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This is a plain English summary of an original research article. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and reviewer(s) at the time of publication.

A large trial of interventions for people with shoulder pain showed that they benefitted more from personalised exercise programmes supervised by physiotherapists than from an exercise leaflet and standard advice. It also showed that guiding shoulder injections using ultrasound provided no added benefit over the usual, non-guided approach to these injections.

Pain associated with structures around the shoulder joint is called subacromial pain syndrome (SAPS). SAPS is common, and accounts for half of all shoulder pain.

All participants in this trial received a steroid injection into the subacromial space next to the shoulder joint, but some injections were guided by ultrasound and some were unguided. All participants were encouraged to exercise, but for some this was guided by physiotherapists and for others this was provided via a standardised exercise leaflet.

Participants reported greater improvements in pain and shoulder function when a physiotherapist prepared and supervised their exercise programme. This involved up to six clinic-based sessions with the physiotherapist plus a home exercise programme. Participants who had the physiotherapist-guided exercise were more likely to carry out the daily exercises at home than those provided with the exercise leaflet.

Ultrasound guidance makes steroid injections more precise. But it requires specialist skills, training and equipment and therefore adds cost. The study found guided injections were no more beneficial than non-guided injections.

What’s the issue?

About one in ten adults experience SAPS and it is usually treated without surgery. They may have a steroid injection into the subacromial space in the shoulder and be sent home with a standard leaflet with advice about regular shoulder exercises.

For some people, this initial intervention does not reduce their pain.  This could be because they are not performing the recommended exercises, because the exercises are not sufficiently personalised, or because the needle is placed inaccurately when the steroid injection is given. Some experts argue that ultrasound imaging, which shows the tissue and the needle, might improve precision and outcomes.

Small trials of ultrasound-guided injections have produced mixed results. And there is little information on the best way to deliver exercise treatments. This study – the largest of its kind – offers reliable data on the best way to help people with SAPS.

What’s new?

The study randomly placed 256 adults with SAPS into one of four treatment groups:

  1. guided injection and exercise leaflet
  2. unguided injection and exercise leaflet
  3. guided injection and physiotherapist-led exercise programme
  4. unguided injection and physiotherapist-led exercise programme.

Individuals were followed up at six weeks, six months and a year after treatment. Researchers recorded pain and other symptoms on a scale and asked about time off work and other relevant measures.

The results showed:

  • Physiotherapist-led exercise improved pain and function scores after six months compared to the standard leaflet. However, the differences in improvements were reduced by 12 months.
  • More people in the physiotherapist-led exercise groups reported that they performed daily exercises after six weeks (86% versus 64%) and six months (63% vs 51%) than those who received the leaflet. But by 12 months, the difference in how often the exercises were performed had disappeared.
  • Using ultrasound to guide steroid injections did not improve symptoms compared with unguided injections.

Overall, the results indicate that personalised exercise programmes help people with SAPS but ultrasound guidance for steroid injections makes no difference to outcomes.

Why is this important?

The study shows that people with SAPS benefit from physiotherapist-led exercise programmes, which are tailored to individual needs, supervised in up to six sessions and supplemented with a home exercise programme. This approach was more effective at six months than simply sending patients home with a leaflet that contains standardised exercise advice and instruction. It is likely that this benefit was not seen at 12 months because people were performing the exercises less often by then. The challenge is to keep people doing exercises over the longer-term.

However, the results challenge the idea that steroid injections into the subacromial space should be guided by ultrasound imaging. The study found no improvement in symptoms over unguided injections to justify the additional cost and additional expertise required.

What’s next?

The evidence shows that patients with SAPS would benefit from an exercise programme that is individualised, supervised and progressed over time by physiotherapists. But it suggests the added cost of using ultrasound to guide steroid injections is not worth it, at least for first-time shoulder injections.

Unguided injections would potentially reduce the cost of treatment since the additional specialist skills, training and equipment needed to guide injections by ultrasound would not be needed.

The study showed that only half of patients, including those on the physiotherapist-led programme, were still performing daily exercise after twelve months. Further research is needed to find ways to maintain exercise behaviour – and accompanying reductions in symptoms – in the medium-to-long term.

You may be interested to read

The full study: Roddy E, and others. Optimising outcomes of exercise and corticosteroid injection in patients with subacromial pain (impingement) syndrome: a factorial randomised trial. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2020;0:1-11

Systematic review of exercise for shoulder pain: Naunton J, and others. Effectiveness of progressive and resisted and non-progressive or non-resisted exercise in rotator cuff related shoulder pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Clinical Rehabilitation. 2020;34:1198-1216

A further systematic review: Gutiérrez-Espinoza H, and others. Effect of supervised physiotherapy versus home exercise program in patients with subacromial impingement syndrome: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Physical Therapy in Sport. 2020;41:34-42

NHS information on shoulder impingement


Funding: This research was supported by the NIHR Research for Patient Benefit programme.

Conflicts of Interest: The study authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Disclaimer: Summaries on NIHR Evidence are not a substitute for professional medical advice. They provide information about research which is funded or supported by the NIHR. Please note that the views expressed are those of the author(s) and reviewer(s) and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.

NIHR Evidence is covered by the creative commons, CC-BY licence. Written content and infographics may be freely reproduced provided that suitable acknowledgement is made. Note, this license excludes comments and images made by third parties, audiovisual content, and linked content on other websites.

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