Shoulder Anatomy 101

The shoulder is one of the most complicated pieces of machinery in the body. As a ball and socket joint, it is able to both lift and lower stuff, and even rotate at the same time. The shoulder has more flexibility and a greater range of motion than the body’s other ball and socket joint, the hip. Its components work in concert to absorb the all of the forces involved in flexing, extending, and throwing. The shoulder is home to seven muscles, three of which attach the scapula (or shoulder blade) to the rib cage. The other four make up the rotator cuff.

This sophisticated equipment has been on my mind lately, because I used to sleep with my right arm slipped underneath my pillow, and my shoulder no longer appreciates that position. The only other time it hurts is when I’m knitting. I have a runner’s approach to pain, which means that I endure it until it goes away. And it usually does go away——except when it doesn’t. And this is one of those times.

I knit with the English method, so my arm moves a lot on every stitch. There is no doubt in my mind that this is the culprit, because when I knit with my arm wedged between my side and an immovable object, like an armrest, or my cat, I’m forced to use only my wrist to move the yarn. That doesn’t hurt my shoulder at all, but it’s still not very good news.

So, I’m going to take a little break from knitting. I’m going to catch up on my New York Review of Books subscription, which has been stacking up on my reading chair. I’m going to reread Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, start David Mitchell’s new novel, finish season five of Six Feet Under on DVD, and write the third installment of Throwing My Yarn . Oh, I’ll be finishing work on my own novel, too.

And just in case you’re worried that I won’t have any material for this blog, I’m also going to attempt, for the third time, to teach myself Continental. I’m a fast knitter with English, so Continental always makes me feel like I’m learning to walk all over again. Especially when I work purl stitches. If anyone out there has successfully made the leap from English to Continental, I’d sure appreciate hearing about it.

And so would my shoulder.


  • donab says:

    I switched from English to Continental after I’d been knitting for about 3 years. So I guess that was about 7 years ago. I was actually pretty slow when knitting English and find I’m much faster Continental, so the potential zippiness reward made the temporary clumsiness worth it. I don’t have much more advice than to knit something relatively simple, where your guage won’t matter so much while you practice, so you can concentrate on the yarn and your hands and not on the pattern.

    The bad news is that I have pains in my left elbow these days, which I’m sure has to do with the way I use my first two fingers to manipulate the yarn over and around the needle (mostly purling). But now I can switch back and forth when one side hurts, so I can rest without giving up knitting entirely!

  • Lee says:

    I learned how to knit a few months ago. I am a “thrower”, and not a particularly fast one at that. I learned continental because it seemed more efficient , but what I discovered what that my wrists suddenly began to hurt like crazy. So much that I had to start wearing braces when I slept to keep my wrists straight.

    Moral? My favorite hobby will cripple me.

    Seriously, I have found relief by restricting knitting only in places where I am physically comfortable. So I can’t take my knitting everywhere I go, sigh, but at least I’m not in such agony anymore.

    Good luck!

  • kat says:

    Hopefully the third attempt at Continental will be the charm. My repetitive stress points were in my hands themselves. So out of necessity, I too taught myself Continental. Initially, my gauge was tighter with Continental, but once I got the bugs out of it I’m pretty even. Even enough to switch off mid-project. Not only is it easier on my hands, but it led me to experiment with two-handed fair isle color work.

    Not that you don’t have enough books on your list, but if you have room for one more, try “pain free” by P. Egoescue (sp). Life changing.

  • Jordan says:

    I taught myself (via the web) to knit english in december, I switched to continental in march. The purl stitch is weird, but you get used to it prety quickly. I’ve learned as much as I possibly can in the last few months of knitting (I’m now starting my second pair of wearable socks) and I find that continental helps me do it much faster than I was.

    It’s amazing how knitting can relax a poor college student who quit smoking (hooray!)

  • john says:

    I’ve done both. And I agree with you in that it feels like you’re learning to walk again. But I think like anything else, with enough practice you might even say one day, “oh, yeah..I USED to knit English”….My shoulder has the same problem, by the way. Sleep the same way, etc….

  • Daerlyn says:

    I knit English, as taught by assorted grandparents. I’ve tried Continental (mostly by accident), and was terribly terribly clumsy at it. I get the feeling it might be easier for southpaws, but not for me.

  • Daniel says:

    Just a few quick words. The record holder for the fastest knitter is a thrower, not a picker. I use my shoulders a lot, but alternate muscle groups when I tire one out. I taught myself continental by reading Japanesse magazines; the ones written in english where not clear and tend to be confusing (but this was back in ’93.) There are different ways to purl carrying the yarn on the left, though none of them will be as comfortable as knitting with the right. I only use continental when I need to do stranded colorwork or am working on knitting felt.

  • Tina says:

    I’m an avid knitter, but make my living as a massage therapist. You are probably dealing with a repetitive stress injury. I see this on my table alot–tennis elbow to problems caused by a computer mouse (which makes the shoulder really hurt.) Find a neuromuscular therapist in your area. It is not necessarily a pleasant feeling massage, but should definitely improve range of motion and eliminate pain. Keep in mind that it could take a few treatments. Knitting sometimes causes pain for me, but if I have one of my co-workers treat my shoulder and arm with NMT (neuromuscular therapy), the pain goes away and I can continue daily activities, which includes knitting! Good luck!

  • Cheri says:

    My mom taught me to knit continental when I was about 7, I purl continental too, but my mother purls English and can’t figure out how I learned to purl (beats me, I’ve been knitting for over 30 years and don’t even really remember learning it any more). Last year I taught a knitting class at our library and thought it might be easier to teach the English style, so I taught myself (but I find purling English a weird nightmare and it requires too much thought for me). I get bursitis in my right shoulder, continental is the only way to knit when it acts up) Good luck!

  • Jill says:

    I have knitted the English method for probably 55 years, with occasional attempts to switch on account of the supposed speed of the Continental method. I made the attempt again in December, knitting about 6 dishcloths, a pair of socks, etc. I still find it slower than English although I am getting better. I do not move much with either method. When knitting Eng. I have my right thumb underneath the needle and use my index finger to ‘throw’ the yarn. There is very little movement in either my shoulder or wrist. I am seriously thinking of giving up on the changeover and going to what I know best.

  • Christine says:


    I too am a massage therapist, a knitter and a crocheter. For those who dont like to be touched, yes there are people out there who prefer not to be, the best thing to do is use heat. Get the synovial fluids warm and moving to help lubricate the joint. For those who have wrist and arm pain… the parafin wax dips are GREAT! IF you find that heat is too much and you enjoy a massage… definetly… help us make money… and get a massage! ;o)

  • Sue says:

    I switched about a year and a half ago. I learned the English way from my Grandma when I was about 7 and had knit that way for almost 30 years. It was not an easy switch … started with a basic stocking stitch sweater for my first project. It did not turn out to badly. I have not looked back since I made the switch. Although I once in a while I pull out a crochet project and back it comes.

    Good Luck!

  • Jessica says:

    I, too, will be learning Continental as soon as I finish these socks. Between my continental friend always nagging me for my extra effort, and my impending arthritis, I think it is time to make the switch. But it’s like attempting to play guitar on the left, if you’re a righty, I agree. Heat is also good, and I’ve found the best therapy for my injured shoulder is yoga, hands down.

  • Sharah says:

    I knit “continental” but i learned English method. First of all, I think I should tell you that I knit the continental version that Annie Modesitt calls “combination knitting” I think it is a lot faster, and I think it is a lot less strain on my arms, and particularly my wrists. I really like it. My great aunt Marge taught me when i was struggleing with just plain knitting, back in 11th grade. I really liked it and purling made so much more sense to me. If you need more info, please let me know, I wI will help in anyway possible!

  • chris says:

    I first learned how to knit “English” style, but have taught myself how to knit both continental and the “combined” method . . . my continental purling still feels awkward, but when I’m knitting in the round and knitting continental, I just fly!

    I tend to switch to the other method when my shoulder or wrists get sore . . . very useful tactic!

    Good luck!

  • Eric says:

    If you’re already a fast knitter with American style, I think you’ll only get faster with Continental. Its the only way I can do it any more.

    BTW, I’ve been following your blog for a while, and just started my own. I’d love it if you would take a peek:

  • Kerry says:

    Have you tried a cold pack on your shoulder for 10 minutes when it begins to hurt?

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