Injured Your Shoulder? Get Relief With These PT-Recommended Tips and Exercises
Learn about some of the most common shoulder injuries and what you can do to prevent and manage pain, especially with exercises from physical therapists.
There’s nothing like a shoulder injury to remind you just how much you rely on your shoulders as you go about your daily activities. From putting on a jacket to brushing your hair to reaching for something on a shelf, shoulder mobility is key to helping you move around with ease.
“Your shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint, which gives it a lot of mobility so that you can reach forward, up, behind, and to the side,” explains Mary Kimbrough, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. “That means your shoulder is involved in a lot of everyday movements, but it also means there's an opportunity to irritate the joint and experience shoulder pain.”
In fact, shoulder pain is so common that about two thirds of us will experience it at some point. It also makes up about a third of all doctor visits for musculoskeletal pain, according to a 2020 study in the Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy. In other words, if you’re dealing with shoulder pain, you’re not alone. And there’s a lot you can do to restore shoulder mobility and heal what hurts.
Read on to learn more about the most common shoulder injuries, what causes them, and how to recover from and prevent shoulder pain, especially with exercises and stretches from Hinge Health physical therapists.
Our Hinge Health Experts
Mary Kimbrough, PT, DPT
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Anatomy of the Shoulder
To understand the most common shoulder injuries, it helps to get a primer on shoulder anatomy. Your shoulder is made up of three bones:
The upper arm bone, or humerus, which attaches the shoulder to your torso.
The shoulder blade, or scapula, which helps lift your arm over your head.
The collarbone, or clavicle, which helps stabilize the scapula.
The head of the humerus fits into a rounded socket in the shoulder blade called the glenoid. These structures are surrounded by your rotator cuff, the muscles and tendons that help to keep your arm bone in place.
Shoulder Injuries: A Hinge Health Perspective
Shoulder pain can be frustrating and feel limiting, especially when it persists or interferes with your daily activities. We know from Hinge Health members and research studies that anatomical labels can backfire when it comes to your treatment and recovery. “People often automatically think, ‘Oh, my shoulder is injured and it hurts, let me rest it and not move,’” says Dr. Kimbrough. “But research shows that while you do want to take it easy after a shoulder injury, complete rest isn’t ideal because it can lead to shoulder stiffness and decreased shoulder strength which makes pain worse and prolongs recovery.”
For most common musculoskeletal shoulder injuries, the solution is often the same: movement, through physical and exercise therapy. “Movement is medicine, and you want to stay active as much as you can to optimize recovery,” stresses Dr. Kimbrough. And that means doing exercises to keep your shoulder active and healthy.
Common Shoulder Injuries
“Since your shoulder can move in many different directions, there’s always the potential for something to get impacted when the shoulder goes through its wide range of motion,” says Dr. Kimbrough. Some of the most common shoulder injuries include:
Shoulder strain or sprain. If you’re doing an activity that requires a lot of overhead movement or reaching, you can strain shoulder muscles and tendons or sprain a shoulder ligament if you do more than your arm and shoulder are ready for. “I see this a lot with people whose jobs involve a lot of lifting or overhead work, like mechanics,” says Dr. Kimbrough. But people who work at desks still need to mind their shoulder health: “If you don’t move your joints enough, your shoulder might stiffen up,” points out Dr. Kimbrough. “This makes you more susceptible to pain or injury.”
Shoulder dislocation. A hard blow to your shoulder can cause the ball of your upper arm bone to come out of alignment with the socket in your shoulder, causing a dislocation.
Impingement. If you do an activity that requires a lot of overhead arm motion, like lifting weights, throwing a ball, or swimming, it can cause the internal structures of your shoulder to rub against (or impinge on) each other, which can contribute to symptoms like shoulder pain and weakness. Shoulder impingement commonly occurs when the rotator cuff tendon gets irritated and inflamed, which further reduces the space around the tendon. As a result, it can rub against the surrounding bones, causing discomfort.
Rotator cuff tear. Rotator cuff injuries can occur naturally over time, or as the result of an acute injury or tear. Rotator cuff tears can sound alarming but all it really means is that you’ve injured one of the tendons in the rotator cuff.
Frozen shoulder. The entire shoulder joint is surrounded by a fibrous sheath of connective tissue known as the joint capsule. When tissue in the capsule thickens, which can happen after an injury, it limits the shoulder joint’s ability to rotate — this can cause pain, stiffness, and loss of motion in the joint. “This is one reason why we recommend people move their shoulders after an injury, since movement allows blood and synovial fluid to move into the area,” explains Dr. Kimbrough.
Shoulder fracture. Common fracture points include your collarbone, the top of your upper arm bone, or your shoulder blade. This is usually due to an accident or a sports injury, such as a ski injury, notes Dr. Kimbrough.
When To See A Doctor
Oftentimes, shoulder injuries and pain can be managed at home. But there are some signs that you should see a doctor right away, says Dr. Kimbrough. These include the following shoulder injury symptoms:
Sharp pain that occurs after a traumatic injury, like a fall.
Inability to raise your arm over your head.
A feeling that your shoulder is about to pop out of its socket.
Treatment for Shoulder Pain
There are many ways to manage and treat shoulder pain due to a shoulder injury. Most of the time, the pain can be treated at home with conservative measures, says Dr. Kimbrough. Some of the most common ways to treat shoulder injury pain include:
Physical therapy. A March 2023 review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that a shoulder injury recovery program that included icing, stretching, and strengthening was very effective at reducing symptoms. A physical therapist (PT) can help guide you through range-of-motion exercises, as well as stretching, strengthening, and stabilization moves. “PTs can identify areas that are weak or stiff in your shoulders, and teach you specific exercises to target them,” says Dr. Kimbrough. You can see a physical therapist in person, or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.
Activity modification. Any type of movement is going to be beneficial to healing, but some may be better as you initially recover. “People tend to find walking or running with a shoulder injury more appealing than swimming, cycling, or rowing,” says Dr. Kimbrough. Let pain be your guide as you choose activities that challenge you without making your shoulder pain worse (we call this your “movement sweet spot”).
Over-the-counter (OTC) medication. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) such as naproxen (Aleve), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and aspirin can all be helpful for pain from shoulder injuries. It’s important to make sure that you’re safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history.
Surgery. It’s not a first line treatment for many shoulder injuries, but it may be necessary in certain situations, like repeat shoulder dislocations or rotator cuff tears that don’t improve with physical therapy. Talk to your doctor about whether you’re a good candidate for surgery.
Exercises for Shoulder Pain
A physical therapist can recommend targeted exercises to help strengthen and stretch your shoulder muscles, tailoring the moves to the injury you’re recovering from. These exercises and stretches are a few that are commonly recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists.
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: Tweak Your Sleeping Position
Sleep is very important if you have a shoulder injury: Your body needs the time to heal, and research shows that being well rested can be a buffer against pain, including shoulder pain at night. If you normally sleep on your side on your sore shoulder, Dr. Kimbrough recommends that you roll over to relieve pain. “Sleep on the other side with your injured shoulder up, and a pillow in between your elbow and side to keep your arm in a more neutral position,” she advises. Back sleeper? Rest your arm on a pillow on your belly to support your shoulder.
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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Clewley, D., Iftikhar, Y., Horn, M. E., & Rhon, D. I. (2020). Do the Number of Visits and the Cost of Musculoskeletal Care Improve Outcomes? More May Not Be Better. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 50(11), 642–648. doi:10.2519/jospt.2020.9440
Liaghat, B., Pedersen, J. R., Husted, R. S., Pedersen, L. L., Thorborg, K., & Juhl, C. B. (2022). Diagnosis, prevention and treatment of common shoulder injuries in sport: grading the evidence – a statement paper commissioned by the Danish Society of Sports Physical Therapy (DSSF). British Journal of Sports Medicine, 57(7), bjsports-2022-105674. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2022-105674
Chun, M. Y., Cho, B.-J., Yoo, S. H., Oh, B., Kang, J.-S., & Yeon, C. (2018). Association between sleep duration and musculoskeletal pain. Medicine, 97(50). doi:10.1097/MD.0000000000013656
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Aibinder, W. R. (2023, April). Common Shoulder Injuries. OrthoInfo — American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. Retrieved from https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/common-shoulder-injuries/