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Obesity a risk for shoulder problems

Obese people suffer same problems as athletes, study says

They call it pitcher's shoulder, and sometimes tennis or swimmer's shoulder.

But it's not just athletes who are filling doctors' offices with rotator cuff injuries anymore. Obese Americans are developing the same problems, according to researchers at the University of Utah.

Major League Baseball teams fill their injured lists with pitchers with bum shoulders. Overuse was always to blame for the nagging injuries. But Dr. Kurt Hegmann, director of the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the U., said that's a common misconception.

In a study published this month in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, Hegmann said obese individuals are at increased risk for rotator cuff tendinitis and rotator-cuff related surgery. The risk of shoulder problems only grows with the degree of obesity. "There is very little that has been done to look at why and how (rotator cuff injuries) occur," Hegmann said.

Extra weight on the upper arms could be the culprit for shoulder problems in obese people. Hegmann said tendinitis, rotator cuff and other injuries could also occur because of an impairment of the blood supply to the shoulder tendons.

"I thought that lifting weights should be a risk," Hegmann said. "And if lifting weights should be a risk, then lifting a heavy arm from obesity ought to be a risk."

Shoulder problems increase with age, but especially with those suffering from obesity, Hegmann said. Nearly 61 percent of the American adult population is either overweight or obese, he said.

Signs of a rotator cuff injury typically include pain in the shoulder joint, especially when the arm is raised or extended out. The rotator cuff gives mobility to the shoulder joint.

The shoulder bones are held together by muscles, tendons and ligaments. The rotator cuff is a bunch of tendons that, combined with other muscles, hold the ball at the top of the upper arm bone in the socket and give mobility to the shoulder joint, Hegmann said.

Hegmann and a team of five others studied 311 patients, ages 53-77, who underwent rotator cuff surgery in Salt Lake City from 1992 to 2000. Nearly 4 million Americans seek medical care every year for shoulder problems.

Hegmann is currently conducting a study looking at the causes of tennis elbow, tendinitis and carpel tunnel on a broad scale, but also will look at how obesity weighs in on each ailment.