Use of a trekking pole or walking staff has increased in popularity for the mainstream hiker over the last decade and older adults being more active in general have migrated in this direction as well. The benefits of use by far out way any of the mild hassles that may arise, though a periodic concern is that of shoulder pain to those with a history of shoulder injury. This article discusses proper fitting and modifications thereof to prevent mechanical pain arising about the shoulder.
In general, carbon fiber is lighter than aluminum and there is the option of a spring loaded shaft or tip to further ease mechanical forces conveyed to the arm. The spring loaded shock absorber should be able to be turned off via a twist of the shaft.
The traditional fitting height for TREKKING POLES is such that the elbow is positioned at a 90 degree angle while grasping the grip. REI advises the following pole length fitting parameters
- <5’1” use 39” poles
- 5’1” to 5’7” use 43”
- 5’8” to 5’11” use 47”
- 6’ and over use 51”
For a HIKING STAFF, the Brazos Walking Stick Co advises
- <4’8” use a 41” staff
- <5’4” use 48’
- 5’4’ to 5’11” use 55”
- 6’ and over use 58”
Hand position with both the Trekking pole and hiking staff are better than opting to use a traditional cane on relatively flat outdoor surfaces. The hand position with the former allows for less resultant impact generated from the ground back into the shoulder socket. A traditional cane should be the mainstay indoors with the grip of the cane positioned at wrist height (arm at side) while the cane tip is positioned just in front and to the side of the foot.
The greatest concern with pole or staff use is during an uphill climb; a similar concern with cross country skiers. The forces generated back to the shoulder are significant with the arm placed in a mid-range position, classically with the elbow being straight. The retailer’s advise to shorten the pole by 5-10 cm. while sliding down the shaft of the staff in similar fashion. The staff thus has the practical advantage here since the adjustment can occur naturally as the grade of the hill changes, as opposed to having to manually change the length of the pole.
The author advises that the correct amount of shortening would induce slight bending at the elbow which in turn disperses loads to the elbow sparing the shoulder in this more tenuous position. As one subsequently steps upward, the elbow is straightened, allowing the user to generate a greater force thru the pole/staff with less potential irritation to the shoulder.
Pole and staff length is increased as one descends and again the goal is to maintain just a bit of bending at the elbow at point of pole/staff impact to the ground, once again dispersing the forces at the elbow and not the shoulder.
Functional triceps strength now plays a greater role with the bent elbow at impact concept and incorporating this type of exercise in one’s strengthening program would be helpful.
As always, good posture can alleviate additional impact to the shoulder. Keep shoulder blades back and down with sternum lifted and torso as perpendicular to the ground (as able) while hiking.
Stretching including the shoulders is advised before and after a hike to minimize residual joint pain and muscular stiffness. A HIKERS STRETCHING PROGRAM can be found on the TCS website: tcshoulder.com.
Hiking Shoulder Stretches
- Stretching should never cause pain, decrease intensity if there is discomfort that is more than mild. If there is sharp pain, have the joint evaluated by a PT or MD.
- Hold these stretches for 5 to 10 seconds, rest for 3-5 seconds and continue with repetitions until perceived mobility gains abate.
- Position your torso in neutral “stand tall” to further enhance the stretch.
- Stretch your whole body before and after hiking to minimize joint irritation and soft tissue tightness.
- Appreciate levels of discomfort at the end positions of your stretches prior to the hike. If this significantly increases after a hike, it is advisable to have the involved joint assessed by a PT or MD to define and subsequently address the underlying problem.