How to Treat a Shoulder Muscle Strain

The shoulder is one of the most frequently injured parts of your body. Whether you're dealing with an acute injury from a sporting event or a chronic strain from pushing too much weight at the gym, this area of your body is susceptible to muscle strain.

Shoulder muscle strains can typically be treated with rest, ice, compression and elevation (Image: Milkos/iStock/GettyImages)

When you experience a shoulder strain, typically the muscles or tendons in the shoulder region are compromised, which results in the muscles or tendon stretching (often overstretching) or tearing. Since these small muscles assist the glenohumeral joint in moving the arm, any type of trauma, impact or overuse can result in a muscle strain or muscle tear.

Tip

A doctor or physical therapist can prescribe specific personalized exercises and treatment options for your shoulder muscle strain. Take over-the-counter pain medication to relieve pain and reduce inflammation.

Is It a Shoulder Strain?

While "Dr. Google" is one of the most common methods people use to diagnose anything, the only guaranteed way to diagnose a shoulder strain is to see your doctor. She can feel the area, run you through a series of exercises that test for instability or tears, and help you come up with a treatment plan. But if you're taking a "wait and see" approach or waiting for an appointment with your doctor, some of the more common shoulder strain symptoms to be aware of include:

  • Swelling and bruising
  • Pain and tenderness that gets worse with movement
  • Weakness
  • Changes in your range of motion

Treating a Shoulder Strain

If you suspect a muscle strain in the rotator cuff area, stop what you're doing and rest. Depending on the severity of your pain, your first line of defense is to follow the RICE protocol, which consists of rest, ice, compression and elevation.

  • Rest needs to be immediate and continue until the pain subsides. You may need to change your workouts or physical activity to allow your shoulder to heal.

  • Ice the area immediately following the injury. Apply an ice pack for 10 to 20 minutes at least three times a day. If the swelling has not changed after 48 to 72 hours, contact your doctor.

  • Compress or wrap the area with a brace, wrap or kinesiology tape

    (KT tape).

  • Elevate or prop your arm up in a comfortable position while applying ice. This helps to reduce swelling and promotes the healing process.

If home treatment does not make the muscle strain better or the pain and swelling are getting worse even with rest, you could be dealing with a more severe strain or tear. Don't wait too long to see your doctor. The sooner she can evaluate you and make a diagnosis, the faster you will feel relief.

A medically supervised treatment plan for a severe muscle strain will likely consist of rest, anti-inflammatory medicine, physical therapy and strengthening exercises. Depending on the location of the muscle strain and your pain level, a doctor may also use a brace or apply KT tape to help support the area and reduce the risk of making the injury worse.

Activity After a Shoulder Strain

Once your doctor clears you to resume activity, your first order of business is to make sure you have a series of shoulder-strengthening exercises to perform on a regular basis. Some of the more common exercises that physical therapists and physicians recommend for rehabbing a shoulder strain include external and internal rotation exercises you can do with elastic tubing, scapular retraction and setting exercises, wall pushups and upper-body exercises with light weights.

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