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To Your Health: You Can Prevent Shoulder Injuries

Lobstermen come in every size and shape, each with different experiences, knowledge, capabilities and potential for injury. In a study conducted by UMass Lowell and funded by the Northeast Center for Occupational Health, shoulder pain was reported by about 1 in every 3 of lobstermen sampled up and down the New England coast. For people living in fishing communities, it is not unusual to know lobstermen — captains or sternmen — who have had shoulder surgery.

Of 395 lobstermen interviewed in 2012 and 2013, pain in only one shoulder caused specifically by work was reported by 70 individuals. Seventy-seven percent of the reported pain occurred in the right shoulder. An additional 43 lobstermen reported that they experienced pain caused by work in both shoulders. Overall, 17% of the lobstermen reporting that their pain was caused by work said the pain was so severe it affected how they work. Much of the pain reported by lobstermen was chronic, that is, not new. However, new shoulder injuries caused by work occurred in close to 3% of the lobstermen surveyed.

Repetition, awkward joint angles, and forceful exertion can lead to pain or injury. For example, research has shown that work that requires your elbows to be at or above shoulder height increases the risk of shoulder pain. If your work requires this posture combined with repetitive motion or forceful exertion, the risk for pain increases.

Figure 1

Repetition and the forceful exertion of handling traps on lobster boats is very common. In fact, it is inherent in the work. The posture of the shoulder during this repetitive activity varies. On most lobster boats, the block is higher than the shoulder (see Figure 1). If your block is level with or lower than your shoulder, that could help. Unfortunately, this set-up means that the trap does not come high enough to pull it in over the rail easily without having to manually lift at least a portion of the trap. There may be a tradeoff between how much you are bending your trunk to lift a trap hanging below the block and how much you are lifting your arm to feed and release the gangion, or lanyard, from the block to free the trap. Again, every lobsterman and every boat is different. Limiting the awkward postures of the back and the shoulder will reduce exposure to risk for pain. You can reduce exposure to awkward shoulder joint angles if the block is not too high or too far away from the edge of the boat. But this is a matter of individual comfort.

Without proper rest, recovery, and conditioning, the muscles and soft tissue in the shoulder area can be hurt and debilitated. Roughly half of the lobstermen who reported any new shoulder pain received treatment. This may indicate that a substantial number of lobstermen are working in pain but able to get the work done.

Shoulder pain in lobstermen most commonly arises from the top of the shoulder and then radiates down the arm. Injuries can impact any number of arm structures, either singly or at the same time. It is important to manage your pain quickly and efficiently to prevent a domino effect, where multiple structures become injured.

Shoulder pain or injury should be managed immediately -- in the “acute” or initial phase of injury. The first step is refraining from positions and movements that irritate or increase your shoulder pain. Of course, this is easier said than done for fishermen. The next step is restoring and improving your mobility, flexibility, strength, and motor control.

Stretching and exercise can also reduce the risk for pain and injury. Lobstermen prefer to find their own solutions to overcome limitations and take advantage of their own strength and capabilities. If you have found equipment, techniques, or exercises that other lobstermen might want to try to help care for their own aches and pains, please let the authors know so we can help spread the word. Below are three exercises that you can perform to help maximize your shoulder function. Start slowly and work up to the recommended hold time or repetitions

1. Strength: Resisted Row

Looping an exercise band around a pole, step backward until there is tension on the band. Standing tall, pull your hands back toward your rib cage. Imagine your shoulder blades pinching. Slowly release. If you find yourself leaning forward, step in toward the pole to release some of the tension. Complete 30 repetitions.

2. Pectoralis Stretch

Stand in a doorway and place your forearms against the wall. Gently lean forward so that you feel a stretch over the front of your chest. Hold for 30 seconds. Do this at the start and end of each workday.

3. Mobility: Gaff Pass Through

Holding a gaff or dowel with your hands spread as wide as possible, gently bring the gaff up and around your head, and finally behind your body. Don’t push beyond what your shoulders will allow. Complete 10 times. Do this at the start of each workday.


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