The role of the subscapularis in preventing anterior glenohumeral subluxation in the abducted, externally rotated position of the arm

Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2007 Jun;22(5):495-501. doi: 10.1016/j.clinbiomech.2006.12.007. Epub 2007 Mar 7.


Background: Current literature suggests that the subscapularis muscle is the main active stabilizer when the humerus is abducted and externally rotated. Conservative treatment of anterior shoulder instability therefore aims at strengthening this muscle. Empirical models, however, have questioned the role of the subscapularis muscle as it has been observed to potentially support dislocation of the subluxated humeral head.

Methods: Ten human shoulders were loaded with an anterior dislocating force and the effect of different subscapularis tensions on humeral translation was measured with the Motion Analysis system, for the abducted and externally rotated arm and neutral positions. Also, lines of action of the subscapularis segments were measured on a 3D epoxy model.

Findings: Shoulders in which the humeral head migrated antero-superiorly under an external antero-inferior load were observed to dislocate under simulated active subscapularis tension in both positions. In contrast, shoulders in which the head migrated antero-inferiorly remained stable. Twice as many specimens dislocated in the abducted - externally rotated position than in the neutral position. The change in line of action of the subscapularis may account for this change.

Interpretation: Exercises alone are unlikely to be adequate for all patients with anterior instability symptoms. Passive motion pattern of the humeral head might serve as an indicator as to whether the effect of strengthening the subscapularis might stabilize a shoulder without further operation. Development of a clinical test based on these findings might differentiate the non-operative from operative candidates among patients presenting with anterior instability of the shoulder.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Arm / physiopathology*
  • Cadaver
  • Humans
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • Joint Instability / physiopathology*
  • Models, Biological*
  • Muscle Contraction*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiopathology*
  • Range of Motion, Articular
  • Rotation
  • Shoulder Dislocation / physiopathology*
  • Shoulder Joint / physiopathology*