If you’ve recently found yourself grabbing an item on a top shelf, reaching for something in the backseat of your car, or throwing an object of any sort, then you were also witnessing the grand capabilities of the shoulder joint. The shoulder is the only joint that can rotate a full 360°, which makes it the most mobile and flexible joint in the body, and it’s this wide range of motion that also allows you to perform so many tasks without even giving you pause.
For individuals who are moderately active, the shoulder actually gets quite a workout in everyday life. It moves pretty much any time you use your arm, particularly when you lift or reach for an object, pick something up off the ground, and when you perform any sort of overhead motion in sports or other activities. All of these actions are possible because of the extreme mobility of the shoulder joint and the fact that you can move and rotate your arm in just about any direction. But these significant benefits also come with a significant cost: the shoulder is the most commonly injured joint in the body.
It’s not clear just how many people have shoulder pain, but some statistics have suggested that up to 26% of the population is affected by it. There are a number of potential issues that can go on to cause shoulder pain, but the majority of cases are due to repeatedly performing overhead movements. These types of movements are necessary in professions like painting and construction, and in sports like baseball, swimming, and tennis, which is why individuals involved in these activities are at the greatest risk for experiencing shoulder pain.
Over time, repetitive overhead activities can damage structures within the shoulder and result in pain, weakness, and other symptoms. Some of the most common problems that can arise in the shoulder are disorders of the rotator cuff (a group of muscles and tendons that helps to keep the shoulder stable), frozen shoulder, shoulder instability, and tears of the labrum (a cup-shaped rim of cartilage that lines the inside of the shoulder joint) and rotator cuff. While the specific development and symptoms of each of these conditions is unique, they all cause a certain degree of disability in daily life, especially for those with jobs that require the regular use of their shoulder. So for these individuals and anyone else interested, the next question may very likely be: is it possible to prevent shoulder pain in the first place?
It all comes down to changing your daily movements and habits
The short answer to the above question is yes, it is possible to avoid some types of shoulder pain. Unfortunately, there is no single, foolproof way to stop all shoulder pain from occurring because of the many variables that go into its development, but there are a number of steps you can take to reduce your chances. Each of these tips addresses a different aspect of shoulder use, but the underlying message is that modifying and improving how you move your shoulder is the best way to prevent pain from arising. Before trying any new exercises, be sure to consult with your doctor:
- Limit overhead activities
- If your profession does not involve regular overhead movements, be conscious of when you do perform them and try to avoid any activities that involve repeated overhead use of the shoulder
- If your profession does involve lots of overhead movements, learn to use proper form during these activities, take frequent breaks throughout the day, and switch your arms as often as possible to more evenly distribute the load; also avoid straining your shoulder when reaching for objects
- Modify your workstation: although work in an office environment may not sound as risky as painting or pitching, you may still be straining your shoulder if your workstation is not set up properly; below are some important ways you can modify and improve your workstation ergonomics—the process of arranging workplaces to better fit the people that use them—to reduce shoulder strain
- Use proper posture: sit with your feet flat on the ground or on a footrest, with your lower back supported, shoulders relaxed, and hands and wrist in line with your forearms
- Take regular breaks: aim for a 30 second “micro-break” every 30 minutes or so to shake out your arms and hands, and longer breaks to give your shoulder a rest every so often
- Rearrange your desk: keep supplies that you use regularly within easy reach so you don’t have to twist or stretch to reach them
- Invest in a headset: if you’re on the phone frequently, a headset is key
- Increase shoulder strength: strengthening the muscles that support the shoulder will increase its stability and reduce the risk for pain
- Scapular stabilizing exercise: lie face down with a pillow under your stomach and place your forearms on the floor with your elbows bent at 90°; slowly raise your arms up off the floor as high as possible and hold for 5-10 seconds; slowly return to the starting position; repeat up to 10x
- Doorway stretch: stand in an open doorway and spread your arms out to your side; grip the sides of the doorway at shoulder height, and while maintaining your grip, lean forward until you feel a light stretch in the front of your shoulder; slowly return to starting position; repeat up to 10x
- Improve shoulder flexibility: the more you stretch your shoulder, the better its range of motion will be, and keeping these muscles flexible will in turn help you avoid pain and injury
- Sleeper stretch: lie on a firm surface on your side with your shoulder under you and your arm extended out; bend the extended arm up into a 90° angle with your fist in the air; use the other arm to push the bent arm down (forearm towards the floor) and stop pressing down when you feel a stretch in the back of your shoulder; hold this position for 30 seconds, then relax your arm for 30 seconds; repeat 4 times, 3x/day
- Use proper form: athletes involved in overhead sports should learn and utilize proper form at all times to reduce the strain on their shoulders
- Listen to your body: if certain activities cause you immediate pain, try to avoid them as best you can to curb the progression of pain