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Home / Education / Shoulder and Elbow

Shoulder and Elbow

Shoulder Anatomy

The shoulder is the most flexible joint in the body enabling a wide range of movements including, forward flexion, abduction, adduction, external rotation, internal rotation, and 360-degree circumduction.

Thus, the shoulder joint is considered the most insecure joint of the body but the support of ligaments, muscles and tendons function to provide the required stability.

Bones

The shoulder is a ball and socket joint made up of three bones, namely the humerus, scapula, and clavicle.

The end of the humerus or upper arm bone forms the ball of the shoulder joint. An irregular shallow cavity in the scapula called the glenoid cavity forms the socket for the head of the humerus to fit in. The two bones together form the glenohumeral joint, which is the main joint of the shoulder.

The scapula is a flat triangular shaped bone that forms the shoulder blade. It serves as the site of attachment for most of the muscles that provide movement and stability to the joint. The scapula has four bony processes - acromion, spine, coracoid and glenoid cavity. The Acromion and coracoid process serve as places for attachment of the ligaments and tendons.

The clavicle bone or collarbone is an S-shaped bone that connects the scapula to the sternum or breastbone. It forms two joints: the acromioclavicular joint, where it articulates with the acromion process of the scapula, and the sternoclavicular joint where it articulates with the sternum or breast bone. The clavicle also forms a protective covering for important nerves and blood vessels that pass under it from the spine to the arms.

Soft tissues

The ends of all articulating bones are covered by smooth tissue called articular cartilage which allows the bones to slide over each other without friction enabling smooth movement. Articular cartilage reduces pressure and acts as a shock absorber during movement of the shoulder bones.

Extra stability to the glenohumeral joint is provided by the glenoid labrum, a ring of fibrous cartilage that surrounds the glenoid cavity. The glenoid labrum increases the depth and surface area of the glenoid cavity to provide a more secure fit for the half-spherical head of the humerus.

Ligaments

Ligaments are the thick strands of fibers that connect one bone to another. The ligaments of the shoulder joint include

  • Coraco-clavicular ligaments: these ligaments connect the collarbone to the shoulder blade at the coracoid process
  • Acromio-clavicular ligament: this connects the collarbone to the shoulder blade at the acromion process
  • Coraco-acromial ligament: It connects the acromion process to the coracoid process
  • Glenohumeral ligaments: A group of 3 ligaments that form a capsule around the shoulder joint, and connect the head of the arm bone to the glenoid cavity of the shoulder blade. The capsule forms a water-tight sac around the joint. Glenohumeral ligaments play a very important role in providing stability to the otherwise unstable shoulder joint by preventing dislocation.

Muscles

The rotator cuff is the main group of muscles in the shoulder joint and is comprised of 4 muscles. The rotator cuff forms a sleeve around the humeral head and glenoid cavity, providing additional stability to the shoulder joint while enabling a wide range of mobility.

The deltoid muscle forms the outer layer of the rotator cuff and is the largest and strongest muscle of the shoulder joint.

Tendons

Tendons are strong tissues that join muscle to bone allowing the muscle to control the movement of the bone or joint. Two important group of tendons in the shoulder joint are the biceps tendons and rotator cuff tendons.

Bicep tendons are the two tendons that join the bicep muscle of the upper arm to the shoulder. They are referred to as the long head and short head of the bicep.

Rotator cuff tendons are a group of four tendons that join the head of the humerus to the deeper muscles of the rotator cuff. These tendons provide more stability and mobility to the shoulder joint.

Nerves

Nerves carry messages from the brain to muscles to direct movement (motor nerves) and send information about different sensations such as touch, temperature and pain from the muscles back to the brain (sensory nerves). The nerves of the arm pass through the shoulder joint from the neck.

These nerves form a bundle at the region of the shoulder called the brachial plexus. The main nerves of the brachial plexus are the musculocutaneous, axillary, radial, ulnar and median nerves.

Blood vessels

Blood vessels travel along with the nerves to supply blood to the arms. Oxygenated blood is supplied to the shoulder region by the subclavian artery that runs below the collarbone. As it enters the region of the armpit, it is called the axillary artery and further down the arm, it is called the brachial artery. The main veins carrying de-oxygenated blood back to the heart for purification include:

  • Axillary vein: this vein drains into the subclavian vein
  • Cephalic vein: this vein is found in the upper arm and branches at the elbow into the forearm region. It drains into the axillary vein.
  • Basilic vein: this vein runs opposite the cephalic vein, near the triceps muscle. It drains into the axillary vein.

Elbow Anatomy

The elbow is a complex joint formed by the articulation of three bones –the humerus, radius and ulna. The elbow joint helps in bending or straightening of the arm to 180 degrees and assists in lifting or moving objects.

The bones of the elbow are supported by

  • Ligaments and tendons
  • Muscles
  • Nerves
  • Blood vessels

Bones and Joints of the elbow joint:

The elbow joint is formed at the junction of three bones:

  • The Humerus (upper arm bone) forms the upper portion of the joint. The lower end of the humerus divides in to two bony protrusions known as the medial and lateral epicondyles which can be felt on either side of the elbow joint.
  • The Ulna is the larger bone of the forearm located on the inner surface of the joint. The curved shape of the ulna articulates with the humerus.
  • The Radius is the smaller bone of the forearm situated on the outer surface of the joint. The head of the radius is circular and hollow which allows movement with the humerus. The connection between the ulna and radius helps the forearm to rotate.

The elbow consists of three joints from articulation of the three bones namely:

  • Humero-ulnar joint is formed between the humerus and ulna and allows flexion and extension of the arm.
  • Humero-radial joint is formed between the radius and humerus, and allows movements like flexion, extension, supination and pronation.
  • Radio-ulnar joint is formed between ulna and radius bones, and allows rotation of the lower arm.

Articular cartilage lines the articulating regions of the humerus, radius and ulna. It is a thin, tough, flexible, and slippery surface that acts as a shock absorber and cushion to reduce friction between the bones. The cartilage is lubricated by synovial fluid, which further enables the smooth movement of the bones.

Muscles of the Elbow Joint

There are several muscles extending across the elbow joint that help in various movements. These include the following:

  • Biceps brachii: upper arm muscle enabling flexion of the arm
  • Triceps brachii: muscle in the back of the upper arm that extends the arm and fixes the elbow during fine movements
  • Brachialis: upper arm muscle beneath the biceps which flexes the elbow towards the body
  • Brachioradialis: forearm muscle that flexes, straightens and pulls the arm at the elbow
  • Pronator teres: this muscle extends from the humeral head, across the elbow, and towards the ulna, and helps to turn the palm facing backward
  • Extensor carpi radialis brevis: forearm muscle that helps in movement of the hand
  • Extensor digitorum: forearm muscle that helps in movement of the fingers

Elbow joint ligaments and tendons:

The elbow joint is supported by ligaments and tendons, which provide stability to the joint.

Ligaments are a group of firm tissues that connect bones to other bones. The most important ligaments of the elbow joint are the:

  • Medial or ulnar collateral ligament: comprised of triangular bands of tissue on the inner side of the elbow joint.
  • Lateral or radial collateral ligament: a thin band of tissue on the outer side of the elbow joint.

Together, the medial and lateral ligaments are the main source of stability and hold the humerus and ulna tightly in place during movement of the arm.

  • Annular ligament: These are a group of fibers that surrounds the radial head, and holds the ulna and radius tightly in place during movement of the arm.

The ligaments around a joint combine to form a joint capsule that contains synovial fluid.

Any injury to these ligaments can lead to instability of the elbow joint.

Tendons are bands of connective tissue fibers that connect muscle to bone. The various tendons which surround the elbow joint include:

  • Biceps tendon: attaches the biceps muscle to the radius, allowing the elbow to bend
  • Triceps tendon: attaches the triceps muscle to the ulna, allowing the elbow to straighten

Nerves of the elbow joint:

The main nerves of the elbow joint are the ulnar, radial and median nerves. These nerves transfer signals from the brain to the muscles that aid in elbow movements. They also carry the sensory signals like touch, pain, and temperature back to the brain.

Any injury or damage to these nerves causes pain, weakness or joint instability.

Blood vessels:

Arteries are blood vessels that carry oxygen-pure blood from the heart to the hand. The main artery of the elbow is the brachial artery that travels across the inside of the elbow and divides into two small branches below the elbow to form the ulnar and the radial artery.


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