Don’t Shrug Off Shoulder Pain

Don’t Shrug Off Shoulder Pain

Don’t Shrug Off Shoulder Pain

Most shoulder pain is treatable without drugs or surgery

Shoulder Pain Diagnosis:

Shoulder pain can ruin your day and night. Do you have a twinge of shoulder pain when you roll over at night? How about when you reach overhead to put on a shirt? If you do, you’re not alone. Shoulder pain is one of the more common complaints that bring people in to see their occupational or physical therapist. The good news is that with the right mix of rest, hands-on treatment and strengthening, shoulder stiffness and pain can resolve.

Other types of shoulder pain: 

  • shoulder pain from sleeping
  • shoulder pain when lifting arm
  • shoulder blade pain

The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the human body. Its motion allows us to throw a ball to our dogs in Washington Park and reach the skis from the roof rack. There are 16 major muscles that control the shoulder blade (scapula) and many of these, the trapezius for example, move the shoulder in several different directions. The often-injured rotator cuff is comprised of four individual muscles, the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis.

Posture Matters

Slouching posture, repetitive strain and trauma can all lead to inflammation and weakness of the tendons of the shoulder. Shoulder tendonitis, dislocation and rotator cuff tears are common. Injuries occur when the arm moves beyond its normal range of motion or from simple age related wear and tear.

Occupational and physical therapists work to return an injured shoulder to a state of stability and strength. There are literally hundreds of shoulder exercises that can facilitate the return of motion and performance. With the guidance of an expert in shoulder rehabilitation an individual with a shoulder injury, even one needing surgery, can usually return to sport. Therapy focuses on specific goals and can include a pain free return to a Live Love Flow yoga class or master’s tournament play at the Seattle Tennis Club. Addressing sleep disturbances from shoulder pain is often the highest priority for those with shoulder pain.

Here are some shoulder pain exercises / tips for relief:

Sleeping with a small pillow or blanket under the arm places the elbow a few inches away from the body. In this position the rotator cuff and tissue of the shoulder get better blood flow which often leads to a decrease in pain.

Lawnmower Step 1
Lawnmower Step 2

There are several motions that can improve the health of the muscles and tendons of the shoulder. One movement is referred to as a “lawnmower”. From a standing or sitting position the arm reaches down and across the body and then moves back to the starting position, as if you were pulling the string to start a lawn mower. Reaching down and across moves the shoulder blade to the side and moving into the pulling position strengthens the muscles that stabilize the shoulder.

Shoulder pain Rotator Cuff exercises:

A second helpful movement is the “robbery”. With the arms by the side, hold the elbows in a ninety-degree angle. From this starting position rotate the hands away from the body while keeping the elbows tucked-in by the side. This moves the shoulder into external rotation. The muscles of the rotator cuff are activated with this movement.

Moving the arms from the externally rotated position into an overhead position is called a “hold-up”. (PICTURE). This movement activates the muscles that provide a base of support for the shoulder blades and enable us to reach overhead.

If these motions cause discomfort you should discontinue the motion and contact a therapist who specializes in shoulder rehabilitation (here!). If you spend many hours at a desk it may be helpful to perform five repetitions of each movement once or twice a day. With guidance for technique these exercises can be added into a general fitness routine and be performed several days a week. It is essential that these movements are pain free before adding resistance.

If you find that your shoulder hurts when reaching overhead or is uncomfortable when sleeping you should seek medical attention. Most shoulder injuries, including rotator cuff tears, happen gradually over time. The sooner you see a shoulder specialist the sooner you can sleep without shoulder pain.

Written by Aaron Shaw, OTR/L, CHT, CSCS
Occupational Therapist
Certified Hand Therapist
Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist


I have terrible posture but I have never experience shoulder pain. Do you think it’s a good idea to do these work outs even though I don’t have shoulder problems?

Great article! Thank you for including the picture demonstrations of the work out! It makes it so much easier to understand.

On some occasions I sleep too much and I tend to sleep in a position that cause me shoulder pain. What position should I sleep when taking a long rest after work and will getting a deep massage help with shoulder pain?

Would it be wise to do these exercises when I already have shoulder pain, or would they just strain the muscle more?

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