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Tips for Returning to Sports After a Shoulder Injury

Tips for Returning to Sports After a Shoulder Injury

The shoulder is a one of the largest and most complex joints in the human body. The rotator cuff is a collection of tendons and muscles that surround the shoulder joint, support it, and enable fluid movement. All of the shoulder components work together in perfect harmony to maintain shoulder stability and protect it from injury such as tendonitis and/or tears. Unfortunately, shoulder injuries still happen, especially in athletes due to over-training, improper muscle use, or accidents.

Shoulder injuries can be devastating and greatly impact an individual’s sports performance and well-being. Shoulder injuries can make even daily activities quite challenging due to pain and limited movement. The shoulder is considered to be one of the trickiest areas to navigate, and if an injury isn’t treated properly, it can become chronic and debilitating.

When Is It Safe to Return?

The answer to that question is not simple and most definitely not uniform, as each athlete is unique, and the same goes for injuries. If you come back too soon, you risk a re-injury and on the other hand, if you wait too long, you risk unnecessary deconditioning, leading to a loss in strength and endurance, which again increases the risk of future injuries.

Comeback Checklist

  • Pain-free

This rule is straightforward, no return to sports until your pain subsides.

  • Swelling-free

Swelling is a sign that something in your shoulder’s structure is still inflamed. If it’s still swollen, it still needs time to heal.

  • You’re at your best state

Along with physical therapy, rest is part of the treatment for shoulder injuries. With rest, some form of minor atrophy is bound to take place and these unused muscles need to be carefully rehabilitated so your optimal strength is restored.

  • Making rotational movements without pain

Your physical therapist will determine the mobility tests, such as throwing, that you need to pass pain-free. Also, your injured shoulder will be compared to your healthy one to make sure that their movements are symmetrical.

Safe Return Tips

Getting educated on the function of the rotator cuff muscles and general anatomy of the shoulder will definitely provide you with valuable insight that can help to keep your shoulder safe.

  1. Ask your physical therapist for assistance

Physical therapists can tailor a unique individualized exercise program for you, which can result in multiple benefits:

  • It will safely accelerate your return to the sport.
  • Your physical therapist will correct any incorrect movement patterns and work on any muscle imbalances that may have developed as a result of your injury.
  • Your physical therapist will develop an adequate stretching and strengthening program to restore range of motion and strength of the joint. 
  1. Aim for a balanced training program

The majority of injuries occur due to overtraining. Make a plan through which you can reach your goals, but also strengthen your weaknesses and improve the areas that are imbalanced.

  1. Increase your workload gradually

Keep in mind that it takes a lot of time for soft tissues to be restored. Unlike muscles, connective tissues adapt to our motions at a significantly slower pace, so be patient, as it will take some to regain the activity level that you had before your injury.

Progressive loading is key, and is the best way is regain your normal shoulder function. Move through vertical and horizonal pushes and pulls and take care of your rotator cuff muscles.

  1. Exercise and stretch on a daily basis

Do exercises that strengthen your rotator cuff. You can’t go wrong with strengthening the muscles around the shoulder as they are the key to stabilizing the joint, but do listen to your physical therapist since there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, and both the treatment and exercises for each shoulder injury varies greatly, depending on the type of injury you have suffered.


Follow the advice of your physical therapist about your return to sport after a shoulder injury. Keep in mind that even when you feel at your best, you may still have limitations in joint range of motion, stability, and strength. Your physical therapist will address any range of motion and strength deficits, and will help to correct any muscle imbalances or movement pattern issues that may have developed as the result of your injury. By following through with an adequate rehabilitation program, you’ll be able to safely return to your sport and minimize your risk of future injury.