Physical Therapy for Shoulder Pain: How It Works, What to Expect, and Tips from Hinge Health

Learn how to treat and overcome shoulder pain with physical therapy and exercise, and get tips to prevent issues in the future.

elderly-man-exercising-with-the-help-of-a-woman

Do you ever have a hard time reaching overhead, brushing your teeth, hooking your bra, or finding a sleeping position — like lying on your side — that doesn’t bother your shoulder? Or maybe your shoulder pain is influenced by a condition like arthritis or other changes. We hear you. And we have help.

“Shoulder pain is one of the most common musculoskeletal problems I see, aside from back and neck pain,” says Hinge Health physical therapist Mary Kimbrough, PT, DPT.  (The National Institutes of Health ranks it as one of the top orthopedic issues.) “And a lot of people’s first instinct is to just not use their shoulder. Unlike, say, back or hip pain, you can get away with resting your shoulder a bit and still do many activities in your daily life. However, that can feed into your pain experience because you may develop more stiffness and decreased strength.” 

It’s just another reminder that movement is medicine, especially when it comes to shoulder health.

Physical therapy can make a real difference in how you feel. It’s a proven non-invasive, drug-free approach that can help you effectively manage, reduce, and, in some cases, prevent shoulder pain. 

Physical therapy is “treatment provided by a physical therapist or physical therapist assistant that helps people improve their movement and physical function, manage pain and other chronic conditions, and recover from and prevent injury and chronic disease,” according to the American Physical Therapy Association. Hinge Health offers access to physical therapy and much more. It’s a digital musculoskeletal clinic that helps people take control of their pain and other symptoms by providing physical therapy, exercise therapy, education, and health coaching, among other offerings. 

Here, we’ll explain how physical therapy is used to treat shoulder pain generally and explain how Hinge Health offers access to physical therapy and more. (To see if you qualify for the Hinge Health program, confirm coverage at no cost to you through your employer here.)

Our Hinge Health Experts

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.
Mary Kimbrough, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Kimbrough is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic 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.

Shoulder Pain Explained

Lots of things can trigger shoulder pain. “Sometimes the shoulder discomfort is generalized, and it’s hard to tell exactly what’s causing it. But rotator cuff issues and problems with frozen shoulder — both of which affect the muscles surrounding the shoulder joint — come up a lot,” says Hinge Health physical therapist Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT. And that can look like a general achiness when you use your arm to a sharp pain that happens with specific movements. 

Shoulder pain can also be localized to one spot or it can extend to your upper back, chest, and arms. It can be acute (lasting less than 12 weeks) or chronic (lasting longer than 12 weeks). 

The good news is that you can often move through your pain and improve your symptoms, shoulder strength, and shoulder mobility.

How Can Physical Therapy Help My Shoulders?

If things like getting dressed or putting your hair up aggravate your shoulder, it’s natural to think that rest is what’s best. But physical therapy can show you how to move in ways that help you feel less fragile and guarded. 

Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
No matter what’s involved in your shoulder pain, there’s always something you can do to improve it. And that often starts with moving more.

In fact, research shows that movement can be as effective as injections and even surgery for reducing shoulder pain and increasing mobility.

It’s true that exercise can sometimes cause a slight and temporary uptick in pain, but it’s actually one of the best things you can do for shoulder pain. “We now know that things can actually become worse with too much rest,” says Dr. Peterson. “Not moving is riskier than moving in spite of some pain.” You may not be able to control every issue involved in your shoulder pain, but you do have the power to change some important things. 

Shoulder Symptoms and Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is one of the first nonsurgical treatments providers recommend for many cases of shoulder pain. Targeted exercises can help relieve pain while strengthening and stretching weakened or strained muscles.

Physical therapy can help you manage a lot of different shoulder pain symptoms, including: 

  • Dull or acute pain

  • Swelling

  • Lack of shoulder mobility, such as inability to raise your arm

  • Numbness or tingling

  • Weakness

  • Stiffness

Shoulder Conditions and Physical Therapy

Shoulder pain may be related to many different conditions that can be effectively treated or managed with physical therapy. These include: 

Whether shoulder pain is primarily due to one of these conditions or something else, physical therapy can offer a lot of benefits for pain and function. 

Goals of Physical Therapy for Shoulder Pain

The ultimate goal of physical therapy is to help you get back to doing what you love, without being hindered by pain or limitations on your mobility and function. This includes: 

  • Reduce pain symptoms. A primary goal of physical therapy for shoulder pain is to lessen your discomfort so you can do what you want and need to do each day. Physical therapists provide guidance on how to perform therapeutic exercises that are tailored for your needs and goals. 

  • Improve range of motion. Pain can restrict your shoulder’s normal range of motion, leading to stiffness and limited mobility. Physical therapy focuses on restoring range of motion with targeted exercises and stretches. This helps loosen tight muscles, improve flexibility, and promote better joint movement.

  • Strengthen and stabilize your shoulder muscles. Muscles that have lost strength can contribute to shoulder pain and instability. Physical therapists prescribe specific strengthening exercises to target the muscles that support your shoulder. These exercises improve muscle strength, endurance, and stability. This reduces strain on your shoulder and improves overall function.

  • Help you learn pain management techniques. Physical therapists play a vital role in educating patients about their symptoms and conditions, providing self-management strategies and lifestyle changes, and empowering them to take an active role in their recovery. Physical therapists can help you make lifestyle modifications as needed and teach you how you can manage pain on your own (especially with movement and exercise) so you can keep making progress toward your goals. 

  • Share prevention tips. Physical therapy isn’t just about managing current pain episodes. It’s also about equipping you with tools and knowledge to prevent future shoulder pain flares and maintain a healthy shoulder and body. Physical therapists may provide guidance on ongoing exercises, self-care strategies, and lifestyle modifications to minimize the risk of reinjury and promote long-term shoulder health.

The goals and treatment approaches used in physical therapy will vary depending on your specific condition and needs. A thorough assessment by a qualified physical therapist will help determine the most appropriate treatment plan tailored to your unique situation.

Physical Therapy, Exercise Therapy, and Hinge Health 

Physical therapy means you are getting treatment from a licensed physical therapist or physical therapy assistant. At Hinge Health, our members can see their own licensed physical therapist who personalizes and oversees their care plan. Hinge Health physical therapists focus on what we call exercise therapy, or therapeutic exercises.

Exercise therapy means following a treatment plan of different types of exercises to help relieve pain, improve function and mobility, recover from injuries, and manage chronic conditions. Many people associate “exercise” only with getting fit or losing weight. We at Hinge Health love the phrase exercise therapy because it speaks to one of our main treatment philosophies: Movement is medicine.

Exercise therapy and physical therapy are not interchangeable. Our physical therapists prescribe exercise therapy to our members. Following your own personalized exercise therapy routine is one of the best ways to heal your shoulder pain and prevent it from recurring. 

Shoulder Pain Recovery with Hinge Health

If you’re experiencing shoulder pain that makes it hard to move freely, you can get relief with Hinge Health. A digital clinic for joint and muscle care, Hinge Health provides members with access to their own physical therapist, in addition to other program offerings (guided exercise therapy, personalized health coaching, education, and more). 

It can be challenging to stay consistent in doing exercise therapy, but research shows that consistency is the best way to build a habit and maximize your results. Our physical therapists, health coaches, doctors, and other care team members all share a common goal of helping our members make exercise therapy a habit so they can get back to doing what they love.

Hinge Health physical therapists can give you an assessment and provide you with personalized recommendations to help you achieve your goals. Our physical therapists are trained to rule out any serious causes of your pain, modify your activities, empower you with tools to help you hurt less, and provide you with a personalized program to strengthen your body and help you recover.

Meeting with a Hinge Health Physical Therapist

Unlike many traditional physical therapy visits, you can meet with a Hinge Health physical therapist via video visit. That means, from the comfort of your own home, you can discuss your symptoms and goals with a physical therapist. They can conduct a movement assessment, observing how you move through different ranges of motion — and then create a personalized plan for you based on their findings. They can show you how to perform certain exercises and make sure you feel confident performing those movements on your own.

In addition to looking at your movement patterns and showing you how to do certain exercises, your video visit with a physical therapist provides you the opportunity to ask questions about your pain, function, and progress in the Hinge Health program. Your physical therapist can also make modifications to the exercises in your Hinge Health program to help you along the way to healing. 

Hinge Health's Proven Results and Effectiveness

Hinge Health members have access to a library of therapeutic exercises designed to help you overcome your shoulder pain. This involves a combination of strengthening and stretching exercises. Your physical therapist can then tailor those exercises even further to better suit your needs and help you achieve your specific goals. 

We’ve published clinical studies with over 10,000 Hinge Health members, in collaboration with researchers at Stanford and the University of California, San Francisco. These show that our members experience, on average, a 68% reduction in pain in their first 12 weeks alone. Of course, beating pain has other benefits, too. These members experienced a 58% decrease in anxiety and depression on average over that same period.

Importance of Health Coaching 

Another facet of the Hinge Health program that sets it apart: personalized health coaching. In addition to having tailored exercises and access to a physical therapist, many Hinge Health members work with a health coach. Their job: to be your partner and support you on your Hinge Health journey.

Your coach can share information and guidance on the exercises and education concepts in your program, help you stay motivated and accountable, celebrate your progress and support you in working through obstacles, and help you explore meaningful goals and ways to reach them. 

Tap into pain relief. Anytime, anywhere with our app.

Get exercises from a licensed physical therapist and more to relieve your pain. All right from your phone. At $0 cost to you.
Start your app tour

Exercise Therapy for Shoulder Pain Relief

The shoulder exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists help build strength, flexibility, and mobility. These act as a good starting point, but you can also work with a physical therapist for more personalized guidance. 

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.

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.

Looking for pain relief? Check if your employer or health plan covers our program

Hinge Health is available to over 1,600 companies and benefit plans!

References 

  1. Shoulder Pain: Overview. (2020). National Institutes of Health Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK554693/#:~:text=Shoulder%20pain%20is%20one%20of%20the%20most%20common%20orthopedic%20problems,(%E2%80%9Csubacromial%20pain%E2%80%9D)

  2. The Physical Therapy Profession. (n.d.). American Physical Therapy Association, Retrieved from https://www.apta.org/contentassets/5a330c03bbe24a999608030270ced59c/physical-therapy-overview-high-early-college.pdf 

  3. Shoulder Pain in Adults. (n.d.). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from htps://www.mayoclinic.org/symptom-checker/shoulder-pain-in-adults-adult/related-factors/itt-20009075

  4. Yoshida, Riku, et al. (2022). Greater Effects by Performing a Small Number of Eccentric Contractions Daily than a Larger Number of Them Once a Week. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. doi:10.1111/sms.14220

  5. Pieters et al. (2020). An Update of Systematic Reviews Examining the Effectiveness of Conservative Physical Therapy Interventions for Subacromial Shoulder Pain. Journal of  Orthopedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 50(3):131-141. doi:10.2519/jospt.2020.8498)

elderly-man-exercising-with-the-help-of-a-woman

Physical Therapy for Shoulder Pain: How It Works, What to Expect, and Tips from Hinge Health

Learn how to treat and overcome shoulder pain with physical therapy and exercise, and get tips to prevent issues in the future.

Published Date: Dec 5, 2023
elderly-man-exercising-with-the-help-of-a-woman

Do you ever have a hard time reaching overhead, brushing your teeth, hooking your bra, or finding a sleeping position — like lying on your side — that doesn’t bother your shoulder? Or maybe your shoulder pain is influenced by a condition like arthritis or other changes. We hear you. And we have help.

“Shoulder pain is one of the most common musculoskeletal problems I see, aside from back and neck pain,” says Hinge Health physical therapist Mary Kimbrough, PT, DPT.  (The National Institutes of Health ranks it as one of the top orthopedic issues.) “And a lot of people’s first instinct is to just not use their shoulder. Unlike, say, back or hip pain, you can get away with resting your shoulder a bit and still do many activities in your daily life. However, that can feed into your pain experience because you may develop more stiffness and decreased strength.” 

It’s just another reminder that movement is medicine, especially when it comes to shoulder health.

Physical therapy can make a real difference in how you feel. It’s a proven non-invasive, drug-free approach that can help you effectively manage, reduce, and, in some cases, prevent shoulder pain. 

Physical therapy is “treatment provided by a physical therapist or physical therapist assistant that helps people improve their movement and physical function, manage pain and other chronic conditions, and recover from and prevent injury and chronic disease,” according to the American Physical Therapy Association. Hinge Health offers access to physical therapy and much more. It’s a digital musculoskeletal clinic that helps people take control of their pain and other symptoms by providing physical therapy, exercise therapy, education, and health coaching, among other offerings. 

Here, we’ll explain how physical therapy is used to treat shoulder pain generally and explain how Hinge Health offers access to physical therapy and more. (To see if you qualify for the Hinge Health program, confirm coverage at no cost to you through your employer here.)

Our Hinge Health Experts

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.
Mary Kimbrough, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Kimbrough is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic 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.

Shoulder Pain Explained

Lots of things can trigger shoulder pain. “Sometimes the shoulder discomfort is generalized, and it’s hard to tell exactly what’s causing it. But rotator cuff issues and problems with frozen shoulder — both of which affect the muscles surrounding the shoulder joint — come up a lot,” says Hinge Health physical therapist Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT. And that can look like a general achiness when you use your arm to a sharp pain that happens with specific movements. 

Shoulder pain can also be localized to one spot or it can extend to your upper back, chest, and arms. It can be acute (lasting less than 12 weeks) or chronic (lasting longer than 12 weeks). 

The good news is that you can often move through your pain and improve your symptoms, shoulder strength, and shoulder mobility.

How Can Physical Therapy Help My Shoulders?

If things like getting dressed or putting your hair up aggravate your shoulder, it’s natural to think that rest is what’s best. But physical therapy can show you how to move in ways that help you feel less fragile and guarded. 

Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
No matter what’s involved in your shoulder pain, there’s always something you can do to improve it. And that often starts with moving more.

In fact, research shows that movement can be as effective as injections and even surgery for reducing shoulder pain and increasing mobility.

It’s true that exercise can sometimes cause a slight and temporary uptick in pain, but it’s actually one of the best things you can do for shoulder pain. “We now know that things can actually become worse with too much rest,” says Dr. Peterson. “Not moving is riskier than moving in spite of some pain.” You may not be able to control every issue involved in your shoulder pain, but you do have the power to change some important things. 

Shoulder Symptoms and Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is one of the first nonsurgical treatments providers recommend for many cases of shoulder pain. Targeted exercises can help relieve pain while strengthening and stretching weakened or strained muscles.

Physical therapy can help you manage a lot of different shoulder pain symptoms, including: 

  • Dull or acute pain

  • Swelling

  • Lack of shoulder mobility, such as inability to raise your arm

  • Numbness or tingling

  • Weakness

  • Stiffness

Shoulder Conditions and Physical Therapy

Shoulder pain may be related to many different conditions that can be effectively treated or managed with physical therapy. These include: 

Whether shoulder pain is primarily due to one of these conditions or something else, physical therapy can offer a lot of benefits for pain and function. 

Goals of Physical Therapy for Shoulder Pain

The ultimate goal of physical therapy is to help you get back to doing what you love, without being hindered by pain or limitations on your mobility and function. This includes: 

  • Reduce pain symptoms. A primary goal of physical therapy for shoulder pain is to lessen your discomfort so you can do what you want and need to do each day. Physical therapists provide guidance on how to perform therapeutic exercises that are tailored for your needs and goals. 

  • Improve range of motion. Pain can restrict your shoulder’s normal range of motion, leading to stiffness and limited mobility. Physical therapy focuses on restoring range of motion with targeted exercises and stretches. This helps loosen tight muscles, improve flexibility, and promote better joint movement.

  • Strengthen and stabilize your shoulder muscles. Muscles that have lost strength can contribute to shoulder pain and instability. Physical therapists prescribe specific strengthening exercises to target the muscles that support your shoulder. These exercises improve muscle strength, endurance, and stability. This reduces strain on your shoulder and improves overall function.

  • Help you learn pain management techniques. Physical therapists play a vital role in educating patients about their symptoms and conditions, providing self-management strategies and lifestyle changes, and empowering them to take an active role in their recovery. Physical therapists can help you make lifestyle modifications as needed and teach you how you can manage pain on your own (especially with movement and exercise) so you can keep making progress toward your goals. 

  • Share prevention tips. Physical therapy isn’t just about managing current pain episodes. It’s also about equipping you with tools and knowledge to prevent future shoulder pain flares and maintain a healthy shoulder and body. Physical therapists may provide guidance on ongoing exercises, self-care strategies, and lifestyle modifications to minimize the risk of reinjury and promote long-term shoulder health.

The goals and treatment approaches used in physical therapy will vary depending on your specific condition and needs. A thorough assessment by a qualified physical therapist will help determine the most appropriate treatment plan tailored to your unique situation.

Physical Therapy, Exercise Therapy, and Hinge Health 

Physical therapy means you are getting treatment from a licensed physical therapist or physical therapy assistant. At Hinge Health, our members can see their own licensed physical therapist who personalizes and oversees their care plan. Hinge Health physical therapists focus on what we call exercise therapy, or therapeutic exercises.

Exercise therapy means following a treatment plan of different types of exercises to help relieve pain, improve function and mobility, recover from injuries, and manage chronic conditions. Many people associate “exercise” only with getting fit or losing weight. We at Hinge Health love the phrase exercise therapy because it speaks to one of our main treatment philosophies: Movement is medicine.

Exercise therapy and physical therapy are not interchangeable. Our physical therapists prescribe exercise therapy to our members. Following your own personalized exercise therapy routine is one of the best ways to heal your shoulder pain and prevent it from recurring. 

Shoulder Pain Recovery with Hinge Health

If you’re experiencing shoulder pain that makes it hard to move freely, you can get relief with Hinge Health. A digital clinic for joint and muscle care, Hinge Health provides members with access to their own physical therapist, in addition to other program offerings (guided exercise therapy, personalized health coaching, education, and more). 

It can be challenging to stay consistent in doing exercise therapy, but research shows that consistency is the best way to build a habit and maximize your results. Our physical therapists, health coaches, doctors, and other care team members all share a common goal of helping our members make exercise therapy a habit so they can get back to doing what they love.

Hinge Health physical therapists can give you an assessment and provide you with personalized recommendations to help you achieve your goals. Our physical therapists are trained to rule out any serious causes of your pain, modify your activities, empower you with tools to help you hurt less, and provide you with a personalized program to strengthen your body and help you recover.

Meeting with a Hinge Health Physical Therapist

Unlike many traditional physical therapy visits, you can meet with a Hinge Health physical therapist via video visit. That means, from the comfort of your own home, you can discuss your symptoms and goals with a physical therapist. They can conduct a movement assessment, observing how you move through different ranges of motion — and then create a personalized plan for you based on their findings. They can show you how to perform certain exercises and make sure you feel confident performing those movements on your own.

In addition to looking at your movement patterns and showing you how to do certain exercises, your video visit with a physical therapist provides you the opportunity to ask questions about your pain, function, and progress in the Hinge Health program. Your physical therapist can also make modifications to the exercises in your Hinge Health program to help you along the way to healing. 

Hinge Health's Proven Results and Effectiveness

Hinge Health members have access to a library of therapeutic exercises designed to help you overcome your shoulder pain. This involves a combination of strengthening and stretching exercises. Your physical therapist can then tailor those exercises even further to better suit your needs and help you achieve your specific goals. 

We’ve published clinical studies with over 10,000 Hinge Health members, in collaboration with researchers at Stanford and the University of California, San Francisco. These show that our members experience, on average, a 68% reduction in pain in their first 12 weeks alone. Of course, beating pain has other benefits, too. These members experienced a 58% decrease in anxiety and depression on average over that same period.

Importance of Health Coaching 

Another facet of the Hinge Health program that sets it apart: personalized health coaching. In addition to having tailored exercises and access to a physical therapist, many Hinge Health members work with a health coach. Their job: to be your partner and support you on your Hinge Health journey.

Your coach can share information and guidance on the exercises and education concepts in your program, help you stay motivated and accountable, celebrate your progress and support you in working through obstacles, and help you explore meaningful goals and ways to reach them. 

Tap into pain relief. Anytime, anywhere with our app.

Get exercises from a licensed physical therapist and more to relieve your pain. All right from your phone. At $0 cost to you.
Start your app tour

Exercise Therapy for Shoulder Pain Relief

The shoulder exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists help build strength, flexibility, and mobility. These act as a good starting point, but you can also work with a physical therapist for more personalized guidance. 

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.

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.

Looking for pain relief? Check if your employer or health plan covers our program

Hinge Health is available to over 1,600 companies and benefit plans!

References 

  1. Shoulder Pain: Overview. (2020). National Institutes of Health Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK554693/#:~:text=Shoulder%20pain%20is%20one%20of%20the%20most%20common%20orthopedic%20problems,(%E2%80%9Csubacromial%20pain%E2%80%9D)

  2. The Physical Therapy Profession. (n.d.). American Physical Therapy Association, Retrieved from https://www.apta.org/contentassets/5a330c03bbe24a999608030270ced59c/physical-therapy-overview-high-early-college.pdf 

  3. Shoulder Pain in Adults. (n.d.). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from htps://www.mayoclinic.org/symptom-checker/shoulder-pain-in-adults-adult/related-factors/itt-20009075

  4. Yoshida, Riku, et al. (2022). Greater Effects by Performing a Small Number of Eccentric Contractions Daily than a Larger Number of Them Once a Week. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. doi:10.1111/sms.14220

  5. Pieters et al. (2020). An Update of Systematic Reviews Examining the Effectiveness of Conservative Physical Therapy Interventions for Subacromial Shoulder Pain. Journal of  Orthopedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 50(3):131-141. doi:10.2519/jospt.2020.8498)