Five ways to help shoulder pain

23 June 2021

We never really think about how much we use our shoulders, until they start to hurt.

Many of us will have experienced some sort of shoulder pain. Often, it’s easy to work out what’s caused it, and most of the time, you can treat this type of pain yourself at home with simple exercises, painkillers or by using heat and ice packs.

Read more about the possible causes of shoulder pain.

When to seek help

Most shoulder pain should start to improve over the first two weeks, with self-care. However, if your pain isn’t getting any better or you have other symptoms, you may need to see your doctor.

In some cases, shoulder pain can be an indicator of a health condition which needs attention.

Specific shoulder conditions

Conditions which impact on the shoulder include:

Ways to manage shoulder pain

Here's our practical advice on ways to help manage shoulder pain.

1. Use painkillers and hot and cold therapy

To help reduce pain, inflammation and stiffness in your shoulder you can try:

  • applying an ice pack, covered in a damp towel, to your shoulder for about 20 minutes every few hours, to reduce pain and inflammation
  • using a covered hot water bottle or heat pack on your shoulder, for around 20 minutes several times a day, to relieve tight or sore muscles
  • taking painkillers and NSAIDs regularly throughout the day. For example, paracetamol and ibuprofen
  • applying an NSAID gel or cream to the painful part of your shoulder.

Read more about managing your pain.

2. Think about your posture

Bad posture can have a big impact on your shoulders, so try to think about the position of your back, neck, and shoulders as you work, move around, or rest. Adjust your posture throughout the day and try to move your shoulders at least every hour.

If you use a computer keep the keyboard and monitor directly in front of you, so you don’t have to turn your head or twist your body. Keep the mouse within easy reach so you don’t have to stretch for it.

Try to think about how you’re sitting or standing and correct your posture as much as possible. Posture check exercises can help you recognise the difference between good and bad shoulder posture and should help relieve some of your pain.

3. Try specific shoulder exercises

It’s important to keep active and try move your shoulder as much as your pain will allow, so it doesn’t get too stiff.

Don’t push through the pain, work with it, and gently let it guide your movements.

Try these shoulder exercises to help get you started, you could do them when you are watching TV or when you take a work break.

4. Balance being active and taking rest

Whether you have a long-term condition, or your pain has been caused by an injury, regular strengthening and stretching exercises can help protect all the joints in your body.

If you are new to exercise, start slowly and gradually build up the amount you do.

While your shoulder is painful, you may be best to avoid exercises that put too much weight on them, such as those that involve heavy lifting.

Swimming and water-based exercises can be other good exercises to try, as they increase muscle strength.

T’ai chi, yoga and Pilates can also be helpful, if you want to improve your strength and range of movement.

You could join our online Let’s Move programme, which is designed specifically for people who want more movement in their lives.  

5. Reduce the strain

You may need to change the way you do certain things to reduce the amount of strain you put on your shoulders.

Make sure you pace yourself and rest between tasks. Plan ahead so you have enough time to work out how you’re going to do things without putting too much pressure on your painful shoulder.

If you have to carry something, such as shopping, try to use a trolley to reduce the strain on your shoulders. Alternatively, a rucksack can balance the weight across your back and shoulders.

Or you could ask someone to give you a hand while your shoulder is painful.

If the pain in your shoulder is affecting your sleep, try to avoid lying on the side that hurts. It may help to position a pillow or cushion under your arm to stop you rolling onto it in your sleep.

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