How to reduce shoulder pain by improving strength and mobility

Shoulder pain

view of the shoulder joint from the front

One of the principles of Nutritious Movement is that the body adapts to what it does (or doesn’t do) most of the time.  So, if you have shoulder pain it’s worth noting that what we do most of the time – at least for the majority of us in today’s society – involves having our arms down by our side.  This means the tissues around the shoulders start to adapt to that and tighten up.

The shoulder is one of the most complex joints in the body because it’s a ball and socket.  There’s an infinite number of possible movements that it can perform.  When we only use our shoulders for a limited range of movements it’s no wonder they start to complain after a weekly tennis game!

Even if you exercise regularly, an hour out of your day at the gym is still outweighed by what you do with the other 23 hours.  That’s not a criticism.  We’re all already overwhelmed with life as it is, work and family responsibilities are time consuming.  So no matter how much you’re currently doing, fitting in more movement that specifically fits into the ‘exercise’ category (and therefore requires setting more time aside) might seem like an impossible task.

So, is exercise bad for my shoulder pain??

No, not at all!  Exercise is great for us and if you don’t currently do anything I highly recommend you find something that you enjoy.  It needs to be something that you don’t find a chore so you can start to incorporate more of it into your life.  All I’m saying is that exercise alone isn’t always enough, and can in fact exacerbate a pain complaint if you’re not careful.  Tight tissues under excessive load for short bursts of time are under strain, leaving you vulnerable to injury.

Specific corrective exercises performed consistently and well are invaluable.  It’s just that adherence is key and most of us struggle to fit them in.  It can help to tag a new habit onto an existing one.  My favourite time for that sort of thing is in the evening when I’m laying around watching TV anyway.  I lay on the floor and use a roller on my upper back, or I bolster my head and shoulders and find ways to stretch my arms and chest.

Fidget more!

It is possible to add more movement to our sedentary periods.  For example, whilst I’ve been writing this blog I’ve been standing in the kitchen with my laptop on piled boxes.  I’m stretching my calves with something under my feet.  Occasionally I’ve reached my arms up onto the cupboard in front of me to stretch my shoulders.  I’ve held onto the kitchen sink and squatted down several times to move both my shoulders and hips.  I’ve generally fidgeted my way through it, but my setup facilitates that.  If I sit to write or do admin, I sit on low bolsters and regularly change the position of my legs.

I’m digressing slightly from the subject of shoulders but bear with me.  The point is that a whole body approach helps with overall function.  Learning to move your body in unusual ways on a regular basis is good for you!

It’s not just the shoulders that pay the price of poor movement

If you don’t have shoulder pain but are aware of a limited range of movement, your shoulder tightness could be having a detrimental effect on your back, neck or even your hips.  The thoracic spine tends to stiffen up because it’s the part that has our ribs attached to it.  If we start to develop a forward curve of the upper back and forward head posture, it shifts the whole shoulder joint forward, limiting the range of movement available.  If your chest lifts with your arm every time you reach it up, your shoulder missed out on some movement but certain parts of your back might be getting too much.

Limitations in neck movement can have an effect on your shoulders.  This is because the spinal nerves of the cervical vertebrae relate to the shoulders.  Improving motor control around the neck can often benefit pain complaints – the better control you have over your movement, the more your nervous system trusts you.

Let’s not leave out those with overly mobile and unstable shoulders.  This can also cause pain and, again, relates back to the nervous system.  If you’re someone who has too much movement available in a joint, the connective tissue around it isn’t as effective at communicating with your brain.  Your brain and body through the nervous system are constantly sending and receiving feedback as to where you are in space.  Working on stability here would be the thing to give you more pain-free movement.

The first step to resolving shoulder pain is to notice what you do do most of the time

  1. The next time you’re walking, notice how your arms swing.  Do your arms cross in front of your body instead of going directly forward?  Do they get behind your hips on the back part of the swing or do they stop at the hips?
  2. Can you reach your arms up without your back bending or your ribs lifting?  Or does your chest lift with your arms when you reach up?
  3. Does your clothing restrict your movement and make it difficult to reach your arms overhead?  I’m guessing this is less the case since Covid and the working from home trend but it’s still worth checking!
  4. Do you carry a bag on one shoulder?  If you wear a rucksack do you only swing it on with your dominant arm?
  5. Do you click a mouse a thousand times a day with your dominant index finger?
  6. Is everything in your home at a convenient height, reducing the need to reach your arms up very often?
  7. If you often carry a small child, do you always carry them on one side, and lean into that side so they rest on your hip?

Okay, now I’ve noticed, what do I do about it?

Often when I’m walking, I might be carrying something.  That’s great functional movement so if you do find yourself carrying the shopping or a small child then great!  Be aware of how you’re doing it and you’ve just added a great core movement to your day without trying.  But, I recommend the next time you’re walking with your arms free, avoid the temptation to shove them in your pockets.  Let ’em swing!  Focus on the back part of the swing and let the forward part be passive.  This helps increase the power in your step and also adds to your shoulder movement.

It feels annoying at first but deliberately putting the things you use the most a little out of reach encourages you to, well, reach!  Wear clothing that’s comfortable enough to allow this without restriction.  Small, repetitive movements like clicking a mouse or carrying a bag on one side can add up to imbalance over time.  Challenge your brain as well as your shoulders and do things with your non-dominant side sometimes.

Carrying a small child on one hip consistently can cause also cause imbalances.  I recommend that you swap sometimes, carry them on the other side, or evenly on the front or back.  Get them involved and teach them to hold on a bit more to reduce the load and start building their strength.

Shoulder pain

Shoulder pain problems like impingements, rotator cuff problems, frozen shoulders are common.  Unfortunately, once you get a tear in a rotator cuff muscle there’s not much to be done other than operate to repair it.  Prevention is the best cure if at all possible, but post op recovery can still be quicker with care.  Seeing a therapist you trust to help heal an injury is recommended.  Bannerdale Osteopaths have been recommended by my clients as they take a whole body approach.  But, if you see someone who prescribes exercises that you struggle to fit in, or you’re not sure whether you’re doing them correctly, this is where the work I do comes into its own.

Was your answer to a lot of the questions above “I don’t know, I can’t tell”?  Or, have you been doing everything right but feel frustrated because you aren’t making progress?  Being observed by a professional can make all the difference and show you where you can improve.  A few private sessions with me can really help you to feel like you’re on the right track and making progress.

If paying for private sessions isn’t available to you right now, there are regular semi-private group sessions or one-off workshops that are a more affordable way to start getting to know your body.

Get in touch for a free telephone consultation, to see whether what I do might be of help to you.

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