Physiotherapy and Early Shoulder Management

Physiotherapists and orthopaedic surgeons spend significant amounts of time and effort treating shoulder injuries and conditions, of which there are many. The shoulder, an unstable joint with a very large range of movement, the greatest in the body, is vulnerable in many situations to injury or mechanical stresses. Its instability means it can be relatively easily dislocated in a fall or activity at end range. We use the arm to save ourselves if we fall, making fractures common and heavy or overhead work over time leads to rotator cuff tears.

Physiotherapists pay close attention to the shoulder as there are many different operations, fractures and degenerative conditions which can affect this area and have an important role in the management of shoulder conditions after elective surgery or trauma, ensuring adherence to the surgical and rehabilitation protocols. On initially seeing the patient a useful strategy is to quickly go over the presenting problem from the beginning as this can indicate errors or misunderstandings which can then be corrected. Physiotherapists should also give the patients an opening so that they can feel they have told their story.

After operation or injury the weight of the arm hanging from the shoulder may need to be supported in a sling to reduce pain and allow damaged tissues to rest. The broad arm, triangular bandages are cheap but not comfortable around the neck and difficult to customise to the patient’s specific needs. Putting some foam round the strap at the neck may help slightly but a better solution is to use a Velcro based sling such as the Seton sling. Seton slings are greatly preferred by patients, are more comfortable and are easier to adjust to the specific requirements of the shoulder condition.

When fitting the Seton sling the elbow should fit right back into the gutter with the sleeve folded back slightly if necessary to allow the hand to be clear of the sling. There may be a small Velcro strap to place across the upper forearm to keep the gutter closed but this should not be tight or it can cut in to the tissues, especially if there is a lot of thick swelling such as after humeral fracture. The long strap is then taken from the elbow side of the sling over the opposite shoulder and down to the wrist. Tightening this up is where it gets trickier.

Due to the materials from which the slings are made there is a degree both of elasticity and friction against surfaces when they are adjusted. As the sling is adjusted and tightened up the elbow is often not well supported by the sling at all and patients are usually aware that the support is not that good. The physiotherapist can easily feel that the sling is not giving the correct support and if they just tighten up the strap it solely tightens up at the front but does not improve the support of the arm. This needs another strategy.

Two people are needed to adjust the sling in co-operation, a helper and the patient. The patient is asked to relax the arm as much as they can while the helper lifts the weight of the arm at the elbow, holding it there as they pull the strap from its attachment at the back of the gutter up and over the shoulder, then fixing it there with one hand. Continuing to hold onto the strap which has been pulled forwards the helper unstraps the Velcro fastening of the main strap and tightens it up. Checking the support of the elbow now will show it to be much better supported.

Sling management advice is useful for washing and dressing, for which the sling can come off. Putting clothes on should be using the affected arm first and the arm needs to be kept in by the body during the process with no active lifting of the shoulder. For washing if the patient keeps the arm bent by the tummy and bends forward they can get access to wash their armpit easily.