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9 exercises for shoulder pain

3 women in a park setting completing some post workout stretches
Your shoulders get put through a lot, even without you realising it. Here you can find some simple tips and exercises to help you relieve your shoulder pain at home.

We put a lot of strain on our shoulders on a daily basis. They need strength and flexibility to help you reach, lift, hold, carry, press, and pull.

It’s actually amazing to think how much you use them.

With that in mind, it’s hardly surprising to learn that shoulder tightness or pain affects between 18 and 25% of adults.1

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to relieve shoulder pain. We’ve put all the information together in this article that will hopefully help you overcome any discomfort you may be experiencing.

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What is causing my shoulder pain?

In some cases, your shoulder pain could be due to a medical emergency and require immediate attention. Injuries such as a dislocation, separation or fracture can result in you requiring rehabilitation.

Some of the most common causes include:2 

  • arthritis 
  • impingement 
  • instability 
  • overuse

Other potential causes of shoulder discomfort include:2

Rotator cuff tendonitis

Rotator cuff tendonitis

The rotator cuff is a group of four shoulder muscles (the rotator cuff muscles) that help support and move your shoulders.

Rotator cuff tendonitis occurs when the tendons attached to the arm bone can become pinched underneath the shoulder blade, which causes inflammation and soreness.3

Bicep tendonitis

Bicep tendonitis

The bicep tendon attaches your bicep muscle in the upper arm to the front of the shoulder.

This tendon can become pinched due to the bony anatomy of the shoulder blade or by ligaments that attach to the collarbone and shoulder blade.4

Rotator cuff tendonitis

Rotator cuff tendonitis

Shoulder bursitis occurs when the bursa, a fluid-filled sac that enables body structures to glide smoothly over one another, becomes pinched.5 There is a bursa between the humerus bone and the shoulder blade.

Frozen shoulder

Also called adhesive capsulitis, frozen shoulder is a condition where the shoulder becomes painful and gradually loses motion due to lack of use. With frozen shoulder, you might have lack of fluid to help the shoulder move or develop bands of tissue (adhesions) that grow in the joint and restrict motion.6

How do you relieve shoulder pain?

So, you might be wondering if there are any ways you can help to ease the discomfort in your shoulders. While the NHS says that it may take six months or longer to recover from shoulder pain, there are some things you can try that might help.

Following the advice below might mean you could start to see results after two weeks, depending on the extent of your injury.2

How to ease shoulder pain at home

  • try to stay active, with gentle exercise on your shoulder 
  • use the shoulder exercises in this article for 6 to 8 weeks to help prevent pain returning 
  • stand up straight with your shoulders down and gently back 
  • sit with a cushion behind you to support your lower back 
  • try resting your arm on a cushion in your lap 
  • use painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve pain so you can keep moving.

Avoid the following when treating from home 

  • don’t completely stop using your shoulder – this can stop it getting better 
  • don’t do too much, particularly things that seem to make it worse 
  • don’t make up your own strenuous exercises or use heavy gym equipment 
  • don’t slouch when sitting – do not roll your shoulders or bring your neck forward

Do you experience discomfort in your neck too? We’ve got a whole guide dedicated to relieving tension in your neck and shoulders which has even more information.

What is the best exercise for shoulder pain?

There are a few movements you can do that may help exercise your shoulder and eventually reduce pain.

However, before starting any new exercise regime, it may be worth speaking to a physiotherapist or health professional to ensure you will not be causing any more damage.7,8

1. Assisted shoulder flexion

  1. This should stretch your shoulder muscles and allow them to lightly extend and retract.
  2. Grip your hands together in a clasp and hold them out in front of your body.
  3. Raise them over your head by letting your stronger side guide and assist your weaker side.

2. Assisted shoulder flexion

  1. This can extend the affected area and allow the muscle to work without putting too much strain on your shoulders.
  2. Stand in front of a wall and place the hand of the affected arm on the wall in front of you. 
  3. With your fingers, climb up the wall as high as you can and come back to the starting position. 
  4. Repeat.

3. Scaption strengthening weight

  1. Providing you use light weights, this should allow for your shoulders to loosen without putting too much strain on them.
  2. Stand up with light weights in your hands.
  3. Place your arms straight at your sides, thumbs up, with your shoulders down and back. 
  4. Raise your arms to a 45-degree angle up to parallel.
  5. Return to the starting position and repeat.

4. Side lying external rotation

This exercise should test the movement of your shoulder. Try not to put too much strain on the shoulder by keeping your body still and allowing the shoulder to move freely.

  1. Lie on your side with a light weight in your top hand. 
  2. Bend your elbow to 90 degrees. 
  3. Place a rolled towel between your arm and your side. 
  4. Rest your head on your free arm. 
  5. Externally rotate the arm to lift the weight up. 
  6. Keep your body still; do not turn the trunk to assist the movement.

5. AAROM external rotation

For this AAROM (Active Assisted Range of Motion) exercise you will need a stick, such as a broom handle or similar.

  1. Find a clear wall to stand up against.
  2. Position your affected arm on the wall close to your body.
  3.  Bend your elbow to 90 degrees, with your palms facing upwards.
  4. Push the affected arm out to the side toward the wall as far as possible by pushing on the stick with the good hand.
  5. Maintain the position and slowly return to the middle.
  6. Repeat.

6. Pendulum

This exercise is quite a popular shoulder exercise as it allows for the shoulder to relax and move freely without any strain.

  1. Begin by leaning over and supporting your non-injured arm with a flat surface such as a table or chair.
  2. Then allow your affected arm to drop down straight.
  3. You can then begin to draw small circles in the air by rotating your arm.
  4. You should start them off small and get bigger as your pain eases.
  5. If possible you may want to try and reverse the direction periodically.
  6. Repeat this exercise between five and 10 times throughout the day if possible.

7. Arm across the chest

  1. Hold your right hand out in front of your body, keeping it near the waist.
  2. Then reach the left hand behind the elbow while pulling the right arm to the left and across the chest. Lower the arm until the pain lessens.
  3. Hold in this position for 30 to 50 seconds and then release.
  4. Repeat this stretch three to five times.

8. Neck release

To make this more effective, you can try breathing deeply to help relax and maximize the stretch.

  1. Sit up straight. 
  2. Slowly tilt your chin toward your chest until you can feel a stretch in the back of your neck. 
  3. Lean your head toward the left to stretch the right shoulder, or equally lean to the right to stretch the left shoulder. 
  4. The stretch should be held for a minute on each side.

9. Chest expansion

For this exercise, you’ll need an exercise band, rope, strap or a tie. This is a good exercise to assist with shoulder pain relief. It helps stretch the muscles and helps them recover when tightness occurs. 

  1. Take one of these items and hold it behind your back while grasping with both hands. 
  2. Move the shoulder blades toward one another and gently lift your chin toward the ceiling. 
  3. Hold for 10 to 15 seconds while breathing deeply. Do this three to five times.

Shoulder discomfort FAQs


If you’ve still got questions about relieving the pain in your shoulders, don’t worry. We’ve rounded up some of the most frequently asked questions...

How long does shoulder pain last?

By following NHS guidelines and recommended exercises, your shoulder pain should start to reduce after two weeks.

If that is not the case, please seek professional advice from your GP.2

 

Is walking good for shoulder pain?

Low impact exercise such as walking may be helpful for your shoulder pain.

This is most effective when you walk with your back straight and shoulders up tall rather than hunched over.

Walking can also help your mood and help to keep your weight in check.9,10

 

Why is shoulder pain worse at night?

There are three potential causes of shoulder pain where it might feel worse at night, including:11 

  • bursitis
  • tendonitis
  • rotator cuff injuries

This is because the inflammation involved in each can pull on the shoulder joint, especially when the area is compressed (as when laying on your side in bed).

 

When should I worry about shoulder pain?

As per the above NHS guidance, you should speak to your GP when your shoulder pain lasts and has not shown signs of improvement after more than two weeks.
 

Why is my shoulder pain not going away?

If your shoulder pain is not going away, it could be a sign of shoulder impingement.12

The NHS says that shoulder impingement is a very common cause of shoulder pain.

It occurs when the tendon, which forms a band of tissue inside your shoulders, rubs or catches on nearby tissue or bone as you lift your arm.12

It's important that you don't ignore any shoulder pain and contact your GP if you are in too much discomfort.

 

The final say

Although shoulder pain is common, thankfully there are plenty of exercises you can do to help relieve some of that discomfort. Whether you try the ones we’ve listed above or speak directly to a medical professional, we hope that you can support yourself and reduce the level of pain you’re experiencing. For more information like this, head to our Bones, Joints & Muscle Health hub.

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