Most people can easily identify their biceps, triceps, hamstrings or “quads.” Many may also be able to locate their “traps,” “pecs” or “glutes.” But the vast majority of people can’t pinpoint their supraspinatus.
The supraspinatus isn’t the most popular or sexy muscle in the body, but it’s a workhorse shoulder muscle we use all the time. Any time you reach up into a cupboard, retrieve a book from a shelf above your desk or change a light bulb, you’re using your supraspinatus. The same is true when you adjust your car visor, comb your hair, hang clothes in a closet or put on a shirt. Tennis players use it when serving, and baseball players use it when throwing. Swimmers use it to glide across a pool. Yogis use it during any pose that takes the arms out to the side and overhead (whether their body is right-side-up or upside-down).
The supraspinatus is one of four rotator cuff muscles in the shoulder joint. The rotator cuff muscles hold the humerus (upper arm bone) in the shoulder socket, a shallow indentation at the upper, outer edge of the scapula (shoulder blade). The rotator cuff muscles help to stabilize the shoulder joint, aided by muscles in the back of the body that keep the scapula affixed to the ribcage. The four rotator cuff muscles attach to different parts of the scapula and then to the head of the humerus. They also enable the humerus to rotate inward (internal rotation) and outward (external rotation), or reach out to the side of the body (abduction) and overhead (flexion).
The supraspinatus runs across a shallow valley at the top of each scapula, above the spinous process, narrowing as it approaches the shoulder. Its tendon then threads through a small, bony canal and attaches to the top of the humerus. A fluid-filled sack called a bursa protects the tendon in the canal from smashing into the bone.
Interestingly (perhaps only to anatomy geeks), the supraspinatus is the only part of the rotator cuff that isn’t involved in rotating the humerus. It helps to abduct the upper arm bone away from the body and move it overhead.
The supraspinatus also has the dubious distinction of being the most commonly torn muscle in the rotator cuff. It can be injured through force (like landing on your shoulder in a fall), repetitive daily activity done in a misaligned way, or through repetitive actions in many sports. This includes certain repetitive actions in a yoga practice.
As a yoga instructor I knew about the supraspinatus’s function as part of the rotator cuff. However, I recently became intimately acquainted with my supraspinatus due to a tear in its tendon, the genesis of which occurred over fifteen years ago, jumping back to chatturanga before my body was fully ready for that movement. My initial injury healed, and my yoga practice and self-knowledge grew more aligned and refined. However, the irritation would occasionally return. Over the years, wear and tear took its toll to the point where I was in chronic discomfort and my yoga practice was modified to respect that. A sports medicine doctor recently informed me that surgery is the only solution to the problem. An acupuncturist is working with me to reduce pain and inflammation, improve blood flow and heal the injury naturally. I am hoping surgery can be averted.
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