Something you should never do for a shoulder injury

matt snowboarding before shoulder injury

In junior year of college at UCLA, I went snowboarding with a buddy in Big Bear. We both liked barreling down mountains as fast as possible, and he — being a little faster than I was — had a habit of making me go faster and take more risk than I normally would alone. And that’s how we ended up at the super pipe.

A super pipe is a half pipe, except it’s so big that you take a super poop in your pants. You take an even bigger poop in your pants if you have no real experience in doing half pipes. Undeterred, we both wanted to try the super pipe and see what it was like to be one of those spectacular athletes you see on the X Games.

I went tentatively up and down the sides of the pipe, trying to get a feel for pretty much anything I could get a feel for. As I came off the lip of the pipe, I started to twist so that I could point the right direction for the landing. I had my arms outstretched for balance as I spun in mid-air, my eyes and body set for the landing, and then all of a sudden my right shoulder simply gave out.

I fell with my face in the snow and screamed a few choice expletives as pain shot from the front of my shoulder all the way down to my back. Once I had gotten my screaming done, I slowly made my way down the hill, holding my arm against my chest as if in a sling.

The whole drive back to LA, I fidgeted in the car seat, trying to find a position that felt right. Nothing seemed to work. I felt like my shoulder was either too far forward or too far back, but I couldn’t figure out which it was. I wanted to figure out if I could just  lean my shoulder against the car seat in just the right way to help it sink back into a more normal feeling.

That sensation went on for weeks. I slept on top of a body pillow at night, trying to use gravity to leverage my shoulder back. I’d position the body pillow under me lengthwise (along my spine) so that my arm would be encouraged to hang down toward the bed. Despite my best efforts, there was no positive change.

My doctor told me to rest and take ibuprofen, but that didn’t really help either.

And so I made a decision that I hope no one else makes, even though I know the temptation is strong. When a shoulder feels like crap, it’s really common (I’ve heard this numerous times from clients of mine) to have this idea in your head that if you could just pop the shoulder into position, all would be well.

Since trying to lie in bed with the shoulder leveraged to drop back didn’t help, I concluded that  setting my shoulder  forward was what needed to happen. So, one sunny day, I was alone in my dorm room, resolved to finally fix my shoulder. I cupped my left hand on my right shoulder, took a breath, and gave my shoulder a solid yank forward.

This time I found myself muffling a string of expletives into the bed at myself. I literally saw stars. I had felt something squelch in the shoulder socket (likely my labrum), and had simply fallen forward onto the bed out of total disbelief, shock, and pain.

It took a long, long while for the pain of that misguided self-adjustment to ease up, and it added time to my recovery (which was still pretty far down the line).

For anyone with that nagging sense that your shoulder just needs to be yanked into position, let me be the one to tell you, “DON’T DO IT.”  First of all, for the overwhelming majority of folks I’ve met whose shoulders are out of place, it’s because their shoulders are too far forward already. Second of all, a rapid thrust of your shoulder is probably not a great idea unless there are some rare extenuating circumstances (maybe if your shoulder is dislocated and someone who knows what they’re doing is yanking on it to reseat it).

Just don’t do it. Resetting your shoulder is a gradual process, but it’s a much more comfortable one than wrecking your own shoulder out of impatience.

Ah, memories.


About the Author

Matt Hsu is a trainer and orthopedic massage therapist. He fought a long battle with chronic pain all over his body and won. He blends the principles he learned in his journey, empirical observations with clients, and relevant research to help others get their lives back.

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