Aching Shoulders? Tips and Stretches

We depend on our shoulders for many daily activities: from brushing your teeth to driving your car.

Most of these movements may seem simple, but, as Magnolia therapist Ryan Marek points out, the shoulder is the most complicated joint in the human body.

“The best way to think of the shoulder is a ball and joint socket, similar to the hip,” Marek, who holds a doctorate in physical therapy, says. “But where it gets complicated is that, unlike the hip, the shoulder has to be more mobile, which makes your muscles have to work harder in a smaller space.”

The shoulder is one of the most mobile joints in the body, but it’s also one of the most unstable, depending on muscles and tendons (the rotator cuff) to hold the ball (humerus or upper arm bone) in place. Given that instability, it’s not too surprising that shoulder pain is a very common problem with numerous conditions:

  • Shoulder tendonitis
  • Shoulder bursitis
  • Shoulder impingement/rotator cuff syndrome
  • Rotator cuff tears
  • Loss of range of motion
  • Labrum tears
  • Frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis)

In order to prevent these types of injuries, it’s a good idea to regularly stretch the shoulder muscles. Here are two exercises that Marek recommends and demonstrates.

Posterior capsule/scapula stretch (cross arm stretch): Extend your arm in front of you, crossing the uninvolved arm holding the shoulder (as shown). From the relaxed position, extend the arm further across your body until you feel a stretch along the back and side of the shoulder. Hold and return to starting position.

Scapular retractions, or shoulder blade retractions

From a relaxed position (as shown) bring your shoulder blades together and slightly down. Be careful not to shrug your shoulders upward and engage your abdominal muscles so that you’re not arching your lower back. Hold and return to starting position.

Marek reports that the injury that he most regularly treats is shoulder impingement/rotator cuff syndrome. What occurs is that the person has lost shoulder joint space and that loss forces the ball and socket to grind or shear the cuff, which in turn can become inflamed with possible tendon tears. It’s painful and there’s a loss of movement and strength.

The good news is that it’s treatable, and likely without a need for surgery.

“Most surgeons that I’ve worked with say that surgery should not be the first option,” Marek says. “If you do undergo surgery, you will be in physical therapy for many months, so why not see if the problem can be resolved without it?”

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