One Foot in the Grave? No Way!
Paddling on After 50—
A Pain in the…Shoulder!
By Tamia Nelson
August 12, 2008
As a rule, machines don’t age gracefully. Tolerances widen as years of friction take their toll. Lubricants dry out. Critical components fail suddenly, without warning, victims of metal fatigue or imperceptible casting flaws or corrosion. This is true of almost everything that has moving parts. That old three-speed “English racer” in your garage, for instance—the one that you were planning to pedal over to the farmer’s market, saving a little gas for the drive to work into the bargain. Or the Chauncey Jerome clock on your mantelpiece that just started striking thirteen. Or the ancient washing machine you were hoping would last at least one more year. And, yes, I’m afraid it’s true of you, too. If you can’t remember the last time a cashier asked you for ID when you bought a six-pack of beer, the odds are that your moving parts are also showing the effects of a lifetime’s wear and tear. Is there any good news here? Yes. Regular exercise can help to keep things running smoothly, as can common-sense eating and drinking. Luckily, most paddlers find this an easy prescription to follow.
That doesn’t mean that any of us is guaranteed immunity, however. I was forcefully reminded of this not long ago, when I rolled out of bed smack into a world of hurt. As soon as I sat up, my left shoulder was bathed in pain. Not your everyday morning stiffness, mind. Oh, no! This was industrial-strength pain: a fiery whirlpool of throbbing torment. And it wasn’t confined to my shoulder alone. Molten rivulets coursed up and down with every movement, radiating agony into both arm and neck. What did I do? I did what came naturally: I stopped moving. Then, when I got my breath back, I tried to think what might be responsible. There were no easy answers. I hadn’t been rearranging furniture, scything meadow grass, or tossing bales of hay. In fact, the only physical work I’d done in the last 24 hours was to lift my lightweight pack canoe onto the rack behind the shed and tighten the lashings that held it down, a job I’d done dozens (maybe hundreds) of times before. True, I’d also fitted a new saddle to my “amphibious” bike and taken it for a quick 15-mile spin into the local hills. But I’d done that dozens of times before, too—the 15-mile spin in the hills, that is; I don’t change saddles very often—and my shoulder had never complained. Now what?
I began by taking a quick inventory of my physical state. The pain was bad, really bad, but there didn’t seem to be any associated weakness. My grip strength wasn’t impaired. And though left-shoulder pain is sometimes a warning sign of cardiac problems, my ticker was ticking along nicely. I felt no nausea. I wasn’t having any problem breathing. OK. Deal with the pain first, my common sense advised. So I took ibuprofen, and when that kicked in, I tried the same range-of-motion exercises I use to loosen up before and after paddling. But these didn’t help. Much. The ibuprofen blunted the cutting edge of the pain, to be sure, but it didn’t stop it from sawing away at me with every movement. And just try doing anything without moving your shoulder!
By late afternoon, things had gotten worse. My grip was noticeably weaker, and I was getting an unpleasant pins-and-needles sensation in my arm. I knew it was time to see a pro. The upshot? You guessed it. Imaging appointments and specialist consultations, followed by weeks of physical therapy. But it was worth it. I’m now pain-free and fully mobile—and I’m determined to do whatever I can to stay that way. Does this story sound familiar? If you’re a member in good standing of the Over-the-Hill Gang, I’ll bet it does. And what, exactly, is my new prescription for trouble-free shoulders? Well, it couldn’t be much simpler. It has just three component parts, beginning with:
Maintaining Range of Motion
First, though, an important caveat. I’m not a doctor. I’m a patient. And what worked for me may not work for you. It might even make things worse. So if your shoulder’s giving you grief, don’t get your medical advice from a hack writer. See a doc, instead, and listen to what she says. But what if your shoulder isn’t giving you grief, and you just want to keep it that way? Then you’re welcome to give my three-part “prescription” a try. If you’re smart, though, you’ll still clear it with your doc before you start. Remember the old medical adage: primum non nocere. First, do no harm. That’s almost always good advice.
Meanwhile, back on the range… The following exercises work my shoulders through their complete range of motion. I do them every day, and the only equipment I need is a towel. There are a few important rules, however: Don’t use weights, don’t hurry, and stop at once if anything hurts. (For the record, the first four exercises were developed by Robert Kerlan, an orthopedic surgeon who treated a lot of baseball players with sore shoulders. I learned about them in James G. Garrick’s Peak Condition, an invaluable reference for paddlers and other active folks.)
Let’s get started.
- Arm Rotations
- Sawing Exercises
- Abduction Swings
- Cross-Chest Pulls
- Climbing the Wall
- Towel Pulls
Arm Rotations Stand, bend over, and let your arms hang down. Now swing them lazily through 10-50 complete circles, first in one direction, then in the other. (You can swing one arm at a time or both together. The choice is yours.)
Sawing Exercises Stand with your arms at your sides, then bring your forearms up till they’re parallel to the floor and clench your fists. Now saw away, moving your arms back and forth as if you were working one end of an old-time lumberjack’s two-man crosscut. Stop when you’ve completed 10-50 “cuts.”
Abduction Swings These are jumping jacks without the jumping. Start with your arms at your sides, then raise them slowly, as high as you can. Now let them down again. Repeat 10-50 times. (If you’ve ever seen a young bird stretch its wings, you’ve got the idea. Don’t expect to fly, though!)
Shrugs These can be done while you’re sitting at your desk, if you want. With your arms hanging at your sides, just shrug your shoulders, then relax. Repeat 10-50 times. (You can vary this by rolling your shoulders forward and back while shrugging, but it’s not necessary.)
The following three exercises are perhaps more therapeutic than prophylactic. They’re particularly helpful in restoring full range of motion in a troublesome shoulder, but there’s no reason why they can’t be used to forestall injury, too.
Cross-Chest Pulls These can be done while seated or standing. Extend the forearm on the affected side across your chest. Now pull gently on the elbow of the extended arm with your other hand until the upper arm is nearly parallel to the ground and fully stretched. Hold 10 seconds before returning to the starting position. Repeat three times, rest, then do two more sets of three.
Climbing the Wall Stand with your affected shoulder facing a wall. Reach out and touch the wall with your hand (the hand on the affected side). Then “crawl” your fingers upward till you’ve gone as far as you can go. Crawl down again. Repeat twice.
Towel Pulls You can do this one in the shower. Drape a towel diagonally across your back from shoulder to hip. The hand on the problem side should be uppermost. Now pull the towel up as far as you can and hold for 10 seconds. Next, pull the towel down and hold for an additional 10 seconds. Repeat three times, rest, and do two more sets.
Lastly, for those days when I just can’t seem to get my shoulders to loosen up in any other way, I give floor exercise a try, lying with my arms extended, a rolled towel placed under my spine from neck to bum. Then I close my eyes and relax. A few minutes is usually all it takes. The most difficult bit? Getting up! (Folks with damaged knees may need a little help here.)
So much for maintaining range of motion. It’s vitally important, but it’s not enough in itself. That’s why the second part of my “prescription” for trouble-free shoulders is…
There’s no fitness center near my home, and I’m not interested in powerlifting. Instead, I work out with dumbbells, two or three times a week. I find a 40-pound set of plates is more than ample, but you may want to go higher or lower. In exercising, plan to strike a compromise between strength and endurance, aiming for one to three sets of eight to twelve repetitions each, adjusting the weight as needed to stay within your comfort zone. Two rules are important here. First, take it easy, especially at the beginning. Move slowly and deliberately. Second, don’t hold your breath while lifting. Ever. Exhale during the power phase, inhale during recovery.
Now here are the exercises I do:
- Prone Side Lifts
- Upright Rowing
- Shoulder Presses
- Wrist Curls
- Reverse Wrist Curls
Prone Side Lifts Lie on your back on the floor with your arms outstretched, dumbbells grasped firmly in your hands. Then lift your forearms, curling them up until they’re vertical. Next, return them to the floor. Repeat.
Upright Rowing Stand, palms turned in toward the front of your thighs. Lift the dumbbells till they’re just beneath your chin, keeping your elbows high. Return. Repeat.
Curls Stand, arms down, palms facing forward. Now lift the dumbbells till your forearms are vertical, keeping your elbows tight against your sides. Return. Repeat.
Shoulder Presses Stand or sit, with your arms bent at the elbows, palms out, dumbbells held at shoulder height. Extend arms upward. Return. Repeat. WARNING! Start out lifting very light weights, and add plates cautiously. You don’t want to drop a dumbbell on your head, do you?
Wrist Curls Not a shoulder exercise per se, but very useful for paddlers anyway. Sit. Rest your forearms on your thighs, palms up and dumbbells cradled lightly in your fingers. Slowly curl wrists upward, keeping your arms on your thighs at all times. Return, allowing dumbbell bars to roll back into the crooks of your fingers. Repeat.
Reverse Wrist Curls Like the name suggests. Same as above, but with your palms facing down and the dumbbells grasped more firmly. Curl wrists down. Return. Repeat.
So far, so good. We’ve addressed range of motion and strength. That’s the end of our “homework.” Now it’s time for part three of the prescription:
Improving Paddling Technique
Dislocated shoulders are all-too-common injuries on the water. Paddles are levers. That’s what makes them useful. But it’s important to remember that they work both ways, and the river is always stronger than you are. Bracing and rolling are the most dangerous times, especially if you let your upper arm drift back over your head. Luckily, there’s an easy way to minimize the risk. Just keep you upper arm in sight. Keep your forearm in front of your forehead, in other words. Your moves may look a little less stylish, but style doesn’t count for much when you’re writhing in pain on the riverbank. ’Nuff said?
Of course, there are many ways to trash your shoulders off the water, as well. Here, too, prevention is far easier (not to mention cheaper) than cure. On the portage trail, consider doubling-up with your partner to get your canoe, kayak or sit-on-top across to the other side. You might even want to use a cart (where allowed). And be sure to keep your pack weight within reason. Comfort in camp also counts for a lot. Roughing it unnecessarily is never a good idea. Nessmuk was right: We go to the woods to smooth it. After all, we get it rough enough in town and at home, “with the necessity always…of being on time and up to our work; …of keeping up, catching up, or getting left.” In other words, comfort is key.
Need convincing? Then just watch a chipmunk. Any chipmunk. You won’t find harder workers anywhere. Chipmunks understand the importance of keeping strong and flexible. Their lives depend on it.