Shoulder injuries in soccer players

2015 Charlton Athletic’s Milos Veljkovic leaves the game with a shoulder injury. Credit: Action Images / John Rushworth

Admittedly most soccer related injuries are to the lower extremities. However a recent study by researchers at Brown University found that a rising number of soccer related injuries are suffered in the upper extremity(1). The study evaluated a sample of 100 hospital emergency departments from 1999 to 2016 and found that nearly a quarter (20.4%) of soccer related injuries to patients between 14 and 23 years of age, where to the upper extremity(1).

In the Brown University study, most of the patients with upper extremity injuries related to soccer were male. Fractures and dislocations were the more prevalent injuries among the entire population. However, the male patients were more likely to suffer a shoulder or finger dislocation.

A recent clinical review found that goalkeepers were five times more likely to suffer an upper extremity injury than field players(2). The researchers sited a rate of 18% of all injuries in professional goalies as arm and shoulder injuries(2). Specifically, shoulder, clavicle and hand injuries were the most prevalent. Defending the goal requires repeated reaching and stopping the ball with the arms, and leaves the goaltender vulnerable to falling with unusual arm positions. Therefore, it makes sense then that 90% of the injuries to the upper extremity experienced by goalkeepers are a result of trauma as opposed to overuse.

Shoulder injuries

Researchers site the increased participation in soccer by youth as well as the changing characteristics of the game, like the higher speed and more aggressive pressing, to blame for a growing incidence of upper extremity injuries. The most frequent upper extremity injuries experienced by professional soccer players were to the shoulder. Nearly a third of these were severe dislocations(2). For outfielders, a shoulder dislocation requires a mean of 41 days away from the sport. For goalies, this time is doubled. This is because goalkeepers need full shoulder function and stability to return to their position.

Just over half of the shoulder dislocations reported in soccer players are due to high-energy trauma(2). The rest are a result of low energy injuries, some without any contact at all. This highlights the fact that there may be underlying shoulder instability in some soccer athletes, especially goalkeepers. Not usually thought of as overhead sportsmen, goalkeepers may benefit from shoulder health strengthening and injury prevention programs similar to other overhead athletes. One way to evaluate shoulder strength and stability is through isokinetic testing, particularly the SITS muscles – the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis, and trees minor (see figure 1).

Figure 1: Ventral (left) and dorsal (right) view of the SITS muscles.

Cross-section of the shoulder

Acromioclavicular joint injuries comprise 18% of upper extremity trauma in soccer players(2). Most of these injuries are sprains of the type I to III grades (see table 1). However even with a low-grade sprain, goalkeepers require a rehabilitation period three times longer than other players. Higher-grade injuries and tears may require surgical repair, which may mean a longer rehab course.

In a recent article, physio Chris Mallac explains the anatomy, function, mechanism of injury and rehab of the AC joint. Usually an injury that results from more vigorous contact sports, the same principles apply to rehabilitating soccer players and goalkeepers. However, because goalkeepers require more stability and function of their upper extremities, they may experience a delayed return to sport when compared to outfielders that rely on their legs to win the game.

Table 1: Grading for acromioclavicular joint injuries

Grading system for ACJ injury
IThe AC ligaments are sprained, but the joint is intact. No palpable
displacement of the joint itself. Minimal to moderate tenderness and
swelling over the AC joint. Patients have only minimal pain with movement
of the arm. Radiographically there may be mild soft tissue swelling, but
there is no widening, separation, or deformity at the AC joint.
IIAC ligaments are torn, but the CC ligaments are intact. Type II injuries
are characterised by moderate to severe pain at the AC joint. The distal
end of the clavicle may be palpated to be slightly superior to the
acromion and shoulder motion produces more pain at the AC joint. The
distal clavicle is also found to be unstable in the horizontal plane if
grasped and moved anterior to posterior. A bilateral Zanca view may
demonstrate that the distal clavicle is slightly elevated, but the CC
interspace is the same in both the injured and uninjured shoulders.
IIIPatients with type III injuries present with the upper extremity in a
supported, adducted and elevated position to help relieve pain. In type
III injuries both the AC and CC ligaments are torn, but the deltoid and
trapezial fascia are intact. The distal clavicle may be prominent enough
to tent the skin and is unstable in both the vertical and horizontal
planes. These patients have a severe amount of pain with tenderness to
palpation at the AC joint. Any movement of the arm, especially
abduction, creates pain and discomfort, especially for the first 1–3
weeks. Both plain and bilateral Zanca x-rays reveal that the distal
clavicle is 100% displaced superiorly in relation to the acromion. In
actuality, the position of the clavicle is not altered by the injury. The
weight of the upper extremity causes the acromion to displace inferiorly
in relation to the horizontal plane of the lateral clavicle. In obvious
cases of dislocation the clavicle is displaced superiorly from the
acromion and the CC interspace will be greater in the injured shoulder.
IVType IV injuries are characterised by complete dislocation with
posterior displacement of the distal clavicle into or through the fascia
of the trapezius. Physical examination of these patients reveals a
greater amount of pain as compared with patients with type III injuries,
and the pain is located more posteriorly. Examination of the seated
patient from above will reveal that the distal clavicle is displaced
posteriorly when compared with the uninjured shoulder. It is possible
for the distal clavicle to become ‘button-holed’ in the trapezius and
tent the skin posteriorly. With a type IV injury it is also important to
examine the SC joint for a concomitant anterior dislocation. The
posteriorly displaced clavicle is best appreciated on an axillary view of
the shoulder.
VType V injuries represent a greater degree of soft tissue damage with
the deltotrapezial fascia being stripped off the acromion and the
clavicle. These injuries present as a more severe type III injury with
more pain and a greater amount of displacement at the AC joint. The
distal end of the clavicle appears to be grossly displaced superiorly
towards the neck. The scapula is translated anteriorly and inferiorly as
it migrates around the thorax. On bilateral Zanca view there is 100–
300% increase in the CC interspace. Patients with a type V injury may
have pain in the neck or trapezius due to the disruption of the
deltotrapezial fascia.
VIType VI injuries are inferior AC joint dislocations into a subacromial or
subcoracoid position. Type VI injuries are usually seen in high energy
polytrauma patients. The mechanism of injury is extreme
hyperabduction and external rotation of the arm combined with
retraction of the scapula. Associated injuries include clavicle and upper
rib fractures and upper root brachial plexus injuries. It is not
uncommon for these patients to have transient paraesthesias that
subside after reduction.


  1. Sports Health. 2018 Nov/Dec;10(6):552-7
  2. Am J Orthop. 2018;47(10)


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