Shoulder Mobility Exercises and Stretches for Pain Relief
Got stiff or painful shoulders? Try these exercises and stretches recommended by our physical therapists to improve shoulder mobility and quality of life.
While it always feels nice to sit down and kick your feet up after a long or stressful day, our bodies actually really love movement. Since the beginning of time, humans have been designed to move, and move in a variety of ways. That’s why our modern lifestyle — which tends to be more sedentary and involves more jobs that require us to stay in a seated position for an extended period — can cause some aches and pains. This can be especially true for our shoulders.
“Our shoulders are our most mobile joints,” says Christine Dang, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. “They’re designed for a wide range of movement, and if they don’t get it, they can stiffen up and become less mobile.”
Although your shoulders are incredibly strong and resilient, limited movement can contribute to shoulder pain and challenges with everyday tasks, whether it’s grabbing a coffee cup from a high cupboard or pulling on a sweatshirt. “If you develop issues with shoulder mobility, reaching for things overhead becomes more difficult,” explains Dr. Dang.
But there’s no need to shrug off shoulder pain and stiffness as inevitable or simply related to getting older. There is plenty you can do to improve shoulder mobility, so you can continue to do all the tasks you need to do and activities that you enjoy. Here’s how to maintain healthy shoulder mobility, plus good shoulder mobility exercises to add to your routine.
Our Hinge Health Experts
Christine Dang, PT, DPT
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Causes of Limited Shoulder Mobility
It’s normal for the structures in your body to change with age, and your shoulders are no exception. Many people lose some shoulder mobility as their muscles become a little less flexible. It’s a natural and normal part of aging, just like getting some wrinkles and gray hair. (But, as we said above, you can maintain good shoulder health with some simple exercises.) There are other factors that play a role, too, and you can struggle with tight shoulders no matter what your age or activity level is, notes Dr. Dang. Here are some other common causes of limited shoulder mobility:
Prolonged sitting. If you stay in the same position for a long period of time, your shoulders can get cranky and complain. “When you sit for a while without getting up to move around, your upper back may slouch and cause your thoracic spine, or middle back, to stiffen,” explains Dr. Dang. It’s important to note that there’s no such thing as perfect posture and slouching isn’t necessarily a cause of shoulder pain. But, hunching over, say, a keyboard for a long time can impact shoulder mobility, since your shoulders and mid back work together to achieve full range of motion.
Rotator cuff issues. Your rotator cuff is a group of four muscles that keeps your arm in the shoulder socket and helps to lift and rotate it. It can occasionally get irritated, especially from repetitive lifting or overhead activities. This can decrease shoulder mobility because of pain, says Dr. Dang.
Frozen shoulder. This condition, also known as adhesive capsulitis, causes pain and stiffness in the shoulder. The shoulder capsule (which is a fluid filled sac) thickens, which causes it to become stiff, tight, and, eventually, very hard to move.
Shoulder osteoarthritis (OA). Just like other structures in your body, your cartilage can change and wear with age. While this doesn’t necessarily cause a problem, it can create more friction in the joint, which can cause pain as well as changes in mobility and function for some people, says Dr. Dang. Shoulder osteoarthritis is actually very common, and there are many different ways to manage OA symptoms.
Why Shoulder Mobility Matters
Your shoulders are involved in pretty much every upper body movement, says Dr. Dang, which is why shoulder mobility is essential in helping you do everyday activities. “Without it, it’s difficult to reach overhead and do things like brush your hair or put your clothes on,” she points out. “You want to be able to do all of this, obviously, and without pain.”
Healthy shoulder mobility also improves the health of your shoulder joint. “When your shoulder is mobile, you’re able to move it around a lot, which helps bring blood supply to the area,” says Dr. Dang. This allows your shoulder joint to get all the nutrients it needs to power you through daily activities. And a strong, mobile shoulder joint reduces chances of injury, according to a 2020 review that looked at risk factors of overuse shoulder injuries in athletes that performed overhead motions.
How to Keep Your Shoulders Mobile
The best way to enhance shoulder mobility is simply to stay active. “I recommend that you take movement snacks throughout the day, especially if you sit at a desk a lot,” says Dr. Dang. Just a quick walk around your office space is sufficient. “It gets you out of your usual slouched position, so your shoulders can take a break,” she explains.
Another recommendation: Incorporate a few basic yoga moves, like child’s pose and cat cow, throughout your day. “There’s a lot of shoulder movement in both of those, which is good for shoulder mobility and stability,” she says.
It’s worth noting that you can have too much of a good thing. While many people benefit from increasing their shoulder mobility, “we do see patients with too much shoulder mobility,” says Dr. Dang. “They’re often female athletes who do a lot of overhead activity, such as baseball or tennis players.” You may notice an ability to move your shoulders in ways others would think impossible. In these cases, you can benefit from physical therapy to strengthen surrounding shoulder and upper body muscles to stabilize the shoulder joint.
Shoulder Mobility Stretches
To work on your shoulder mobility, stretching is key. It helps restore your range of motion and prevent injury. Aim to do these stretches recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists three to five times a week. You can do them any time of the day, says Dr. Dang, although if you gently stretch after a shoulder strengthening workout, it can also help reduce muscle soreness and keep shoulder muscles long and flexible.
Note: You shouldn’t feel pain doing any of these stretches. It’s okay to feel some discomfort, especially if these are new stretches for you. But if you feel pain, stop and let your doctor or physical therapist know.
Strengthening Exercises for Shoulder Mobility
In addition to stretching, it’s important to strengthen the muscles that support your shoulder to help keep your shoulder joint stable, says Dr. Dang. This can help relieve tight shoulders and prevent pain and injury. These are good shoulder mobility exercises to do even if you don’t normally notice shoulder stiffness.
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.
How to Cope With Shoulder Pain
If you do experience shoulder pain, you may be tempted to reduce your movement. But it’s really important to stay active. In most cases, shoulder pain resolves with gentle movement and a few other modifications. You should see a doctor or physical therapist, however, if:
You can’t move your shoulder or lift your arm overhead
You experience numbness in your shoulder or arm
You have sudden, severe pain in your shoulder
In other cases — say, if you’re experiencing an acute pain flare — “we usually recommend that people avoid activities that require a fast, jerking motion or sudden movement,” says Dr. Dang. But there’s no reason why you can’t do a slow jog, brisk walk, or use the elliptical or stationary bike at your gym. “You want some movement while your shoulder heals,” explains Dr. Dang.
PT Tip: Stay the Course
Shoulder pain can be frustrating, especially when it interferes with your daily activities. It can be especially frustrating if pain lingers or doesn’t go away immediately. “Usually, your shoulder will get better, but it can take longer than some other conditions because it’s such a mobile joint,” reassures Dr. Dang. That’s why stretching and gentle exercises — and a little patience — are such important aspects of healing. “Give it time and diligence, and you’ll see results.”
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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Athwal, G. S. & Widmer, B. (2018, March). Frozen Shoulder. OrthoInfo — American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/frozen-shoulder/
Rotator Cuff and Shoulder Conditioning Program. (2022, June). OrthoInfo — American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/recovery/rotator-cuff-and-shoulder-conditioning-program/
Athwal, G. S. & Armstrong, A. D. (2022, June). Rotator Cuff Tears. OrthoInfo — American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/rotator-cuff-tears/
Tooth, C., Gofflot, A., Schwartz, C., Croisier, J.-L., Beaudart, C., Bruyère, O., & Forthomme, B. (2020). Risk Factors of Overuse Shoulder Injuries in Overhead Athletes: A Systematic Review. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach, 12(5), 478–487. doi:/10.1177/1941738120931764