#PTonICE Daily Show – Thursday, January 11th, 2024 – Dry needling the subscapularis muscle

In today’s episode of the PT on ICE Daily Show, Dry Needling lead faculty Ellison Melrose discusses key set-up, anatomy, and technique to target the subscapularis muscle.

Take a listen to the podcast episode or check out the full show notes on our blog at www.ptonice.com/blog

If you’re looking to learn more about our live dry needling courses, check out our dry needling certification which consists of Upper Body Dry Needling, Lower Body Dry Needling, and Advanced Dry Needling.


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All right, U2 is up. Good morning, PT on ICE Daily Show. My name is Dr. Ellison Melrose. I am lead faculty with the dry needling division of Ice. I am here to piggyback off of the Fitness Athlete Fridays for the past two weekend, or two weeks. Two weeks ago, we had Alan going over the evaluation process for determining if the gene is subscapularis muscle. And then last week, Zach Wong went over some treatment techniques, and he hinted at one of the most efficient ways to treat the subscapularis muscle, which is dry needling. So what I wanted to do today was to go over a demonstration of how to needle the subscap muscle safely and efficiently.

So in order to be able to do this muscle, our patient needs to be able to get 90 degrees of shoulder abduction with some moderate external rotation as well. So patient positioning, they’re going to be laying with their arm up in this abducted and externally rotated position. My patient here has some decent mobility, so she doesn’t have any issues getting into that position. But for someone that maybe struggled with maintaining that position for the duration of treatment, we can bring their shoulder down slightly. And you can also prop their wrist up so they’re not in so much external rotation as well. But again, this patient doesn’t have issues getting into that range of motion. The reason we need to have this position is because we need this scapula to be protracted out from underneath the thorax for this to be a safe and effective drain forming technique. So we need to be able to palpate the lateral border of the scapula and appreciate the difference between the lateral border of the scapula and where the lateral border of the thorax is. In this position as well, we can think about the rib cage. It’s not parallel, or excuse me, perpendicular with the table in this position. It’s kind of diving around. It’s oval shaped, right? So it’s diving around and posterior and a little bit medial there. So if we get that scapula out from underneath that rib cage, we have some good real estate to needle this muscle. This is a direct technique. So we go for different types of techniques. We have a threading technique and a direct technique. Typically, when we talk about direct techniques, they are direct to a bony contact. So in order to ensure that we’re at the depth of the subscapularis muscle, we need to have a bony contact with our needle in that subscap fossa there.

So again, patient positioning here. Some other considerations in this area. A, we have the lung field. Appreciating where that rib cage is and how it’s diving away and where our scapula is in relationship to that. But we also have some other sensitive structures in the axilla. So we have our brachial plexus that actually runs just anterior to the subscap muscle and exits down the medial humerus here. So we want to orient ourself to where the brachial pulse is as to avoid needling in that region, right? So the best window for subscapularis is going to be just distal in the axilla. If we go too distal, we’re likely going to miss that bony contact that we need for ensuring that we’re in the subscapularis muscle. Some other considerations here is we have a really strong and powerful motor branch or motor nerve, the thoracodorsal nerve, that runs along that lateral border of the ribcage, which innervates the lats. So if we were to interact with that, we would likely get some fairly strong um, lat muscle activation. So typically it kind of looks like that sprinkler, um, dance move that we all know too well from middle school dance. Um, but so those are our main considerations. So one field and some other sensitive structures, uh, the brachial plexus and brachial artery and vein in that axilla. So again, first we want to bring our patient into this abducted externally rotated position. If you feel like you can’t appreciate the, or you don’t have a good real estate of that scapula, you can assist by protracting, like grabbing the medial border of the scapula and pulling it laterally. So again, you should be able to appreciate lateral border of the thorax is there, lateral border of there. So we have a good two inches of room to play with. A lot of these athletes that have So we’re thinking the athletic population would be one where we want to treat this. Crossfitters, for example, they also have fairly hypertrophy flats. So that’s another thing that we have to appreciate is we’re going to have to be sinking in to get, again, that bony contact on the scapula. Another common patient population that you may be needling this muscle in is going to be the thawing stages of frozen shoulder, right? So this person was able to They’re now in that pain-free, able to access at least 90 degrees of shoulder abduction, or post-op rotator cuff, where they’re really struggling with some of that end range shoulder abduction, external rotation, and shoulder flexion even. Sub-scalp is going to be a good muscle target for those patients as well. So before we do anything, we want to prep the tissues. So we’re going to clean the skin.

I prefer to do most of my needling techniques in standing, especially for this muscle, as sometimes our fingers are not going to, like just our finger pressure is not going to be enough pressure to sink in to approximate that subscap fossa that we want to. We’re going to be needing a longer needle than we think. So for Sam, I have a 75 millimeter needle. Some folks may even need longer and that’s just based on excess muscular tissue, the lat, the pec muscle that we’re kind of orienting ourself around, the skin recoil. So as we compress that tissue, once you release, that skin recoil is going to potentially move that needle. If we don’t have a long enough needle and it will choke up on the handle there and it’ll pull it off of that bony contact that we’ve Spent so much time finding. So we want to make sure that we have a long enough needle to maintain that bone depth.

Another thing to consider is when we’re with ice, we are dry needling with e-stim, right? So we’re not doing a ton of heavy pistoning. Again, there’s a lot of sensitive structures in this area, so it’s usually not very comfortable to piston a lot. So we’re going to be wanting to layer in the strategy with Easton. When thinking about ECM, you always want to be thinking in pairs. So how can we pair this muscle with another muscle that may be doing something, a similar movement pattern that may be also restricted, or something that’s going to reach that motor threshold at the same time? So we want to be thinking about muscle spindle density in our muscle tissue of what’s going to reach that motor response around the same time. Typically, I like to pair subscapularis with the clavicular fibers of pec major. So we have another technique for pec major clavicular fibers. Of course. Of course. Why was I logged out? OK, well, I was logged out on Instagram, so we’re just going to continue on YouTube here. So we want to maintain the or we want to be able to pair this muscle with another similar muscle that has a similar muscle density. And it’s also going to be limiting some of that external rotation in this position as well. So I like to pair those muscles. For today, we’re just going to go with the dry needling demonstration of subscapularis.

So again, we want to orient our patient into abduction external rotation. We want to maintain an appreciation of that lateral border of the thorax. And then we’re going to compress the tissue down, down towards the subscap fossa. Usually your palpation here is going to be the most assertive part of the technique. And you might get what we call the Grunner sign, where some people don’t tolerate that very well. So orient yourself to that brachial artery. We can find the pulse. So typically I would come around to the other side, palpate the pulse here. Pulse is under my index finger, so I’ve oriented myself to where that neuromuscular bundle is, and I’m going to be treating just distal to that. So, right in here. All right, so we have an appreciation of that anterior surface of the scapula. Again, using a 75 millimeter needle. So I’m doing a firm palpation, my medial aspect of my hand, so my pinky, ring finger are appreciating that lateral border of the thorax. My needle angle is going to be perpendicular to the scapula here. So really, it’s fairly directly anterior to posterior, almost paralleling, or excuse me, yeah, paralleling the ribcage, anterior to posterior. So we’re almost, we’re very close to that ribcage, but we’re going, we’re paralleling it, so we’re not going to be interacting with in a postural space or lung field here. So again, appreciating lateral border, knowing where that neurovascular structure is, that means safety, lateral border of our scapula, firm compression down. I feel that muscle. You can always do a little internal rotation, good and relaxed, to feel that muscle activation under your fingertips, compressing, giving yourself a little treatment window directly anterior-posterior. and you’re on bone right there. So if you look at this, you’re like, dang, she’s got a lot of needle left over, but let’s allow for that tissue recoil. So as we let for that tissue recoil, we have about a centimeter left. So a 60 millimeter needle would not have been long enough to appreciate that depth of the sunscan. As we allow for that tissue recoil, you may start to see like the needle directions a little bit and it may look a little bit suspect, but knowing that we’re on that bony contact, that needle tip is not going to be going anywhere once we’ve reached that depth of the scapula. So we can allow for that tissue recoil and set up our next needle and then set up the stem and feel fairly confident that that needle is not going to go anywhere. Main concern with safety here is if this person were to move their arm, right? That would be something to be concerned. or if we’re interacting with that thoracodorsal nerve and we get a very big motor response into that sprinkler dance move. So when we are bringing the stim up and looking for that motor response, typically I would suggest maintaining that appreciation of where that lateral order is and kind of bringing that needle back into its original orientation. Once you feel confident that we’re not getting any sort of interaction a less of a motor response than what we want or more of a motor response than what we want, we feel fairly confident that leaving that needle at that bony contact is a safe needling technique. We are rarely or really ever, we shouldn’t be leaving our patients stimming with needles in them by themselves. I feel like that is a best practice to be in the area with our patients. And so if this needle were to move slightly or anything like that, you can always maintain contact or redirect as needed. So there we have the dry needling demonstration for subscapularis muscle. Again, my name is Dr. Allison Melrose. I am the faculty with the dry needling division. Some of our upcoming upper quarter courses where you can catch this technique and a bunch of other techniques. We have a three-day course in Longmont, January 26th through 28th. Paul will be out in Wisconsin, February 3rd through the 4th. I will be down in Greenville, South Carolina, February 17th, 18th. Paul will be out in Bozeman, March 2nd through the 3rd. And then I’ll be out in Maryland. It’s Sparks, Maryland, 22nd through the 24th. So there we have our upcoming courses. And this, hopefully, was a good review or a new driving learning technique that you guys can use in the clinic. Awesome.

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