Snap, crackle, pop! When Derek came in to see me, he was really concerned about the constant noises his shoulders were making. He loved CrossFit and had recently started lifting heavier weights. As he started increasing his overhead lifts, he began to notice shoulder pain and that the clicking in his shoulder was getting more frequent. The noises in his shoulder weren’t necessarily painful, but the increase in frequency combined with pain when lifting overhead made him wonder if something really bad was going on in his shoulder. 

Shoulder exoskeleton

At our first meeting, Derek expressed that continuing to do CrossFit was really important. He had always been a competitor, and if he lost the ability to do that, his whole life would be different. His daily routine, social circle, and weekend activities would all change drastically

To make sure that he didn’t lose all that, we evaluated his current strengths and weaknesses and created a plan. Turns out he was really strong – as you might expect, being a CrossFit athlete, but his overhead mobility and rotator cuff strength had the ability to improve. We discussed that clicking and popping, without pain or swelling, are generally not to be feared. Our joints make noises without necessarily being damaged or injured. 

Oftentimes, what we’re hearing when things pop is actually the formation or bursting of tiny gas bubbles inside the joint – rapid pressure changes with movement create cracking sounds. Snapping or clicking sounds could also be from structures slightly stretching or moving over each other as you move – without pain or swelling, this also isn’t really cause for concern. Derek didn’t have any pain or swelling around the shoulder, so we were able to confidently say that the clicking and popping he heard wasn’t indicative of anything tearing or grinding. The plan we created focused on improving his ability to get his arms overhead without restriction, and strengthening his rotator cuff muscles (the deep, stabilizing muscles of the shoulder). We were able to have him continue his CrossFit workouts with slight modifications as he improved in these other areas. 

Derek did a great job improving his rotator cuff muscle endurance and strength. Initially, Derek was shocked at how difficult it was to lift a 3 pound weight just 15 times when isolating the rotators of his shoulder – especially considering he could clean & jerk 200 pounds. (If you’ve had a rotator cuff injury, you can still rehab it – check out Jamie’s story!) One of the obstacles we ran into was an increase in shoulder stiffness the day after an overhead workout as we worked back into those. We added some mobility work in immediately after these workouts and over several weeks this was no longer an issue. 

If you find yourself dealing with the same feeling of tightness or are hearing some of the same sounds that Derek was hearing in his shoulder, be sure to visit “Four Tips For Shoulder Pain – Mobility” to see the foundation for Derek’s plan. For fast relief, you can also check out these exercises to ease shoulder pain.

Now, Derek is back to regular CrossFit workouts and even competitions. His shoulders still click & pop occasionally, but the frequency actually decreased over time. Whenever he hears a click now, he knows not to worry – that it’s just some normal movement that doesn’t mean anything crazy is going on. Derek continues to work on regular mobility and rotator cuff endurance to keep his shoulders feeling loose and healthy. He’s back to being him and lifting heavier than ever!