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What is Subacromial Decompression?

By J.M. Willhite
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Subacromial decompression is a surgical procedure conducted to treat sports injuries, such as impingement syndrome. Considered a minor surgical procedure, subacromial decompression is performed when an individual has found no relief with traditional treatment. Individuals who adhere to post-operative instruction and participate in physical therapy generally make a full recovery within a few months following surgery. As with any surgical procedure, there are risks associated with subacromial decompression and these should be discussed with a qualified health care provider prior to pursuing this treatment option.

Commonly caused by overuse, impingement syndrome is a compound injury experienced by athletes that affects the soft tissues of the shoulder and rotator cuff. When the soft tissue of the shoulder joint gets pinched or caught between the bones of the arm and shoulder during repetitive use, it becomes irritated and inflamed. Adversely affecting the muscles of the shoulder, the aggravated area can contribute to muscular imbalance and shoulder instability. Individuals with impingement syndrome may experience symptoms that include pain, discomfort, and a burning or tingling sensation in the shoulder joint and, with time, a limited range of motion.

Considered an arthroscopic procedure, subacromial decompression is minimally invasive and involves the decompression, or relieving of pressure, of the tendons in the rotator cuff. A tiny camera, called an arthroscope, and equally small tools are inserted into the shoulder by way of two to three small portal incisions. The camera provides the attending physician with an interior view of the shoulder and surrounding tissues, as well as the opportunity to further evaluate the condition of the affected area.

To relieve accumulated pressure in the rotator cuff, the subacromial bursa, the fluid sac located in the shoulder joint, is removed. Additionally, any fibrotic or scar tissue resulting from extensive irritation is also removed. In order to increase space for the rotator cuff and tendons, the external end of the scapula, called the acromion, is sanded to a flattened surface and a portion of the coracoacromial ligament is removed. Once the decompression is complete, sutures are used to close the incisions.

Individuals who undergo subacromial decompression generally make a full recovery in four to six weeks. Pain relievers are usually prescribed to help alleviate post-operative discomfort. Immediately following surgery, individuals are advised to keep their shoulder protected and stable, which may involve the use of a sling or some other method for keeping the shoulder immobilized. Physical therapy is recommended in order to build strength and restore full range of motion to the affected area. Adhering to post-operative instructions is essential to a successful recovery.

Individuals who follow their physician's instructions and participate in rehabilitation should be able to return to an active lifestyle, including sports, within a few months. Risks associated with this procedure include persistent or recurrent symptoms and impingement syndrome progression characterized by a worsening of associated symptoms. Complications associated with subacromial decompression surgery include infection, heart attack, and stroke.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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