Shoulder Shrug and the Supraspinatus


The supraspinatus is one of the four rotator cuff muscles in your shoulder joints that move your arms and shoulders in different directions. Since some sports, such as baseball and freestyle swimming, require repetitive overhead movements of the arms, the supraspinatus can get overworked, which increases the likelihood of injury and joint disease. In physical rehabilitation, the shoulder "shrug sign" is a common indication of shoulder problems in which the supraspinatus may be the culprit.

Functional Anatomy

  • The supraspinatus extends from the edge of the scapula that is close to the spine to a small protuberance on the top of the humerus near the shoulder joint. Although its primary function is to assist in moving your shoulder blade away from the spine so that you can raise your arm overhead, it works with other rotator cuff muscles to stabilize the shoulder joint in place. It also acts as a counterbalance to prevent your shoulders from dislocating when you carry something heavy by your sides, such as luggage or shopping bags.

Shoulder Abnormalities

  • The shoulder shrug sign is often an indication of scapula abnormalities, such as rotator cuff disease. According to a 2008 study of 982 patients published in "Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research," the shoulder shrug sign refers to the "inability to lift the arm to 90° abduction without elevating the whole scapula or shoulder girdle." This is usually caused by various degrees of rotator cuff tears, including damage to the supraspinatus tendon. Based on the results of this study, researchers concluded that there is no specific, universal cause of the sign. Regardless of the type of rotator cuff disease, age and gender, almost all patients exhibit the shoulder shrug sign.


  • Inflammation in the supraspinatus, which often occurs at its tendon, can cause pain and restriction of arm elevation and shoulder movement. Although resting and icing can reduce inflammation, Sports Injury Clinic recommends that you maintain what range of motion you have left that doesn't cause pain, such as performing certain shoulder exercises that keeps the joint moving. These exercises would depend on the severity and the cause of the injury, so there's no cookie-cutter exercise for all treatments. Consult your physical therapist or an orthopedic physician before you do any therapeutic exercises on your own.


  • One of the best ways to prevent shoulder shrug signs and maintain supraspinatus function is to avoid too many repetitive overhead movements of the arm. Allow yourself a day or two of rest after before you resume training. Strength and power conditioning, which includes medicine ball throws, pushups, pullups, dumbbell lateral raises, kettlebell swings and rope climbing, can reduce your risk of injuries. Yoga and tai chi can enhance your shoulders' stability and mobility as part of your recovery between training days.

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