How To Improve Your Scapular Function (And Why You Should Care)

November 26, 2018 - 5 minutes read

Stabilizing your shoulder blades may help improve your posture and reduce shoulder pain. Here’s a simple guide to what that means and how to make it work for you.

When it comes to poor posture and chronic shoulder pain, the role that your shoulder blades play isn’t always well represented. Over years of working with a set of clients who all seemed to be experiencing similar issues within their neck and shoulders, we’ve noticed a trend of instability that appears to be a major contributor to pain.

Here, a simple guide to your shoulders and how a little scapular control can help alleviate some major discomfort.

Anatomy

You’ve probably noticed that you have two winging structures that sit along either side of your upper back. These are called your “scapula” but are also commonly referred to as your “shoulder blades”.

Each scapula is made up of a wide bone that sits flat upon the back of your upper ribs. At the top of this bone lies a long, jutting structure called the “acromion”, and it is at this site that the scapula attaches to the end of your collarbone (or “clavicle”).

As the main attachment of this bone is small and is positioned above the shoulder, the rest of the scapula is free to almost float along your upper back (a region called the “thorax”) as you move your arms and shoulders around. The movement of this bone is therefore limited only by the muscles that surround the area and make up what is known as the “scapulo-thoracic joint”.

Mobility

A healthy, functional shoulder blade should be able to move into 6 main directions:

Elevation: Scapula moves up towards ear
Depression: Scapula moves down towards pelvis
Protraction: Scapula moves away from your spin
Retraction: Scapula moves towards spine
Upward rotation: Scapula rotates as the arm lifts over head
Downward rotation: Scapula rotates as the arm returns from overhead lifted position

The cause of pain

Motion is lotion, so when our scapula don’t move regularly in all the ways they’re supposed to, we start to experience tightening of certain areas and weakening of others, and this brings the whole system out of order. Lack of movement may be due to an injury, but more commonly we see this associated with underuse and is often associated with prolonged sitting, driving and computer work.

As seated activities make up more and more of our daily tasks, we are starting to spend the majority of our days in a position that encourages pronation and elevation of the scapula. Without intentionally finding an activity that requires the reciprocal position, we start to lose the ability to innately perform the opposite movements of depression and retraction, and it is this range of motion limitation that begins to manifest itself as pain and chronic discomfort in the shoulders, upper back and neck.

What should you do if you have poor posture or shoulder pain?

Learning how to move your shoulder blades in all directions and knowing how and when to set them prior to movement can help bring relief.

Learning how to set your shoulders is important to stabilize shoulder joints, scapula, shoulder and upper back in a good and strong position to produce adequate force when needed (workout out, lifting up your kid, moving boxes) whilst not overloading other structures (shoulder joint, neck, spine) and not injuring yourself during those activities.

This does not mean that you should spend your whole life with set shoulders. Practice all the different shoulder blade movements in isolation to practice the control and coordination and know how to set them, when needed.

How to stabilize your scapulo-thoracic joint

Start in a seated position with your back tall. Without changing your spinal position, slightly retract and depress both shoulder blades equally. Imagine you want to pull your shoulder blades diagonally into your opposite jeans back pockets.

The goal is to feel it at the medial corner of your shoulder blades, not too much directly in-between the scapulae and not in your neck at all. 

It is also important to make sure you’re not compensating with the rest of your body so keep your abdominals contracted and your back in a neutral position as you move your scapula.

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