We all know that it’s vital to stay physically active. Exercising regularly is important for everyone – and incorporating a range of different activities into our days is a great way to improve our quality of life.

However, many sporting activities can also put extra strain on our bodies – particularly if not performed correctly. Impact sports, including AFL and Rugby League, can often lead to injuries in players, with some causing life-long complications.

Because of their instability, our shoulders are particularly prone to injury when playing football.

In fact, many AFL players now regularly tape their shoulders (and other joints) to provide them with extra support during a game. AFL players are thought to be particularly at risk due to the high-impact tackles in the game, as well as the lack of padding worn by players.

To understand the risks impact sports hold for our shoulders, first it’s important to understand a little about how our shoulders operate.

How our shoulders work

Our shoulders are complex systems of bones, joints and ligaments. They’re responsible for the incredible flexibility of our arms, which we expect to be able to move in all directions (often pretty rapidly).

Shoulders are made up of three main bones: the end of the upper arm bone (humerus),  the shoulder blade (scapula) and the clavicle (collar bone)

The scapula sits outside your rib cage, but is attached by ligaments and muscles called the scapula stabilisers. It’s important for helping you control the movement of your shoulder.

Your shoulder joint is surrounded by a group of muscles and tendons called the rotator cuff, which keep your arm bone firmly in its socket.

The clavicle joins the scapula to the skeleton via the acromio-clavicular joint and the sterno-clavicular joint.

What puts you at risk for shoulder injury?

Any type of sports which involve impact, or repeated extensions of the arms (for example, weight lifting) can put you at higher risk of shoulder injuries.

Impact sports are often played through schools, leading to injuries in players who may not be experienced enough yet to have mastered the correct technique. Tackling, landing incorrectly or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time can all lead to shoulder injuries.

While sports are a leading risk factor, people whose work involves a lot of lifting are also at greater risk.

Common shoulder injuries

There are a range of common injuries that can affect our shoulders, but we’ve listed the top few below.

Shoulder instability

Shoulder instability is the term used when our shoulders are failing to hold the ball of the arm within its socket firmly. A loose joint can allow the arm to slide out of place, partially or completely (shoulder dislocation). This injury can be either anterior or posterior.

Anterior shoulder instability and dislocation are by far the most common, accounting for 95% of cases of shoulder instability. It occurs when the arm is externally rotated (imagine a policeman holding a stop sign) and is the most common form of shoulder instability, particularly among AFL players.

Posterior shoulder instability and dislocations are far less common, and are almost always due to a fall onto an outstretched, internally rotated arm.


This injury (SLAP is an acronym for superior labral tear from anterior to posterior) occurs when the top (or superior) section of the labrum is injured. The labrum is the cup-shaped rim of cartilage that lines and reinforces the ball and socket joint of the shoulder.  This area is where the biceps tendon attaches to the labrum, and the tear occurs in the front and the back of the attachment point.

This condition is more common in sports that require repetitive overhead motions, such as bowling in cricket, throwing or water-skiing (where they are suddenly pulled).

Rotator Cuff Injury

A rotator cuff injury is usually a strain or tear to the rotator cuff tendons (the thick bands of tissue that connect the muscles to the bones in our rotator cuffs). Rotator cuff injuries are common in people who lift their arms a lot, especially in athletes and in workers with heavy lifting duties. Sports at risk include football, swimming, and tennis.

What are the symptoms of a shoulder injury?

Shoulder injuries can be quite painful, producing either long-term consistent (chronic) pain or sudden onsets of temporary (acute) pain. If you’re experiencing ongoing pain that’s impacting your ability to move your arm or rest, you may have a shoulder injury. Other symptoms include weakness when lifting or rotating the arm, inability to lie on the shoulder, pain when sleeping and limited movement.

How to prevent a shoulder injury

If you, or a loved one, is at risk of shoulder injury through playing an impact sport, there are a number of steps you can take. Ensuring you warm up properly is vital, as is understanding the correct technique for your sport. Wearing appropriate sporting protective equipment is also important. Finally, listen to your body. Don’t ignore aches and pains – they might be trying to tell you something serious.

How do you treat a shoulder injury?

Shoulder injuries can be tough to treat and sometimes need surgical intervention, depending on the severity of the injury. There are a range of surgeries that can be performed to help reduce the impact of a shoulder injury. It’s best to seek expert advice on the nature of your injury and what the best course of action is to treat it.

The team at Glenelg Orthopaedics works towards gaining the best outcome for you, the patient. We pride ourselves on providing a quality and individualised experience. Call (08) 8376 9988 for all appointment bookings.