arm, resulting in pain around the tip of the shoulder and down the upper arm.

What Causes Sub-Acromial Shoulder Impingement?

Sub-acromial shoulder impingement can be caused by any one of the following factors including rotator cuff tears, GH joint instability, poor scapula-humeral rhythm, tight posterior shoulder capsule, AC joint or labral injuries, bone spurs and deficits in GH joint external rotation. These factors in isolation or in combination with each other cause a reduction in the sub-acromial space resulting in sub-acromial shoulder impingement.

Assessment and Treatment of Sub-Acromial Shoulder impingement

People with sub-acromial shoulder impingement will usually present with a positive “empty can” test. However it is important to differentiate between sub-acromial impingement and supraspinatus tears by then performing the empty can test with shoulder distraction. With distraction in the empty can test, pain should be reduced with sub-acromial impingement as the sub-acromial space is increased where as a supraspinatus tear will remain just as painful. It is crucial when assessing the shoulder to determine the cause of the reduction in the sub-acromial space leading to shoulder impingement. Once these factors have been determined, rehabilitation should focus on correcting any mechanical deficiencies that may be contributing to sub-acromial impingement such as poor scapula-humeral rhythm of lack of rotator cuff control.


By Jack Hickey

Exercise Physiologist at MD Health Pilates

Author: Michael Dermansky

Michael has now been working in physiotherapy for over 20 years, since graduating from Melbourne University in 1998 and is even more passionate about getting the best outcomes for clients than he was then. Michael is always studying and looking for new and innovative ways to improve the service at MD Health, including and not limited to the ideas from the fitness industry and great customer service companies. In his spare moments, he loves spending time with his two children, Sebastian and Alexander and hopefully taking them skiing more and more often.

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