Shoulder impingement syndrome | Surgeons tell patients say no to surgery
You started having some shoulder pain and a limited range of motion. You also started to find it increasingly more difficult to reach above your head for something. You took some over the counter pain relief pills, maybe tried a rotation of heat and ice and started to sleep in different ways because of your shoulder pain while sleeping. Finally, and perhaps after years of chronic problems and self-management, you finally went to get some medical attention.
Usually pain in the shoulder like yours will send out a signal to your clinician that you may have rotator cuff tendinitis or you have bursitis, inflammation of the shoulder bursa. Your clinician may have explained that the bursae (plural because you have more than one bursa in the shoulder), is a fluid-filled sac that helps to reduce frictional wear and tear in your shoulder. The clinician may have even mentioned subacromial bursa, the bursa that sits between your rotator cuff tendons and the acromion process of the scapula.
Your clinician may also explain to you that your problem is all about inflammation or “itis.” The squeeze of the impingement on your shoulder’s soft tissue is causing wear and tear friction and inflammation on your shoulder tendons, the rotator cuff tendinitis they suspect, and the bursa, the bursitis they suspect.
If you are reading this article you have probably reviewed many articles which line up the symptoms and treatment of Shoulder impingement syndrome for its readers. Most of the articles will repeat the same primary symptoms and the same primary treatment course, rest and anti-inflammatory medication. If you are here reading this article it is very likely that the conservative care primary treatment course is not working for you.
What if you have already rested and tried to alleviate your problem with anti-inflammatories and painkillers and you still have a problem? Now what?
If you are like our patients:
- You are likely concerned that your shoulder problem that is already making doing your physically demanding job difficult at best or playing your sport, will eventually progress to making it impossible to do your job. Shoulder impingement syndrome can lead to rotator cuff tears and surgery.
- You are an athlete, a swimmer, an athlete that throws a ball, any one who plays a sport with your hands over your head you maybe wondering how much more time are you going to lose?
You may have just returned from your first or follow up visit to your health care provider. Now what? More pain management? More rest?
You may have just returned from your first or follow up visit to your health care provider. You may be frustrated. He/she wants to start or continue you on a “conservative care,” approach to dealing with your impingement. They would like to try the non-surgical route as long as possible. The reasons for not going to surgery is explained below. The news is not good.
- As Shoulder Impingement Syndrome is sometimes called “Swimmer’s Shoulder,” we would like to invite you to read our article Swimmer’s shoulder treatment | subacromial shoulder pain. In this article we discuss the research that has shed light on several specific shoulder injuries that often are incurred by the competitive swimmer that may be bundled under the single diagnosis subacromial impingement syndrome.
More pain management:
Your health care provider may suggest a prolonged, up to two month program of anti-inflammatories and painkillers. If you are not getting results somewhat immediately from these medications, your medications will be changed until the one that works is found.
- The anti-inflammatory or NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs,) are thought to be a first line treatment as your impingement problem is causing swelling and painful inflammation. This is a treatment that we do not recommend. In our article When NSAIDs make pain worse, we show the research that:
- NSAIDs’ temporary reduction of pain, stiffness and swelling comes at great long-term expense, the destruction of cartilage and shoulder stability.
- Stronger Pain medications. This particular recommendation has very little long term appeal as it can make your situation worse. Please see our article, when Painkillers make pain worse.
- Corticosteroids / cortisone or steroid injection. (This is also a treatment we do not recommend. Please see our article Alternative to cortisone shots, in which we examine new research that is providing more warnings that cortisone does not heal and, in fact, accelerates deterioration of already damaged joints.
- Your health care provider may prescribe rest or avoidance of shoulder motion that is causing the pain.
- Many of your reading this article have probably already done that. That is why you are reading this article, you need some more answers.
Maybe shoulder impingement syndrome is a symptom that you have a bigger shoulder problem?
In our clinics, we do not like to describe shoulder impingement as a diagnosis. We like to describe it as a symptom of a bigger shoulder problem, that of shoulder instability. What this means is that if you try to repair shoulder impingement alone without addressing the problems of the unstable shoulder, it is likely you will not have as much success in treatment as you may have hoped for.
If you are like many of our patients or someone who researchers the internet a lot, this already has made a lot of sense to you. Shoulder impingement syndrome is part of a larger more complex shoulder problem that requires a more detailed understanding and a more aggressive treatment protocol than medication and rest.
Let’s bring in some more opinions.
Here is what doctors at one of Germany’s leading sports university hospitals, Technical University of Munich writing in the German language journal Der Orthopäde (Orthopedics) reported (1):
- Isolated impingement syndrome of the shoulder is the most common diagnosis in shoulder disorders and is of high relevance in orthopedic sports medicine.
- In fact, impingement of the shoulder is not the diagnosis but rather a symptom of a functional or even a structural shoulder damage.
- (We call this shoulder instability, the excessive motion of the shoulder due to weakened and damaged ligaments, that allow the soft tissue of the rotator cuff to be pinched, caught, or impinged upon by the bones of the shoulder).
- Detailed knowledge about the different types of impingement and the underlying causes is essential to provide adequate treatment.
- Primarily, impingement of the shoulder should be treated nonoperatively.
Which brings us to the latest research on surgery for shoulder impingement.
More research: Impingement of the shoulder cannot be treated in isolation. You need to treat the whole shoulder.
The controversy over managing Shoulder Impingement Syndrome as an isolated problem or a part of systematic shoulder failure was also the subject of doctors in the United Kingdom who published their research in the Indian journal of orthopaedics (2).
Here are the bullet points of that research:
- Subacromial impingement syndrome is a syndrome that encompasses a spectrum of subacromial pathologies ranging from bursitis, rotator cuff tendinosis, and partial tears leading up to full-thickness tear of the rotator cuff. (Comment – in black and white, Subacromial impingement syndrome IS part of a bigger generative shoulder problem).
- Research suggests that the impingement process can be broken down into three distinct stages.
- Stage I of the process is defined as edema and hemorrhage of the subacromial bursa, often in patients under the age of 25 years.
- Stage II impingement is when irreversible changes have developed and are represented by tendinitis and fibrosis of the rotator cuff tendon, seen in patients between the age of 25 and 40 years.
- Stage III impingement is said to have occurred when there are chronic changes such as rotator cuff tears, common in patients over the age of 40 years.
- There is ongoing debate on how impingement begins and how it creates rotator cuff tears, but is likely to be multifactorial.
Treating Shoulder impingement syndrome as part of a problem of degenerative shoulder disease
One of our main treatment philosophies is that you cannot treat spinal; or joint problems in isolation. This includes the problems of the shoulder. To treat shoulder impingement syndrome, you need to treat the whole shoulder.
Above we discussed above, NSAIDs, painkillers, and cortisone are limited in their ability to help long-term and in fact can be seen as detrimental to the patient. What else then is available? Typically physical therapy and surgery.
New research: No surgery for shoulder impingement syndrome. It’s “useless.”
This is from a press release issued by the University of Helsinki upon the publication of a new study from the University’s researchers in the July 19, 2018 edition of the British Medical Journal.(2)
“In a landmark study published this week in the British Medical Journal, (our) researchers show that one of the most common surgical procedures in the Western world is probably unnecessary.”
“Keyhole (arthroscopic) surgeries of the shoulder are useless for patients with “shoulder impingement”, the most common diagnosis in patients with shoulder pain.”
“These results show that this type of surgery is not an effective form of treatment for this most common shoulder complaint. With results as crystal clear as this, we expect that this will lead to major changes in contemporary treatment practices,” said the study’s principal investigators chief surgeon Mika Paavola and professor Teppo Järvinen from the Helsinki University Hospital and University of Helsinki.”(3)
Surgery useless? Then what type of treatments can I get? A different surgery? Non-surgical Prolotherapy?
Doctors in the Czech Republic thought that PRP injections could help people with Shoulder Impingement Syndrome. They thought that it would take three injections, given one week apart, to acheive they desired results. They also wanted to see how these three PRP injections did against a single injection of cortisone.
After the treatment was complete they would look at the patients at
6 weeks, 3 months and 6 months after the administration of the injection.
Group I (PRP with the mean age of 48.7 years (15 men and 10 women),
Group II (Cortisone) with the mean age of 50.1 years (16 men and 9 women),
Based on the results of our study, the hypothesis can be accepted that the concentrate of platelet-rich plasma administered through a series of 3 injections applied in the subacromial space in patients with shoulder impingement syndrome has positive effects on the daily activities of patients as well as on the objective evaluation via the selected scoring systems.
Arthroscopic shoulder impingement surgery shaves down the bone of the acromion to give the rotator tendons more room to move about pain-free. We now see that this is a useless surgery in the long-run. Rotator cuff tendon surgery then may be recommended for lack of anything better than conservative treatments including pain medication, anti-inflammatory medication, physical therapy and exercise did not offer a positive response.
We feel that someone suffering from impingement syndrome should seek a consultation with a Prolotherapist for a non-surgical regenerative medicine consultation before jumping into rotator cuff surgery.
In our office, we stimulate the soft tissue of the shoulder to repair with Prolotherapy injections to the ligaments and tendinous insertions of the rotator cuff and deltoid. Prolotherapy, in combination with gradual re-strengthening of the rotator cuff muscles, gives an excellent chance for a full recovery.
Prolotherapy gets rid of the impingement by stabilizing the acromioclavicular (smaller shoulder joint) or the glenohumeral joint (larger shoulder joint). The excessive motion that was pinching the tendon no longer occurs, because the joint is stabilized. The excessive motion is gone, the pinching and symptoms are gone, and over time the bone spur will be reabsorbed by the body.
Danielle Steilen-Matias, PA-C | Katherine Worsnick, PA-C | Ross Hauser, MD | David Woznica, MD
1 Beirer M, Imhoff AB, Braun S. Impingement syndromes of the shoulder. Orthopade. 2017 Apr;46(4):373-386. [Google Scholar]
2 Paavola M, Malmivaara A, Taimela S, Kanto K, Inkinen J, Kalske J, Sinisaari I, Savolainen V, Ranstam J, Järvinen TL. Subacromial decompression versus diagnostic arthroscopy for shoulder impingement: randomised, placebo surgery controlled clinical trial. bmj. 2018 Jul 19;362:k2860. [Google Scholar]
3. University of Helsinki press release – Finnish study shows that most common shoulder operation is no more beneficial than placebo surgery