When Should I Seek Therapy for My Shoulder Pain?

When Should I Seek Therapy for My Shoulder Pain?

Aching Shoulder Blade Pain: When should you get help?

You might be reading this post while noting a dull ache in your shoulder. If that’s the case, you are in good company (unfortunately). Shoulder pain is one of the most common reasons why people seek the advice of a physician or an occupational or physical therapist. Here, I’m going to define symptoms that indicate when you should seek medical attention for your shoulder pain.

As an Occupational Therapist and Certified Hand Therapist, I’ve been treating shoulder injuries for over two decades. Broken shoulder blades, rotator cuff repair, shoulder impingement, and frozen shoulder make up most of the conversations of my day. One common topic of these conversations is talking about when it’s appropriate to ask for help from a doctor or therapist.

Don’t wait too long before treatment

I always take a deep breath when a client says, “I’ve had shoulder pain off and on for the last six or nine months. I didn’t know if I should see my doctor or not.” Typically, the longer you have pain the longer it takes to fix its cause. When in doubt, get medical advice.

The shoulder is the most mobile, and complicated, joint in the body. There are over 16 major muscles, and several smaller supportive muscles, that attach to the shoulder blade. The bones of the shoulder joint include the scapula, clavicle, and humerus (arm bone). Its motion and strength allow us to throw a ball to our dog and push ourselves up from sitting. Unfortunately, this beautiful joint is also susceptible to injury due to trauma, poor posture, repetitive strain, and general wear and tear from aging.

Should Pain Therapy Action Plan:

Let’s break down our shoulder action plan into four categories: Emergency, Get Attention Now, Schedule an Appointment, and Wait It Out.

Emergency: If you or anyone you know is having shoulder pain that is accompanied by difficulty breathing or a sense of tightness in the chest, call an ambulance (911) immediately. These symptoms may indicate a heart attack and demand immediate attention. Ignoring these symptoms may result in death.

Get Attention Now: If you just experienced trauma from a fall or other incident where the shoulder suddenly loses motion or has intense pain or sudden swelling, go to an urgent care center or emergency room. The rotator cuff and bones of the shoulder are all at risk for injury in a traumatic event. Diagnosing a torn tendon or broken bone needs to be determined by a physician, often using an x-ray or MRI.

Schedule an appointment: Most of the people we see at MoveMend fall into the “schedule an appointment” category. Here are the top 6 reasons to schedule a visit with your physical or occupational therapist.

  1. Your shoulder pain interferes with sleeping for more than a week. The pain may wake you up at night or you may feel shoulder pain as soon as you get up in the morning.
  2. Your shoulder pain limits your ability to care for your children (i.e. picking up the kids before bed).
  3. You feel a sharp pinching sensation in the shoulder when you reach your hand across to the opposite shoulder. This can also occur when reaching for a seatbelt or into the back seat of a car. When a tendon is pinched, there is often a soreness that runs down part of the arm.
  4. You feel significant shoulder pain when reaching behind your back.
  5. You find it increasingly difficult to reach your hand over your head or out to the side because of shoulder stiffness or pain.
  6. Shoulder pain or stiffness, of any kind, has been recurring for more than a month.

The symptoms above are typical for people who have some type of muscle, tendon or joint inflammation in the shoulder. Conditions like these are almost always correctable with conservative (nonsurgical) care, such as physical therapy. In fact, research has shown that functional outcomes after a mild to moderate rotator cuff tear are the same for both surgery and physical rehabilitation.

Wait it Out: If you have what you would consider mild and infrequent shoulder pain, you might want to treat it yourself with some TLC. Over-the-counter pain relievers, rest and an ice pack used several times a day can often resolve the aches and pains of mild strain in the shoulder. If the tissue injury is small enough the discomfort will resolve within 1-2 weeks. If this approach isn’t successful after two weeks, it’s time to call a professional.

The occupational and physical therapists at MoveMend are here to diagnose and treat shoulder pain so you can get back to living life how you want – pain-free.

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


Fortunately I have not experienced shoulder pain before. Are there any type of work outs to help decrease the chances of getting pain in your shoulder?

Fascinating article! I had no idea shoulder pain was so common. My friend has experienced shoulder pain recently, I’ll be sure to direct her to this article.

Good to know that symptoms like difficult breathing or chest pains may lead to a heart attack! Good and simple straight forward facts to know.

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