Taking a weight off our shoulders – By Chris Clayton

Our shoulders and arms can perform great feats of strength and athleticism, and yet they also enable us to paint, dance and help us express our inner selves. I personally owe a lot to my own arms and shoulders, they have allowed me to work, to learn, and to defend myself and others. They give me the joy of hugging my wife, children, and grandchildren. They have tolerated voluminous decades of arduous martial arts and gym training and persevered through times where the only work I could get was based on my ability to be able to physically toil.

I am fortunate that my early fitness and martial arts training helped me be more on the resilient side and gave me a lot of much needed strength and support when I needed it. Although, as I have gotten older, I have realised that some of that training was not conducted with the aging process in mind? I was lucky to have crossed the fifty-year-old mark (a few years or so ago now) with good muscle mass and density (one of the many essential components for aging well), on the downside, age causes our fascia to slowly stiffen and become less adaptable. For me this means my otherwise healthy and strong shoulder girdle has begun to weigh heavily on my thorax (as explained to me by my teacher and mentor Julie Hammond Director of Anatomy Trains Australia and NZ earlier this year).

The good news is that it is never too late to be proactive when it comes to shoulder and arm maintenance. We should not wait for something to start going awry. Instead, let’s create resilience with sound structural bodywork and informed progressive exercise that is individually focussed. As the saying goes, the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, the second-best time is now!

As it is in my case, our shoulders can affect the rest of our body, and the rest of our body can affect our shoulders. You may have read in our blog post “A story of the foot” that if our feet are not supporting the structures immediately above, such as our knee or hip, the outcome can be very noticeable.
What might not be so obvious, but just as important is how foot position and function might create a cascade of effects that can profoundly affect our shoulder girdle and its function. We can also include the idea that any structure above or below the shoulder girdle can have an effect on it. We also need to consider the sheer weight of our shoulders on our ribs and how they can also affect and even inhibit our functional movement, static posture, and breath.

Our modern world appears to have taken us down a path where we have lost our way with functional scapulo-humeral rhythm. There are six muscles that hold our shoulder girdle onto our thorax as well as three joints and a scapulo thoracic relationship that provide the shoulder with its range of motion. It should be no surprise to us then, that when any of these joints and myofascia are out of balance, compensatory patterns start to weave their way into the way that we move, which is not ideal when we are aiming fort long term shoulder health. Clinically, I would say that most of the chronic shoulder and arm issues that I see will have some issue within the overall body pattern and then a compensation within the muscles and fascia that connect shoulder to thorax and those that connect arm to shoulder. We need to observe their overall structure of our client’s body, specifically what is happening at their feet, knees, pelvis, spine, and assess if this has anything to do with their shoulder issue. In clinic I have seen clients with very restricted, long-term patterns of movement inhibition return to useful and effective function. This can be achieved by unravelling the body’s chronic pain puzzle by assessing the patient’s compensation patterns. One case of a client that sits close to the front row of my memory, is that of a person who after suffering a serious injury and having subsequent reconstructive shoulder surgery, continued to have ongoing issues, with shoulder function and chronic pain. This in part may have been due to life’s pressures and needing to stick to the kind of work that they knew?

Working together as a team we achieved a lot of small successes that led us to a point where the causes of their pain had no reason to stay, so it (Pain) had to leave! As a therapist it is so satisfying to share in moments like these, where our combined efforts contribute to long lasting change.

Every pattern is unique as everyone has a different story, and every approach should be carefully individualised to fit what that person needs.
Certified Anatomy Trains Teachers love teaching the Shoulders and Arms workshop, which explains the functional anatomy of the shoulder girdle, how the shoulder girdle relates to the thorax, and how the arms relate to the girdle. This workshop helps the practitioner to guide their client to restoring shoulder and arm resilience, which allows the client to take a weight off their shoulders, embrace the world they live in, with free and capable arms that allow them to express themselves, and most of all hug the ones they love.