You may not often think about your shoulders, but if you have shoulder pain, they're on your mind constantly. The good news is that finding relief from that pain might just be a few exercises away. The key lies in carefully moving your arm and in slowly strengthening the muscles around the joint.
You can try these simple techniques to reduce your shoulder pain and improve your daily function. However, as is the case whenever you're exercising with pain or an injury, always talk with your doctor or physical therapist first to make sure it's safe for you to exercise.
Gentle range-of-motion stretches and balanced strengthening exercises can help eliminate your irritating shoulder pain.
Common Causes of Shoulder Pain
While lots of different things can cause pain in your shoulder, some are more common than others. According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, arthritis in the shoulder joint or inflammation or tearing in the muscle tendons that surround it are typical culprits.
Instability caused by weak muscles or lax ligaments may also be to blame. Or if the pain is caused by an acute injury or trauma, a fracture could be the origin. While each condition has its own unique treatment (which is why it's always best practice to talk to your doctor), the techniques described below are a good first step toward pain relief.
If you have pain from general shoulder wear and tear or from a more acute injury to your arm, it's a good idea to begin with gentle movement. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, this range of motion exercise (called the Codman technique), is a good initial way to address your symptoms.
- Lean against a counter and allow the arm in pain to dangle straight down toward the floor.
- Start by rocking your body from side to side and letting your arm move with the motion of your trunk. At first, allow your body's motion to make the arm move but as it gets easier try to do some of the work with the shoulder itself.
- Repeat the back and forth movement 10 to 15 times and do this five to 10 sessions each day.
- You can also try a front-to-back movement or make clockwise and counter-clockwise circles.
2. Trapezius Stretch
Whether you're a desk jockey who uses the computer all day long or just someone who spends a lot of time in a car, tightness in your neck muscles can lead to shoulder soreness. This stretch, which targets the upper trapezius muscle that runs from your shoulder to the base of your skull, is an easy way to relieve ache in this area.
- Begin by doing a slight chin tuck so that your head is in a neutral position.
- Reach behind your back with your right arm
- Grab the top of your head with your left arm and pull it toward your left shoulder until you feel a moderate pull on the right side of your neck
- Hold this for 15 to 30 seconds and repeat two to three times before doing the same on the other side.
3. Side-Lying External Rotation
Exercises that activate the muscles surrounding the shoulder joint are an effective way to treat rotator cuff issues (one of the more common reasons for shoulder pain), according to a 2012 systematic review published in Physical Therapy. This side-lying external rotation exercise, which targets your rotator cuff and shoulder blade (scapular) muscles, is a great way to strengthen these areas.
- Lie on your side with the top elbow bent at a 90-degree angle and your palm resting on your stomach.
- Begin by bringing your shoulder blade into a down and back position.
- Keeping your scapula set and your elbow bent, lift your palm away from your abdomen and toward the ceiling.
- When you have rotated the arm as high as you can without causing pain, hold it here for a second before slowly lowering it down again.
- Try three sets of 10 repetitions two to three times a week.
You can add a small one- to two-pound weight when the exercise gets easier.
According to Eileen Compty, a doctor of physical therapy and a certified athletic trainer who's worked with the United States National Speed Skating team, the row exercise is an effective way to relieve strain on your shoulders because it pulls your shoulder blades into a down and back position.
- Begin by securing a resistance band around a door knob.
- Holding each end of the band and facing the doorway, pull back toward your body and allow your elbows to bend. The motion is similar to the one you make when you row the oars of a boat.
- As you make this movement, simultaneously squeeze both shoulder blades together like you're crushing a can of soda between them. Make sure not to shrug your shoulders as you do this.
- Hold the squeeze for a second and then release the tension in the band.
- Complete three sets of 10 repetitions several times a week.
5. Horizontal Abduction
The prone horizontal abduction exercise can help you recover after a shoulder injury, according to a report from the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. This exercise targets several different shoulder and scapular muscles, including your middle and lower trapezius, posterior deltoid, infraspinatus and teres minor.
- Lie on your stomach with the painful arm hanging off the edge of the bed.
- Bring your shoulder blade into a down and back position as though you are tucking it into your back pants pocket.
- With your palm facing your body, bring your arm out to the side until it's parallel to the ground. Be sure to keep the motion pain-free. You may need to stop before the arm is completely horizontal if you experience increased soreness.
- When you're unable to raise the arm any further, reverse the movement and lower your arm to your side again.
- Attempt three sets of eight reps three times a week.
When to Call the Doctor
Starting with light range-of-motion and strengthening exercises is frequently enough to give you some relief from your shoulder soreness, but this isn't always the case. If you're experiencing pain that's not getting better or that begins to worsen when you try the techniques described above, contact your physician.
Be sure to also report any numbness, tingling or weakness in your arm or shoulder to your doctor. Each of these may be a sign of a more significant issue and further evaluation or treatment may be necessary.
- American Academy of Family Physicians: “Shoulder Pain”
- Physical Therapy: “Exercise for Rotator Cuff Tendinopathy: A Systematic Review”
- American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons: “Rotator Cuff and Shoulder Conditioning Program”
- American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons: "Shoulder Pain and Common Shoulder Problems"