Turn Rehab on Its Head

Chip Fanelli
Yoga headstands are great for shoulder strength and injury prevention.

Shoulder injuries plague volleyball players. They’re a looming threat always waiting for you to hit one ball too many, swing too far outside your body, or take a poorly executed dive on hard-packed sand or the gym floor. For overhead athletes, rotator cuff injuries are a very common form of shoulder pain: sometimes they’re caused by a strength imbalance in the shoulder muscles or simply from overuse.

Athletic trainers and doctors encourage strengthening the rotator cuff muscles with internal and external rotations with light weights or a band to prevent injury. Recently, proponents of yoga have been touting the idea that performing inversions, such as a headstand where most of the weight is supported on your forearms, helps to release tension in the shoulders and can even help heal and prevent rotator cuff injuries.

In 2011, health columnist Jane Brody of The New York Times interviewed Dr. Loren Fishman, a doctor of physical and rehabilitative medicine, on the topic. Dr. Fishman has practiced yoga for many years and, after experiencing a rotator cuff injury himself, found that performing a headstand provided instant relief. However, for many of his patients with rotator cuff injuries, Dr. Fishman uses a modified version of the headstand that he calls the triangular forearm support, where the patient stands a few feet away from a wall, bending at the waist to place the forearms in a triangular formation on the wall, the head between the forearms. The headstand is a difficult position even for seasoned yoga practitioners that, if done incorrectly, can cause neck injuries. So it’s best to practice the headstand with the guidance of an experienced yoga instructor, and until then utilize the modified version.

The way Dr. Fishman describes it, when executing this motion, you teach one of the rotator cuff muscles, the subscapularis, to take over for the supraspinatus, the rotator cuff muscle most commonly injured in overhead athletes. An earlier article from the December 2007 issue of Yoga + Joyful Living magazine said that doing a headstand allows the shoulders to lift away from the ears and the muscles on the outer edges of the shoulder blades to engage, correcting any imbalance of strength in the shoulders.

Try the triangular forearm support, or work your way up to a full headstand using a chair or wall for support. According to Dr. Fishman only 30 seconds a day makes a big difference, so no need to wait until you’re injured to start trying it. Use the headstand modification to strengthen and balance out your shoulders now and prevent painful injuries.

Originally published in August 2013

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