Pinched Nerve "in the Shoulder": Signs and Treatment

Dealing with a pinched nerve that’s affecting your shoulder? Explore effective shoulder pain treatments and exercises with guidance from physical therapists.

Published Date: Jan 18, 2024
Woman receiving a shoulder massage
Table of Contents

You may not give much thought to how many movements your shoulders are involved in every day — at least not until you have shoulder pain that makes everything from brushing your teeth to closing the car door uncomfortable. You can develop shoulder pain for many reasons: repetitive use, injury, or arthritis, to name just a few. Another common cause? Cervical radiculopathy — a pinched nerve in your upper spine. 

A pinched nerve that affects your shoulder region can certainly affect some of your everyday activities, but most cases get better with light exercise and at-home treatment. Here, learn more about what causes pain in the shoulder from a pinched nerve and your treatment options, including exercises from Hinge Health physical therapists.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Steven Goostree, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Goostree is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopaedic 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.

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What Is a Pinched Nerve that Affects the Shoulder?

A lot of times, people think they have a pinched nerve in the shoulder or shoulder blade because that’s where they feel pain. But really, a pinched nerve in the cervical spine (neck) can cause symptoms that start at your neck and travel down your shoulder and even into your arm. It's often a sharp or burning pain that gets worse when you move your neck back and forth or side to side, says Steven Goostree, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. Another clue: The pain may decrease when you put your hands on top of your head since this position relieves pressure on the nerve.

Symptoms of a Pinched Nerve

Other symptoms include:

  • Numbness in your upper back, shoulder, arm, or hand

  • Tingling or a “pins and needles” sensation in your neck, shoulder, hand, or fingers

  • Muscle weakness in your arm, shoulder, or hand

Since cervical radiculopathy affects everyone differently, you may notice a few of the above symptoms, or only one.

Causes of Pinched Nerve that Affects the Shoulder

There are several reasons a pinched nerve can affect your shoulder. Here are some of the main ones:

  • Disc degeneration. Intervertebral discs serve as cushions between the vertebrae (bones) in the spine. Just like the rest of your body, your discs sometimes change with age. Sometimes these changes cause the vertebrae to move closer together, leaving less room for the nerves. 

  • Herniated discs. Other times, a disc can herniate, which is when the jelly-like center of a disc gets pushed out toward the spinal canal. This can put pressure on sensitive nerves, which can contribute to pain, numbness, and weakness in the arm. 

  • Injury. "A pinched nerve can happen if someone experiences an acute injury, like falling on an outstretched hand or getting tackled in football," says Dr. Goostree. 

When to See a Doctor 

Most pinched nerve symptoms resolve on their own with at-home treatment, but if your symptoms don't go away after about a week, see your doctor. You should also see them right away if you experience any of the following: 

  • Muscle weakness in your arm or hand. “If you experience any change in strength — for example, you can’t grasp things or start dropping things — it needs to be checked out,” says Dr. Goostree.

  • Abnormal reflexes in your arm. 

  • Any changes in your gait or balance, including feeling unsteady while walking.

  • Loss of dexterity (such as difficulty writing or fastening the buttons on your clothing).

  • Pain that worsens at night. 

Treatment for Pinched Nerve Affecting the Shoulder

Although shoulder pain can affect your daily activities, there’s a lot you can do to help yourself feel better. “Your body has an amazing capacity to heal itself,” reassures Dr. Goostree, most of the time, symptoms resolve with nonsurgical treatments, such as: 

  • Ice and heat. Either ice or heat can help — it just depends on what feels best for you. Most people do well with applying ice (you can try an ice massage) to the neck and shoulder for the first 48 hours after pain starts to reduce inflammation. After that, heat can help muscles relax. 

  • Physical therapy. A physical therapist can work with you to increase your range of motion and strength to help reduce symptoms and regain function. A 2019 review of 10 studies published in the journal Medicine found that therapeutic exercises, such as those done in physical therapy, help improve pain, quality of life, and overall physical function.

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) medication. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be helpful for a pinched nerve. It's important to make sure that you are safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history.

  • Oral corticosteroids. If used for a short period of time, they can reduce swelling and inflammation.

  • Steroid injections. If over-the-counter medication does not offer sufficient pain relief, your doctor may suggest cortisone (steroid) injections to help counter pain and inflammation. These are injected near the affected nerve to reduce inflammation.

  • Cervical collar. This is a padded ring that you wrap around your neck. It allows your neck muscles to rest and limits neck motion to decrease nerve pinching. It's not recommended for more than a week or two, though, says Dr. Goostree. Longer than that can decrease neck muscle strength, which is ultimately what helps you heal. 

Exercises for Pinched Nerve Affecting the Shoulder

Get 100+ similar exercises for free

  • Chin Tuck
  • Cervical Rotation
  • Median Nerve Glide
  • Scapular Squeezes

Above are a few gentle exercises from Hinge Health that are commonly used to help with pain that feels like it’s caused by a “pinched nerve in your shoulder”. 

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: Change Up Your Position 

Sitting in the same position for prolonged periods of time can take a toll on your neck — and, in turn, your shoulder. If you work at a desk, take five-minute ‘movement snacks’ throughout the day, Dr. Goosetree recommends. Even just changing positions frequently — using the armrests on your chair, switching how your legs are crossed, or doing a quick stretch in your seat — can go a long way.  

Your position at night counts too. There’s no right or wrong way to sleep, but if you have shoulder pain at night, try to sleep with your neck in a neutral position by placing a small pillow under your neck if you sleep on your back. If you’re a side sleeper, plump yourself up with enough pillows to keep your neck in a straight line with your body. 

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you are struggling with pain that seems like a “pinched nerve in your shoulder” and it 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. Park, D. K., & Rodway, I. (2020, August). Cervical Radiculopathy (Pinched Nerve). American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/cervical-radiculopathy-pinched-nerve

  2. Cervical Radiculopathy (Pinched Nerve). (March 29, 2022). Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/22639-cervical-radiculopathy-pinched-nerve 

  3. Kothari, M. J. & Chuang, K. Treatment and Prognosis of Cervical Radiculopathy. (October 2022). UptoDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/treatment-and-prognosis-of-cervical-radiculopathy 

  4. Mulcahy, J. Physical Therapy Guide to Cervical Radiculopathy. (December 20, 2020). American Physical Therapy Association. https://www.choosept.com/guide/physical-therapy-guide-cervical-radiculopathy 

  5. Liang, L, Feng, M., Cui, X., Zhou, S., Yin, X., Wang, X., Yang, M., Liu, C., Xie, R., Zhu, L., Yu, J., & Wei, X. The Effect of Exercise on Cervical Radiculopathy: A Systemic Review and Meta-Analysis. (2019). Medicine, 98(45), e17733. doi:10.1097/MD.0000000000017733 

  6. Borrella-Andrés, S., Marqués-García, I., Lucha-López, M. O., Fanlo-Mazas, P., Hernández-Secorún, M., Pérez-Bellmunt, A., Tricás-Moreno, J. M., & Hidalgo-García, C. (2021). Manual Therapy as a Management of Cervical Radiculopathy: A Systematic Review. Biomedicine Research International. doi:org/10.1155/2021/9936981

  7. Isaac, Z. & Kelly, H. R. Neck Pain (Beyond the Basics). (September 2022). UptoDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/evaluation-of-the-adult-patient-with-neck-pain