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Relief for Shoulder Pain

Dec 8 2020
7 min read
close-up of hand on shoulder

Did you know that the structure of your shoulder makes it especially vulnerable to injury?

The shoulder joint is not a true ball and socket, like the hip joint, but instead relies on surrounding muscles, tendons and ligaments—which together make the rotator cuff—to stay in place. All of these components working together allows your shoulder to move in more ways than, say, your knee. It also means that there’s more opportunity for something to go wrong that can lead to shoulder pain.

If you’re aching, it may be helpful to take a deeper look at the causes of shoulder pain and how to treat it—and it could be encouraging to know that strengthening the area can help you have more pain-free days.

How Does Shoulder Pain Occur?

Shoulder pain is caused by the natural aging process, or by an acute injury or chronic overuse of the shoulder joint or any of the afore-mentioned supporting players. Discomfort, not surprisingly, usually worsens with activities that require movement of your arm or shoulder. Some common issues that lead to shoulder pain are:

Arthritis: Arthritis in the shoulder can cause swelling, pain and stiffness. The condition is more common in older adults. In younger people, it can result from an injury such as dislocation. Strengthening exercises can reduce pain and improve your range of motion.

Tendinitis or Bursitis: The shoulder’s tendons (the cords that connect muscle to bone) or bursae (fluid-filled sacs that serve as cushions between tendons and bone) can become inflamed and swollen with overuse, causing pain. Some common causes are playing tennis, racquetball or baseball; swimming; frequent heavy lifting above the head and even spending long hours painting a room. To treat the inflammation, your doctor or a physical therapist may use ultrasound (gentle sound wave vibrations) to improve blood flow, as well suggest that you ice the area and rest it. Most people begin gentle stretching and strengthening exercises as pain allows.

A Torn Tendon: Tendons can tear partially or completely, either by breaking into two pieces or by pulling away from the bone. This can happen as a result of injury or due to long-term wear and tear. Ice and rest may be enough to resolve this type of injury, but in severe cases surgery may be needed.

Dislocation: The shoulder is the most commonly dislocated major joint in the body. The arm bone can become separated from the shoulder socket, either as a result of injury or overuse. When the shoulder is dislocated, your arm will usually hang awkwardly out of its usual position. You may experience swelling, bruising and muscle spasms. A doctor can resolve the dislocation manually and will likely instruct you to wear a sling for a few weeks.

A Broken Bone: Breaking a bone in the shoulder can cause pain and swelling. It’s treated with immobilization (usually by wearing a sling for several weeks), and you may need surgery depending on the site and severity of the fracture.

Sometimes shoulder pain can stem from the cervical spine and an impingement on a nerve. Pain may radiate down your arm if this is the case. This warrants a different approach to treatment and should be considered if the discomfort is not responding to conventional care.

How to Treat Shoulder Pain

If your shoulder pain came on suddenly, you should see a doctor as soon as possible to identify the cause of the pain and get treatment before it gets worse. But if you know your pain is a result of long-term wear and tear or if the pain isn’t severe, try these tips:

Rest: You can take pressure off of your shoulder by avoiding activities that aggravate it or by wearing a sling that you can pick up at the drugstore. But be careful not to immobilize the shoulder joint for prolonged periods as it is susceptible to ‘freezing’—developing a limited range of motion—if not utilized.

Pain relievers: An over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as ibuprofen or naproxen, can help reduce pain and swelling.

Ice: Putting an ice pack on your shoulder four to eight times a day for up to 20 minutes each time can help relieve the pain.

Exercises for Shoulder Pain

Talk to your doctor or a physical therapist about exercises and stretches that can help your recovery. The exercises below are a few that he or she may prescribe to improve your range of motion and strengthen your shoulder muscles to minimize the risk of future injury. You can also try these to avoid shoulder pain the future (if you experience any pain when doing these exercises, stop and see a doctor):

Internal Shoulder Rotation

  • Lie down on your back.
  • Hold a light dumbbell (1- to 3-pounds) on the side of your body with the sore shoulder.
  • Keep your elbow bent so that the back of your upper arm is resting on the floor and your lower arm is vertical.
  • Slowly lower the dumbbell, getting it as close to the floor as possible without feeling pain.
  • Repeat 10 to 20 times.

External Shoulder Rotation

  • Lie on the floor on your good side, with your arm supporting your head.
  • Holding a light dumbbell (1- to 3-pounds) in the hand on your sore side, bend your elbow 90 degrees, letting your arm rest across your waist.
  • Keeping your upper arm close to your side, slowly raise the weight until your hand is pointed at the ceiling or as high as you can manage without feeling pain.
  • Repeat 10 to 20 times.

Pendulum Exercise

  • Stand next to an exercise bench and place your good knee and hand on it to support your upper body. Keep your lower back slightly arched.
  • Holding a small dumbbell (1- to 3-pounds) in the hand on your sore side, let your arm hang loose and straight. Keep your sore arm and your neck and shoulder relaxed.
  • Slowly make small circles by moving your shoulder.
  • Do 20 clockwise circles and then 20 counterclockwise.