How to Treat a Shoulder Labrum Tear With Exercise, According to Physical Therapists

Learn common causes of a shoulder labrum tear and how to relieve it, especially with exercises from Hinge Health physical therapists.

Published Date: Mar 18, 2024
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Any kind of shoulder pain can be frustrating and feel limiting. When you’re used to doing certain movements, like raising your arms to wash your hair or put something on a high shelf, without a second thought, a sudden change in function can be upsetting. This is no more true than when you injure your labrum — a type of cartilage in the shoulder. 

But take heart: Most cartilage tears, including those in the shoulder, can often be treated conservatively, which means, in due time, you should be able to return to normal activities without discomfort or mobility issues. “People return to activities every day with a tear in their labrum,” says Caitlin Shaw, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. “I, myself, have torn my labrum, and I’m able to work out and perform overhead activities without pain.”

Read on to learn more about what causes a torn shoulder labrum, along with how to prevent and treat it — especially with exercises recommended by our Hinge Health physical therapists. 

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Our Hinge Health Experts

Caitlin Shaw, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Shaw is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified sports clinical specialist.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

What Is a Shoulder Labrum Tear? 

Your shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint that connects your arm to your body. A rubbery type of cartilage known as the labrum lines the shoulder socket to help keep the shoulder joint in place. 

“The labrum lines the shoulder capsule along the rim of the socket to make it a bit deeper to ensure the shoulder joint moves appropriately throughout daily activities,” says Dr. Shaw.

As with any cartilage, the labrum can be injured, whether from an acute accident like a fall or over time as the result of repetitive use, like if you have a job that requires a lot of overhead lifting.

The good news is that these types of tears are rarely serious and symptoms can usually be managed with at-home, conservative measures. 

Symptoms of Shoulder Labrum Tear

Shoulder labrum tears can be uncomfortable and may affect your day-to-day routine. Some possible symptoms of a shoulder labrum tear include: 

  • Pain with overhead activities. With an injured shoulder labrum, you may notice shoulder pain when you perform activities that involve lifting your arm above your head, such as reaching for something on a high shelf or washing your hair in the shower. 

  • Pain that increases at night. According to Dr. Shaw, it’s also common for shoulder labrum pain to worsen at night when the shoulder may feel more stiff due to lack of movement.  

  • Shoulder instability. When that ball and socket of the shoulder don’t stay joined quite as they should, it can result in what’s known as shoulder instability. A torn shoulder labrum can contribute to feelings of instability in the joint as if it might give out — this can cause pain with movement and limited range of motion.  

  • Shoulder dislocation. For some people, a torn labrum can be associated with a shoulder dislocation, Dr. Shaw says. 

  • A sensation of grinding, clicking, or catching in your shoulder. You might feel like your joint is stuck, or you may hear sounds when you try to move it. 

Shoulder Labrum Tears: A Hinge Health Perspective

Anytime you hear that you’ve torn something in your body, it’s perfectly natural to assume that resting the affected area is the right way to help it heal, prevent further injury, or minimize pain. And while that’s an understandable assumption, it’s often not, in fact, the best way forward. 

Maintaining movement, even if modified, can actually help you achieve the results you want by helping to speed healing, prevent further injury, and ease pain. This is especially true for a torn shoulder labrum, because you want to keep the shoulder joint active and flexible. 

Another reason to keep moving: Your shoulder — and the muscles that support it — need to be strengthened to help you recover safely and prevent shoulder injuries in the future.

In certain cases, medical providers recommend surgery to repair a torn shoulder labrum — but Dr. Shaw says that, for most labral tears, conservative interventions, including movement, are enough to help the labrum heal so you can return to normal activities. 

Shoulder Labrum Tear Causes

A shoulder labrum tear can happen from acute injury or repetitive activities, says Dr. Shaw. Common causes of a shoulder labrum tear include: 

  • Falling on an outstretched arm 

  • A blow directly to the shoulder

  • Forceful overhead activity like throwing or hitting

  • Lifting heavy objects 

  • Repeatedly performing overhead activities in sports, such as volleyball, baseball, golf, or swimming

Treatment Options for a Shoulder Labrum Tear

Managing the discomfort of a shoulder labrum tear can help you go about your day with less pain. The following tips from our Hinge Health physical therapists and medical doctors can provide relief for a shoulder labrum tear: 

  • Anti-inflammatory medications. Over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as ibuprofen can help reduce inflammation and pain. It’s important to make sure that you are safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history.

  • Ice. Applying ice can help reduce inflammation and swelling after the onset of pain.

  • Heat. After 48 hours of symptoms, Dr. Shaw suggests introducing heat therapy, which can help send blood flow to the torn labrum and promote healing, while relaxing surrounding muscles that may be tense. 

  • Movement. Gentle movement can go a long way in increasing range of motion and tissue healing. Dr. Shaw suggests working with a physical therapist who can recommend safe and effective exercises for a torn shoulder labrum. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

Exercises to Relieve Pain from a Shoulder Labrum Tear

Get 100+ similar exercises for free

  • Scapular Squeeze
  • Scapular Clocks
  • Cross-Arm Stretch
  • Resisted Serratus Hug

Exercise plays a critical role in managing pain as well as promoting healing after an injury, including a torn shoulder labrum. A physical therapist can help you determine which exercises are appropriate for you, along with modifications to make these movements easier or more challenging when needed. The above exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists are a great place to start. 

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

PT Tip: Don’t Get Discouraged

It can be frustrating to deal with any injury, and you may feel worried you can’t go about your normal activities if you’re hurting. The good news: With a shoulder labrum tear, time and conservative interventions are often all that’s needed to heal and return to day-to-day activities. To ensure proper healing — and to encourage range of motion and strength in the process — Dr. Shaw recommends partnering with a Hinge Health physical therapist who can help you implement the right workout program for you.

How Hinge Health Can Help You 

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References

  1. LeVasseur, M. R., Mancini, M. R., Hawthorne, B. C., Romeo, A. A., Calvo, E., & Mazzocca, A. D. (2021). SLAP tears and return to sport and work: current concepts. Journal of ISAKOS: Joint Disorders & Orthopaedic Sports Medicine, 6(4), 204–211. doi:10.1136/jisakos-2020-000537

  2. Park, D. (2018). Clinical characteristics of patients with posterosuperior labral tear: a comparison with patients with other shoulder disorders. Journal of Pain Research, 11, 1795–1802. doi:10.2147/jpr.s166934

  3. Varacallo, M., et al. (2023). Superior Labrum Anterior Posterior Lesions. StatPearls Publishing. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30855868/

  4. Zughaib, M., Robbins, C. B., Miller, B. S., & Gagnier, J. J. (2017). Outcomes in patients with glenoid labral lesions: a cohort study. BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, 2(1), e000209. doi:10.1136/bmjsem-2016-000209