If you’ve ever played sports such as tennis, baseball, or any other sport that requires overarm motions, you may have been unlucky enough to experience a shoulder labrum tear.
These are painful injuries that can weaken the shoulder and cause instability and a decreased range of motion. Understanding what a shoulder labrum tear is and how it occurs may help you to avoid this kind of injury in the future.
What is a shoulder labrum?
The shoulder labrum refers to the soft, cup-shaped cartilage in the ball-and-socket joint of the shoulder, where the arm and torso meet. The humerus (upper arm bone) ends in a ball shape that connects to the glenoid (shoulder socket), and the labrum is found within this socket. It helps to keep the ball of the humerus in place. The ligaments of the shoulder, which also help to connect the bones, are attached to the humerus in some parts.
Types of Torn Shoulder Labrum
One of the more common shoulder injuries is a torn labrum, where overuse of the shoulder or heavy impact on the joint can cause the cartilage to tear. However, there is not one single type of shoulder labrum tear. The shoulder labrum can be torn in a number of ways that are somewhat easy to confuse with one another.
- Bankart lesions/tears: This type of tear or lesion occurs in the lower half of the glenoid socket, and usually affects younger people after a shoulder dislocation. When dealing with a bankart tear it can often feel as if the entire shoulder is going to fall out of place.
- Superior labrum, anterior to posterior (SLAP) lesions/tears: a SLAP tear or lesion is a term used for an injury that occurs above the middle of the glenoid and from the front to the back of the cartilage in this area.
- Posterior labrum tear: also known as posterior shoulder instability, this is the least common type of shoulder labrum tear. This injury causes a labrum tear in the back of the labrum socket, after an injury to the shoulder.
The most common cause of a shoulder labrum tear is excessive use of the shoulder, particularly repeated movements of the upper arm. It can also be caused by trauma to the shoulder, usually from a heavy blow.
Athletes are often the victims of shoulder labrum tears, particularly those who play sports that require repeated overarm movements such as tennis, softball, and javelin throwing.
But these injuries are not exclusive to athletes; anyone can develop a labrum tear or lesion as the result of an accident, such as taking a direct blow to the shoulder or having your arm pulled forcefully.
The first major symptom of a torn labrum is pain. But a person with a torn shoulder labrum may also experience:
- Struggle to perform shoulder movements
- A grinding, locking, and/or catching sensation in the joint
- A ‘pop’ sound when moving the shoulder
- Weakness and instability in the shoulder
After a shoulder injury, your first step should be to consult a doctor or medical professional. They will give you a physical examination where your shoulder stability and pain levels are assessed, along with the range of motion in your arm and shoulder.
If necessary, your doctor may order an X-ray to look for any other potential injuries that may be causing pain, or a CT or MRI scan to take a closer look at the damage to the labrum.
Like many orthopedic injuries, a torn shoulder labrum usually requires at least one of two types of treatment: surgical and non-surgical.
Without surgery, treatment for a torn shoulder labrum will usually involve a combination of these options:
- Rest: anyone with a torn labrum should take some time off to rest their shoulder, particularly sports players who are at higher risk of worsening their injury.
- Medication: OTC to treat any pain and inflammation.
- Physical Therapy: The most common treatment for a torn shoulder labrum is physical therapy. Your PT will help you restrengthen your shoulder muscles and restore the range of motion in your arm and shoulder. They will also advise you on activities and exercises to avoid so you don’t exacerbate your injury.
- Cortisone Injections: For more serious and painful injuries doctors may recommend cortisone injections to reduce pain and inflammation.
Most shoulder labrum tears do not require surgery. If surgery is called for it will usually be treated via arthroscopic surgery, also known as keyhole surgery. This is a minor surgical procedure where a surgeon will make a small cut near the shoulder joint to examine the tear, and will either remove the damaged cartilage or reattach it to the bone.
Arthroscopic surgery is minimally-invasive, but in very rare cases more invasive open surgery may be required.
The recovery period for a torn shoulder labrum will depend on the type of injury, the severity of the injury, and whether or not surgery is needed.
It can take several weeks to fully recover from arthroscopic surgery, and your doctor may even diagnose an arm sling for up to 4 weeks during the recovery period. Patients who have undergone open surgery will need more time to recuperate.
SLAP tears or lesions may require up to 2 months of recovery time with physical therapy and OTC medication.
Overall, treatment for the average shoulder labrum tear should only be necessary for the first month or so following an injury. But for athletes, it can take between 6 to 12 months before they have returned to form and can perform at the same capacity.
If you have experienced a shoulder injury that requires diagnosis or treatment, or are still recovering from a torn shoulder labrum, our team at Kellie Middleton MD can help. We specialize in diagnosing and treating sports-related injuries in Atlanta, GA. To arrange your first consultation call us at 770-509-4030 or fill out our contact form here.