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Shoulder separation occurs when you tear the ligaments in your acromioclavicular joint, which is the joint between your clavicle, or collarbone, and the top of your shoulder blade. If you are performing a bench press and lower your elbows too far, especially when holding a heavy weight, you risk separating your shoulder. This is not to be confused with shoulder dislocation, which involves injury to the glenohumeral joint, the joint between your shoulder blade and upper arm bone.
A shoulder separation occurs when your collarbone gets displaced upward due to tearing of ligaments that connect it to the top of your shoulder blade, at a point called the acromion process. Separations range from Type I, in which the ligaments are only mildly sprained and not fully torn, to Type VI, where tearing and displacement are so severe that you need surgery to repair your shoulder joint. If you believe that you have separated your shoulder, your physician can assess the severity of your injury.
In a bench press, you lie on a bench with weights in both hands and your arms extended perpendicular to the floor. You bend your elbows to 90 degrees, not letting your upper arms drop lower than the plane of your body. If you have a heavy load in your hands and you drop your arms below the level of the bench, you place a strain on the front of your shoulders, putting you at risk for a separation. Similarly, chest flyes performed while lying on a bench put you at the same risk when done improperly.
Poor form in the bench press can also cause irreversible shoulder arthritis, damaging cartilage which has no means of being replaced. To avoid such injuries, you can limit your range of motion in the exercise. You may also choose to focus on other exercises to work your chest muscles instead, such as the fly. Chest flyes don't seem to aggravate the ligaments as much as bench presses.
You will need to rest your injured shoulder and, depending on the severity of the separation, you may need a brace or splint. In severe cases, you may be scheduled for surgery. A chiropractor, massage therapist or physical therapist can help restore functionality to your shoulder, upper back and arm. Once you have achieved this and have received a clean bill of health, you may return to the bench press with light weights and gradually build.