Meet Mr. Infraspinatus, the rotator cuff muscle

By DAVID PRATT Columnist Published:

The infraspinatus has a funny name, and maybe you haven't heard of it, but odds are good that you used yours today. Sure, you've got an infraspinatus.

So, what is it? Well, it is a dense, flat muscle that fits tightly against the back of the shoulder blade and is shaped roughly like a triangle. It is one of the four muscles of the rotator cuff (no, it isn't "rotator cup") -- the muscles and tendons that stabilize the shoulder joint and help give it a diverse range of motion. All of these soft tissues have attachments on the scapula, or shoulder blade, and each one has a unique role to play when it contracts.

You've probably known someone who has had a rotator cuff tear, which occurs when the tendon of one or more of these muscles actually rips. This can be a minor or more complete tear and can happen from repetitive motion, an overload of the muscle (like heavy lifting) or simply from wear and tear. Unfortunately, as we get older, our muscles and connective tissue often become less elastic and weaken.

One way that the infraspinatus, in particular, can be injured is in the slowing down movement just following a throwing action. Baseball players are prone to rotator cuff injuries, and this explains why. Still, you don't have to repeatedly throw a 90 mile per hour fast ball to develop problems in this area. You might simply have reached into your back pocket or tossed a rock into a pond a bit harder than usual. Of course those movements might just be "the last straw," which was preceded by numerous other strains.

Indicators that you may have had some level of strain to the infraspinatus are rigidity, deep pain at the front of the shoulder joint and weakness or a sense of fatigue in the shoulder. There are a variety of strengthening exercises for this muscle, and stretching doesn't hurt either. However, if you already have pain or other problems, the first and best step is to receive soft-tissue treatment that will relieve inflammation, release restricted areas and promote healing. Rotator cuff injuries can often be treated quite successfully with massage therapy, but severe tears do require surgery.

Another thing people usually notice when infraspinatus is the main culprit is that they can't sleep on the sore side because it compresses the shoulder joint, causing further discomfort. They also can't lie on the other shoulder because as they fall asleep, the injured shoulder moves forward, stretching and aggravating the condition and waking them up. If you are counting, you know that such a person has now run out of shoulders to sleep on. In fact, some people who struggle with this situation even end up propping themselves up in armchairs to get some semblance of a comfortable night's rest.

If you are working through a shoulder injury and suspect the infraspinatus might be the source, there is one simple tip that does help with sleeping. Try putting a pillow in front of you and lying on the uninjured side. Prop your injured-side arm on the pillow. This can allow you to get some needed rest, but obviously it doesn't put an end to the problem.

In a way, I feel like the infraspinatus itself asked for this column to be written. You see, every now and then I get a wave of clients with the same or quite similar complaints. Lately, I've seen a number of people who all have "infraspinatus issues." I decided it was time to say a few words about this little-known muscle. So, now that you've met infraspinatus, I may have to write a column or two more about his counterparts in the rotator cuff.

David Pratt is a licensed massage therapist who has been serving Holmes County clients since 1997. He has a private practice, True Nature, in Millersburg and can be reached at 330-473-0402 or dxpratt@gmail.com. As always, Holmes County residents receive a discounted rate.

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