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Dry Needling for Scapular Winging

This week’s article is a guest post from Michael Infantino.  Michael reached out to me on Facebook and sent me the below videos of a patient’s improvement in scapular winging after dry needling the serratus anterior.

I wanted to share the below article that Michael wrote showing the videos, but also talk about how trigger points may be involved.

I’m not sure what to make of these videos, if trigger points are involved, or exactly how dry needling the serratus anterior helped this patient’s winging.  But I am sure that I was impressed with the results.  I wish we knew more about the reasoning and mechanism, but in the meantime I’m happy we can help people feel and move better.

Dry Needling for Scapular Winging

Can we correct scapular winging in a matter of minutes?  This obviously depends on the cause of the scapular winging.

It is well documented that injury to the long thoracic nerve or cervical spine may lead to medial border scapular winging or dyskinesia of the scapula (Meininger, 2011). These are always challenging.  Ruling out neuromuscular cause can be done with a nerve conduction velocity test or EMG.  

But a recent patient of mine, made me think…

Research has continually shown that muscles with trigger points demonstrate the following:

  • Altered muscle activation patterns on EMG (Lucas, 2010; Wadsworth, 1997)
  • Reduced muscle strength (Celik, 2011)
  • Accelerated muscle fatigue (Ge, 2012)
  • Reduced antagonist muscle inhibition (Ibarra, 2011)  
  • Increased number of trigger points on the painful side (Alburquerque-Sendin, 2013; Bron, 2011; Fernandez-de-las-Penas, 2012; Ge, 2006; Ge, 2008)

Appreciating these findings would lead most to conclude that treatment of trigger points could improve scapular mobility and timing. This was my immediate thought when I noticed a significant medial border scapular winging while watching my patient raise and lower his arm.

It wasn’t until I read this research that I began using dry needling to do more than just manage pain. The results seen following dry needling to the serratus anterior were remarkable.

After seeing this amount of scapular winging, I dry needled his serratus anterior muscle.  Note the remarkable improvement:

How Trigger Point Dry Needling May Impact Scapular Winging

It is well documented that appropriate muscle activation patterns (MAP) surrounding the shoulder is necessary for efficient and pain free mobility (Lucas, 2003). Lucas and group actually gauged the effect of trigger point dry needling on MAP in subjects with latent trigger points (LTrP).

“Latent myofascial trigger points (LTrPs) are pain free neuromuscular lesions that are associated with muscle overload and decreased contractile efficiency” (Simons et al., 1999, p. 12). MAP’s of the upper trapezius, serratus anterior, lower trapezius, infraspinatous and middle deltoid were compared in a group with LTrP’s and one without. Following surface EMG, the LTrP’s were treated with trigger point dry needling. Surface EMG was performed after treatment as well.

Findings from this study were as follows:

  • Muscle activation of the upper trapezius in the LTrP group pre-treatment.
  • Early activation of the infraspinatous in the LTrP group pre-treatment.
  • Increased variability of muscle activation in all muscles assessed in the LTrP group pre-treatment compared to the control group.  
  • Altered MAP of distal musculature (infraspinatous and middle deltoid) were consistent with co-contraction, a finding that has been attributed to increased muscle fatigability (Chabran et al., 2002).
  • Improved muscle activation times in the LTrP group following dry needling.
  • Significant decrease in the variability of muscle activation in the LTrP group following dry needling, except for the serratus anterior.
  • The serratus anterior and lower trapezius showed increased variability in both the control and LTrP group, which may be why the results did not reach significance. This is also consistent with the latest research in JOSPT that found dyskinesia to be normal in asymptomatic populations. (Plummer, 2017).

Based on the both my clinical experiences and the research presented in this paper, it would seem highly valuable to focus on the treatment of trigger points to restore muscle activation patterns surrounding the shoulder complex.

Being able to press the “reset button” on a muscle is important for re-establishing normal muscle activation patterns prior to exercise. Inclusion of other manual therapy and exercise techniques is important for optimizing function of the local musculature (range of motion, hypertrophy, strength and endurance).

No research that I am familiar with has compared dry needling to other manual therapy techniques for restoring MAP in muscles adjacent to the shoulder. Future research that compares various trigger point treatments for restoration of normal MAP would be beneficial.

 

About the Author

Dr. Michael Infantino, DPT, is a physical therapist who works with active military members in the DMV region. You can find more articles by Michael at RehabRenegade.com.

References

  • Alburquerque-Sendin, F., Camargo, P.R., Vieira, A., Salvini, T.F., 2013. Bilateral myofascial trigger points and pressure pain thresholds in the shoulder muscles in patients with unilateral shoulder impingement syndrome: a blinded, controlled study. Clin. J. Pain 29 (6), 478e486.
  • Bron, C., de Gast, A., Dommerholt, J., Stegenga, B., Wensing, M., Oostendorp, R.A., 2011a. Treatment of myofascial trigger points in patients with chronic shoulder pain: a randomized, controlled trial. BMC Med. 9, 8.
  • Chabran, E., Maton, B., Fourment, A., 2002. Effects of postural muscle fatigue on the relation between segmental posture and movement. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology 12, 67–79.
  • Celik, D., Yeldan, I., 2011. The relationship between latent trigger point and muscle strength in healthy subjects: a double-blind study. J. Back Musculoskelet. Rehabil. 24 (4), 251e256.
  • Cummings, T.M., White, A.R., 2001. Needling therapies in the management if myofascial trigger point pain: a systematic review. Archives of Physical and Medicine and Rehabilitation 82, 986–992.
  • Ge, H.Y., Arendt-Nielsen, L., Madeleine, P., 2012. Accelerated muscle fatigability of latent myofascial trigger points in humans. Pain Med. 13 (7), 957e964.
  • Ge, H.Y., Fernandez-de-las-Penas, C., Arendt-Nielsen, L., 2006. Sympathetic facilitation of hyperalgesia evoked from myofas- cial tender and trigger points in patients with unilateral shoul- der pain. Clin. Neurophysiol. 117 (7), 1545e1550.
  • Ge, H.Y., Fernandez-de-Las-Penas, C., Madeleine, P., Arendt- Nielsen, L., 2008. Topographical mapping and mechanical pain sensitivity of myofascial trigger points in the infraspinatus muscle. Eur. J. Pain 12 (7), 859e865.
  • Hillary A. Plummer, Jonathan C. Sum, Federico Pozzi, Rini Varghese, Lori A. Michener. Observational Scapular Dyskinesis: Known-Groups Validity in Patients With and Without Shoulder Pain. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther:1-25.  
  • Ibarra, J.M., Ge, H.Y., Wang, C., Martinez Vizcaino, V., Graven- Nielsen, T., Arendt-Nielsen, L., 2011. Latent myofascial trigger points are associated with an increased antagonistic muscle activity during agonist muscle contraction. J. Pain 12 (12), 1282e1288.
  • Lucas KR, Polus BI, Rich PS. Latent myofascial trigger points: their effects on muscle activation and movement efficiency. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2004;8:160-166Lucas KR, Polus BI, Rich PS. Latent myofascial trigger points: their effects on muscle activation and movement efficiency. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2004;8:160-166
  • Lucas KR, Polus BI, Rich PS. Latent myofascial trigger points: their effects on muscle activation and movement efficiency. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2004;8:160-166Meininger, A.K., Figuerres, B.F., & Goldberg, B.A. (2011). Scapular winging: an update. The journal of The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 19(8), 453-462.
  • Simons, D.G., Travell, J.G., Simons, L.S., 1999. The Trigger Point Manual, Vol 1, 2nd Edition. Williams and Wilkins, Baltimore, USA.
  • Wadsworth, D.J.S., Bullock-Saxton, J.E., 1997. Recruitment patterns of the scapular rotator muscles in freestyle swimmers with subacromial impingement. International Journal Sports Medicine 18, 618–624.

 

How to Stabilize the Scapula During Shoulder Elevation

One of the most common compensations we see with people with limited overhead shoulder elevation is lateral winging of the scapula.  Anytime you have limited glenohumeral joint mobility, your scapulothoracic joint is going to try to pick up the slack to raise your arm overhead.

This is common in postoperative patients, but also anyone with limited shoulder elevation.

Stabilizing the scapula during range of motion is often recommended to focus your mobility more on the shoulder than the scapula.  As with everything else, as simple as this seems, there is right way, a wrong way, and a better way to stabilize the scapula during shoulder elevation.

In this video, I demonstrate the correct way to stabilize the scapula, and show some common errors that I often see.

 

How to Stabilize the Scapula During Shoulder Elevation

 

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How to Assess the Scapula

The latest Inner Circle webinar recording on How to Assess the Scapula is now available.

How to Assess the Scapula

How to assess scapular dyskinesisThis month’s Inner Circle webinar is a live demonstration of How to Assess the Scapula.  In this recording of a live student inservice from Champion, I overview everything you should (and shouldn’t) be looking for when assessing the scapula.  When someone has a big nerve injury with significant winging or scapular dyskinesis, the assessment of the scapula is pretty easy.  But how do you detect the subtle alterations in posture, position, and dynamic movement?  By being able to identify a few subtle findings, you can really enhance how you write a rehab or training program.

In this webinar, I’ll cover:

  • What to look for in regard to static posture and scapular position
  • How to check to see if static postural asymmetries really have an impact on dynamic scapular movement
  • What really is normal scapulothoracic rhythm (if there really is a such thing as normal!)?
  • How to reliably assess for scapular dyskinesis
  • How winging during the concentric and eccentric phases of movement changes my thought process
  • How to see if scapular position or movement is increasing shoulder pain
  • How to see if scapular position or movement is decreasing shoulder strength

To access this webinar:

 

 

 

A Simple Test for Scapular Dyskinesis You Must Use

A common part of my examinations includes assessing for abnormal scapular position and movement, which can simply be defined as scapular dyskinesis.  Scapular dyskinesis has long been theorized to predispose people to shoulder injuries, although the evidence has been conflicting.

Whenever data is conflicting in research articles, you need to closely scrutinize the methodology.  One particular flaw that I have noticed in some studies looking at the role of scapular dyskinesis in shoulder dysfunction has involved how the assess and define scapular dyskinesis.

Like anything else, when someone has a significant issue with scapular dyskinesis it is very apparent and obvious on examination.  But being able to detect subtle alterations in the movement of the scapula may be more clinically relevant.  There’s a big difference between someone that has a large amount of winging while concentrically elevating their arm versus someone that has a mild issues with control of the scapula while eccentrically lowering their arm.

Most people will not have a large winging of their scapula while elevating their arm.  This represents a more significant issue, such as a nerve injury.  However, a mild amount of scapular muscle weakness can change the way the scapula moves and make it difficult to control while lowering.

 

A Simple Test for Scapular Dyskinesis

One of the simplest assessments you can perform for scapular dyskinesis is watching the scapula move during shoulder flexion.  Performing visual assessment of the scapula during shoulder flexion has been shown to be a reliable and valid way to assess for abnormal scapular movement.

That’s it.  Crazy, right?  That simple!  Yet, I’m still amazed at how many times people tell me no one has ever looked at how well their scapula moves with their shirt off.

However, there is one little tweak you MUST do when performing this assessment…

You have to use a weight in their hand!

Here is a great example of someone’s scapular dyskinesis when performing shoulder flexion with and without an external load.  The photo on the left uses no weight, while the photo on the right uses a 4 pound dumbbell:

scapular dyskinesis

As you can see, the image on the right shows a striking increase in scapular dyskinesis.  I was skeptical after watching him lift his arm without weight in the photo on the left, however, everything became very clear when adding a light weight to the shoulder flexion movement.  With just a light load, the ability to prevent the scapula from winging while eccentrically lowering the arm becomes much more challenging.

I should also note that there was really no significant difference in scapular control or movement during the concentric portion of the motion raising his arms overhead:

scapular winging concentric

This person doesn’t have a significant issue or nerve damage, he simply just needs some strengthening of his scapular muscles.  But if you didn’t observe his scapula with his shirt off or with a dumbbell in his hand, you may have missed it!

 

How to Assess for Scapular Dyskinesis

In this month’s Inner Circle webinar, I am going to show you a live demonstration of how I assess scapular position and movement.  I’ve had past talks on how to assess scapular position and how to treat scapular dyskinesis, however I want to put it all together with a demonstration of exactly how I perform a full scapular movement assessment and go over things I am looking for during the examination.

I’ll be filming the video and posting later this month.  Inner Circle members will get an email when it is posted.

 

 

 

5 Tips for Treating Scapular Winging

The latest Inner Circle webinar recording on the 5 Tips for Treating Scapular Winging is now available.

5 Tips for Treating Scapular Winging

5 Tips for Treating Scapular WingingLast month’s Inner Circle webinar was on 5 Tips for Treating Scapular Winging.

In this presentation, I discuss how I treat some of the difficult patients with scapular winging.  I’ll overview 5 tips I use to facilitate better scapular movement and reduce winging.  These are great tips that really work when you have a significant amount of winging.

Assessing Scapular Position

The latest Inner Circle webinar recording on the Assessing Scapular Position is now available.

Assessing Scapular Position

Assessing_Scapular_PositionThis month’s Inner Circle webinar was on Assessing Scapular Position.  While I have openly stated in the past that assessing scapular position is not as significant as looking at dynamic mobility, I do feel it is worth starting your assessment with position.  You have to know where to start to know where to go.  This is a great follow up to my past talk on Scapular Dyskinesis.

Here is how I assess scapular position, but more importantly how I integrate it into my assessment.

To access the webinar, please be sure you are logged in and are a member 0f the Inner Circle program.

Assessing Shoulder and Scapular Dynamic Mobility

Assessing Shoulder and Scapular Dynamic MobilityA thorough assessment of the shoulder must look at the posture and dynamic mobility of both the shoulder and scapula.  More importantly, we need to assess the interaction between the shoulder and scapula and not look at the two in isolation.

Assessing Shoulder and Scapular Dynamic Mobility

Altered scapular dynamic movement can be influenced by many things, so a thorough assessment is needed.  Here is a clip from my brand new educational program with Eric Cressey, Functional Stability Training for the Upper Body. This is part of a lab demonstration of Eric Cressey and I assessing overhead arm elevation and the quality of shoulder and scapular mobility.  In this clip you can clearly see a side-to-side difference and we discuss some of the potential implications:

This is just a very small clip of some of the great information we cover in our Functional Stability Training for the Upper Body.  Click here or the image below to order now before the sale ends!

Functional Stability Training for the Upper Body

Is Resting Scapular Position Important?

Scapular posture assessmentA common component of any shoulder or neck evaluation is observation of scapular position and motion.  Posture assessment is popular and attempts to identify any asymmetries between sides.

As our understanding of the mechanics of the shoulder and scapular improve, the reliability and validity of assessing resting scapular position have recently been challenged.  Many authors believe that we may be overassessing and assuming dysfunction based on resting scapular position, which would imply that many corrective exercise strategies for the scapula may be either ineffective or inappropriate.

I have really changed how I assess and treat scapular dysfunction over the last decade.  My research has led my change in thought process, but other studies have also been reported in the literature.

 

Does Poor Scapular Position Correlate to Poor Scapular Mobility?

My exploration of scapular asymmetries and dyskinesis led me to first assess scapular position.  In baseball players, asymmetries of scapular position are common, and perhaps a normal adaptation.

While these resting static asymmetries were noted, I started to observe that these asymmetries seemed to become much less obvious during active movement.  As an example of this, we noted that the resting static position of the scapula on the throwing side was 14mm lower, which was statistically significant.  However, when the arms were abducted in the scapular plane to 90 degrees of elevation, the scapula was now symmetrical with the nonthrowing shoulder.

Scapular position

This really made me start thinking about the validity of resting static scapular posture.

To further evaluate this, we then looked at 3D electromagnetic tracking to see if poor static posture correlated to poor scapular mobility, or dyskinesis.  We looked at this in a few studies and found that resting static position does not correlate to poor movement patterns.

Several studies have shown that these scapular asymmetries are common in the general population too, so I consider my findings in the overhead athlete relevant to any population.  In my experience these same results occur in other populations.

 

Does Scapular Position Correlate to Injury?

The validity of static resting posture of the scapula has come into recent debate as tests such as the Lateral Scapular Slide Test, described by Kibler, has been shown to find asymmetries in both symptomatic and asymptomatic people.  Static postural tests like this have been shown to have both poor reliability and validity, meaning that we are not sure how accurate they are or what these tests actually measure.

Probably more importantly, however, is the finding that static tests have been unable to identify people with and without shoulder injuries, such as in this systematic review from the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

in a 2-year prospective study of over 100 recreational athletes, a recent study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine showed that static resting scapular position did not correlate to the future occurrence of shoulder pain.  They did note that the people who developed shoulder pain demonstrated decreased scapular upward rotation at 45 and 90 degrees of elevation, further suggesting that dynamic mobility is more important that static.

These studies are difficult to conduct but it appears that scapular asymmetries are common in the general population and do not correlate to injury.  That does not necessarily mean they do not feed into dysfunction, but the correlation may not be as factual as many think.

 

Recommendations

So what do we know about resting scapular position?

Based on our current understanding of scapular posture, it is hard to place a lot of emphasis on static posture as it does not appear to be reliable, valid, correlate to injury, or correlate to poor movement patterns.

I think one of the worst things you can do is assume dysfunctional movement will occur based on a posture assessment.  For example, you would not want to cue excessive scapular movement during arm elevation just because the person is resting in a certain scapular position.  You have a very large chance of just further facilitating your compensatory pattern by forcing the motion instead of finding the underlying cause.

People often seem to forget one VERY important fact:

The scapula is part of the scapulothorax joint.  The position of the thorax and spine will greatly influence the position of the scapula.  [Click to Tweet]

Perhaps an anterior pelvic tilt is causing increased thoracic kyphosis and scapular anterior tilt.  Perhaps a forward head posture is causing shortness of the levator scapula and causing downward rotation of the scapula.  Cueing movement without addressing the alignment, soft tissue restrictions, and other real issues is going to make this a lot worse.

These are just two examples but hopefully demonstrate the complexity of assessing scapular position and mobility.

To learn more about my approach, I have a recorded webinar for Inner Circle members that reviews how I assess and treat scapular dyskinesis, click here to learn more about my Inner Circle.

Scapular Dyskinesis

 

 

Do I still look at posture and scapular position?  Sure.  I start there, but realize that dynamic movement is likely much more important to assess.  I would not recommend that you apply corrective exercises based solely on resting scapular position.