The shoulders are highly mobile joints, yet open to so many limiting factors. Their stability and function are governed by anatomical structures such as the short and strong muscles originating in the shoulder blades, superficial trunk muscles, and passive stability apparatus like the capsula and ligaments. The shoulders are vulnerable to many injuries (static and dynamic), due to the complexity of their structure and behavior. Since all aikido techniques are hand techniques, they involve the shoulders. The shoulders are forced, pulled, pushed, compressed, twisted, and made to accomodate body movements, mostly of the rib cage.
The shoulders are operated by distant muscles as well: for example, the latissimus dorsi that attaches to the pelvis and lowers the arm and rotates it internally; the levator scapulae that goes down the neck to the shoulder blade and controls its rotation (the sliding on the rib cage, known as an anatomical, or “false” joint); the very strong, wing-like pectorals that function as internal arm rotators; the elbow extensors, etc.
There is just one small bony contact point that delivers all of the forces from the shoulder to the trunk and back again. This is akin to speaking about a single fulcrum from which the entire Earth can be moved. This is your clavicle or “key bone” (clavis = “key” in Latin), and that bone is the real key to arm and shoulder efficiency. Without it, there would be no stable arm movement, no strong arms, just limbs hanging down from your trunk.
A close view on the shoulders shows us the complexity of that joint group: five joints combining into one great mechanism that works smoothly in free arm movements as well as when resistence is applied against the arms. Some of them are true joints; some are false, but they work as a single team called the scapula-arm joint, or arm joint, or shoulder joint, etc.
The articular surfaces and their angles, and the shoulder blade position on the rib cage determine the basic movements of the shoulders, and the muscle action and fluency of that complicated group of co-working tissues. We elevate, depress, rotate (twist), elongate and shorten our arms. That is what the shoulders do for us. All of these movements are possible on that little bony point that also must accommodate the shoulders’ action demands. The shoulders are mostly muscle-operated joints, and that is how we classify them. Briefly speaking, the strong flat and short serratus muscles compress and control the shoulder blade against the rib cage; the short scapula muscles stabilize the arm bone on the scapula, and mostly control the shoulder’s rotation. The long muscles allow it to move. The shoulder is covered by a hood formed by the deltoid muscle, and is suspended by muscles that attach to its upper regions.
It is beyond the scope of this article to precisely analyze the muscle action of the shoulder while moving in various ways. Let’s focus on how we use the shoulders in aikido.
The arms are everywhere in aikido. They touch through the hands, receive pressure from the attacking partner (receiving partner, or “uke”). The arms feel the resistance and play between two aikidoka as in “menuchi.” They allow us to respond in intricate ways, and serve us in every applied technique. The feet move us from place to place. The knees are responsible for springy and smooth movements. The hips provide power for what we do, and the shoulders act! They complete each of the many spectacular techniques of aikido!
The numerous sensors within the shoulder complex coordinate with the whole body to carry out a read-analyse-action process. It all happens in no time at all when needed, so just imagine the speed of information flow within. The nervous system has almost no limits in transmiting data. It learns how to work even when the synapses are overloaded. Using the body’s locomotive system, the nervous system uses our body as its executive performer, an excellent performer I should say!
As I mentioned above, the shoulders are everywhere in aikido, and they also participate in falls. They hit the ground and are easily injured. Let me concentrate on this aspect.
I find shoulder disorders fall into the following basic categories:
1. injuries from falls, strikes, sudden pulls, etc., and incorrect posture.
Falls and other injuries can tear ligaments, pull muscles out from their attachment points, or tear them within the muscle belly. That all requires medical help and appropriate treatment. Diagnosis is usually made with ultrasound or MRI devices. The use of casts is very often the treatment of choice. but some other treatments are possible, for example, arthroscopy with its wide range of treatment options. Bringing your shoulders back to life after immobilization takes time, but also teaches us how to use them properly and with tender care.
2. incorrect tension of certain muscles (static imbalance) leading to worn-out syndrome.
Incorrect elasticity and muscle length are due to the ignorance of the need of stretching. Each joint, to work well–as has often been said–must be supported and controlled by elastic muscles. Age is not a significant factor here. If, due to incorrect exercise or prolonged sitting, those muscles and ligaments tend to shrink, contract and remain in that state for long periods, this will in turn incite pathological chains that will sooner or later cause health problems somewhere in the body. The worn-out syndrome is the most known effect of this condition. The best and easiest solution is stretching which restores normal muscle elasticity. When we stretch properly, surprisingly, we feel improvement even in areas far removed from the painful site. That is the effect of disrupting the pathological chain reaction with a simple weapon… stretching.
3. Non-joint factors such as emotional stress, e.g., anger and aggression coupled with temporomandibular joint syndrome and pelvic and hip complex syndromes.
The non-joint factors are the most difficult to diagnose and treat since they involve our personality patterns and are part of our thinking, reactions, feelings, etc. They are so much a part of us that we sometimes cannot understand living without them despite all the obstacles to health they throw in our path. We resist change in our usual behavioral patterns, but positive changes will are and the entire body will become transformed into something new and radiant.
The shoulders are “sender–receiver” joints. That means they detect and accumulate tensions of various origins from within the body and send them further down the limbs. The most frequent non-joint factors are emotional tensions that accumulate in the cervical and thoracic spine region. An unresolved shoulder disorder may end up as a “frozen” shoulder, chronic pain, trophic changes, thoracic cage disfunctions, and other conditions.
As we have seen, the shoulders are a very interesting and complicated part of our bodies. Since–as has been emphasized in this article–they are involved everywhere in aikido, they should be well treated, exercised and revitalized. Warm ups, warm ups, warm ups! Stretching in conjunction with resistence workouts, sometimes a little massage, and a freeing of the mind seem to be a prescription for healthy shoulders!