The shoulder is a ball and socket joint with a wide range of movement. The joint is somewhat unusual, in that the “socket” (glenoid) is very shallow, and as-such, much of the stability of the shoulder joint is provided by the rotator cuff muscles and surrounding ligaments and soft tissues.
This gives the shoulder its unique wide range of movement.
Along with the knee, the shoulder is one of the most commonly presenting joint pathologies.
Like all examinations you should have a systematic approach. The most commonly used approach is the Look, feel move approach:
- Special tests
Explain the examination to the patient, and once you have their consent, wash your hands and ask the patient to expose the shoulders and clavicles bilaterally.
- Wasting at the side – likely to be deltoid. This could cause the shoulder to become flattened. Often secondary to nerve lesion.
- Wasting at the back – likely to be trapezius
- Deformity over the middle of the clavicle – suggests previous fracture
- Deformity over the distal part of the clavicle – may suggest AC joint pathology or subluxation
- Generalised swelling – most likely caused by effusion
- Flex the arm at the elbow – look for ruptured biceps tendon. You will see a large mass of muscle, that can either be near the elbow joint, or anywhere further up the humerus.
- ‘Winged scapula’ – asking the patient to push against a wall can exaggerate this. It is where the scapula is abnormally laterally rotated. It is the result of a lesion of the long thoracic nerve, or of the muscle this nerve supplies – serratus anterior.
- Acromio-clavicular joint – common site of arthritis. To find this part of the joint, move laterally along the clavicle. It is also commonly damaged in injuries that result from a blow to the shoulder – e.g. falling from a bicycle, rugby injuries to other contact sports or falls
- Greater tuberosity – the insertion point of the rotator cuff muscles
- General Palpation – feel (and sometimes you can also hear it!) for any creptius. This is a crunching, grating feeling inside the joint, indicative of degeneration.
- The subacrominal space – specific tenderness hear can help localise an impingement pathology
- Swelling – feel for any generalised swelling. This can be caused by:
- Previous fractures
- Palpation of the dorsal spine and interscapular area – this area is sometimes called a trigger point for fibromyalgia. Palpating this area in individuals with this condition can elicit pain.
- Abduction and Adduction – 180 degrees is normal
- Supraspinatus and deltoid. Deltoid assists from 15 to 90 degrees of abduction, but Supraspinatus does the first 15 degrees all by itself.
- Suprapsinatus is a common cause of restricted abduction
- Flexion – 180 degrees is normal
- Extension – 180 degrees is normal
- Internal rotation – Ask patient to put the their thumb as high up their back as they can reach. You can measure this in relation to the scapula (should be able to reach inferior border) or the level of thoracic vertebra.
- External rotation – Ask the patient to keep their elbows tucked into their abdomen and external rotate their shoulders. External rotation is particularly badly affected in frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis), although this condition limits all movements, and is also affected in glena-humeral joint arthritis. Another test of external rotation is to ask the patient to put their hand behind their head.
- Restriction of active movements only – suggests pathology of the muscles and tendons of the rotator cuff. In this case, active movement is also often painful.
- Restriction of both active and passive movements – suggests pathology of the shoulder joint itself. In these cases, limitation can be due to pain, inflammation or mechanical problems, and often a combination of these factors.
- Capsulitis is an exception to the above. In this condition, there is inflammation of the joint capsule, restricting both active and passive movement, but the joint itself is normal. Signs of capsulitis include:
- Positive scarf test
- Loss of external rotation
Assessing individual muscles
Movements against resistance (isometric contractions)
- Supraspinatus (abduction) – Arms flexed and abducted to 30’, with palms pointing laterally, and thumbs pointing downwards. Patient tries to flex arms further against resistant.
- Infraspinatus / teres minor (external rotation) – Elbow tucked into chest well, flexed at 90’. Patient tries to move palms apart (external rotation) against resistance
- Subscapularis (internal rotation) – Elbow tucked into chest well, flexed at 90’. Patient tries to move palms together (internal rotation) against resistance OR
- The lift off test – patient has hand behind back (“lifts off” their hand form their back) and pushes backwards against resistance
Empty Can Test
Also tests for for shoulder impingement – which is essentially inflammation of the tendons of the rotator cuff – specifically the supraspinatus tendon. Ask the patient to flex their arm to 90’. Then flex the elbow to 90’ so that this forearm is parallel to the floor. Now, press down on the patient’s wrist and at the same time try to forcibly inwardly rotate the shoulder joint. This is a passive movement, so the patient should be relaxed. This basically presses the tendons of the shoulder cuff against the coraco-humeral ligament. you may also want to repeat the test with external rotation to check the tendon of subscapularis.
- Positive test – pain is elicited. Particularly if the pain is greater, the greater the degree of internal rotation
- Negative test – no pain
The test is not specific enough to give an exact diagnosis – but may help to confirm the diagnosis when there is a strong degree of clinical suspicion.
Scarf Test aka cross-arm test
- You can double-check your findings. If you repeat the test, but instead, push the patient’s arm backwards, this should releive/not elicit any pain. This is known as the relocation manouvre.
- This tests for shoulder instability / anterior dislocation of the shoulder