The Shoulder Joint

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Source: OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

The shoulder joint is called the glenohumeral joint. This is a ball-and-socket joint formed by the articulation between the head of the humerus and the glenoid cavity of the scapula. This joint has the largest range of motion of any joint in the body. However, this freedom of movement is due to the lack of structural support and thus the enhanced mobility is offset by a loss of stability.

The large range of motions at the shoulder joint is provided by the articulation of the large, rounded humeral head with the small and shallow glenoid cavity, which is only about one third of the size of the humeral head. The socket formed by the glenoid cavity is deepened slightly by a small lip of fibrocartilage called the glenoid labrum, which extends around the outer margin of the cavity. The articular capsule that surrounds the glenohumeral joint is relatively thin and loose to allow for large motions of the upper limb. Some structural support for the joint is provided by thickenings of the articular capsule wall that form weak intrinsic ligaments. These include the coracohumeral ligament, running from the coracoid process of the scapula to the anterior humerus, and three ligaments, each called a glenohumeral ligament, located on the anterior side of the articular capsule. These ligaments help to strengthen the superior and anterior capsule walls.

However, the primary support for the shoulder joint is provided by muscles crossing the joint, particularly the four rotator cuff muscles. These muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis) arise from the scapula and attach to the greater or lesser tubercles of the humerus. As these muscles cross the shoulder joint, their tendons encircle the head of the humerus and become fused to the anterior, superior, and posterior walls of the articular capsule. The thickening of the capsule formed by the fusion of these four muscle tendons is called the rotator cuff. Two bursae, the subacromial bursa and the subscapular bursa, help to prevent friction between the rotator cuff muscle tendons and the scapula as these tendons cross the glenohumeral joint. In addition to their individual actions of moving the upper limb, the rotator cuff muscles also serve to hold the head of the humerus in position within the glenoid cavity. By constantly adjusting their strength of contraction to resist forces acting on the shoulder, these muscles serve as “dynamic ligaments” and thus provide the primary structural support for the glenohumeral joint.

Injuries to the shoulder joint are common. Repetitive use of the upper limb, particularly in abduction such as during throwing, swimming, or racquet sports, may lead to acute or chronic inflammation of the bursa or muscle tendons, a tear of the glenoid labrum, or degeneration or tears of the rotator cuff. Because the humeral head is strongly supported by muscles and ligaments around its anterior, superior, and posterior aspects, most dislocations of the humerus occur in an inferior direction. This can occur when force is applied to the humerus when the upper limb is fully abducted, as when diving to catch a baseball and landing on your hand or elbow. Inflammatory responses to any shoulder injury can lead to the formation of scar tissue between the articular capsule and surrounding structures, thus reducing shoulder mobility, a condition called adhesive capsulitis (“frozen shoulder”).


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: