January 05, 2021 8 min read

If you’ve ever suffered from persistent shoulder pain, then you know how much of an impact it can have on your day-to-day life. The pain can make it hard to get to sleep at night and negatively affect your quality of life. If you’re an active person, then shoulder pain can prevent you from staying active and taking part in the activities you enjoy, whether that means going to the gym, playing sports with friends, or engaging in other kinds of physical activities. 


To get back to your normal routine after a shoulder injury, you’ll have to take steps to treat it. Luckily, many mild shoulder injuries can be treated using home remedies. However, in some cases they may require more extensive medical treatment. In this article, we’ll go over everything about shoulder pain, from its common causes to the kinds of treatment options available. 


You can read through for a comprehensive look at shoulder pain or skip to a particular section simply by clicking on it: 


Causes of Shoulder Pain and Common Injuries 

An injury can cause shoulder pain to occur suddenly, but pain can also gradually take hold over time through repetitive use or overuse. In some cases, shoulder pain occurs due to a medical condition such as arthritis, or through an injury somewhere else in your body (this is known as “referred pain”).

shoulder muscles diagram

 

In order to understand how to relieve shoulder pain, it’s helpful to know exactly why your shoulder hurts. So let’s go through a quick anatomy lesson. Your shoulders are joints made up of a number of different bones, muscles, and tendons that enable you to fluidly raise, move, and rotate your arms. Three major bones meet at your shoulder joint — your upper arm bones (humerus), your shoulder blades (scapula), and your collarbone (clavicle). 


In some cases, shoulder pain stems from an injury to one or more of these bones, such as: 

  • Fracture: a fracture occurs when your clavicle or scapula experiences a traumatic impact and the bone breaks or cracks. This injury is generally characterized by severe pain, bruising, and possibly swelling. 
  • Dislocation: a dislocation occurs when the top of your arm pops out of the socket, and this usually results in significant pain and weakness in the shoulder.

An injury to the bone isn’t the only cause of shoulder pain, though. An injury to your cartilage, muscles, or other soft tissue can result in pain as well. If you haven’t suffered a fracture or dislocated your shoulder, then one of the following injuries may be causing your pain: 

  • Separation: the joint where your collarbone and shoulder blade come together is called the acromioclavicular joint. A great amount of force can damage the ligaments holding this joint together and cause the collarbone to get pushed out of place. In the case of a separation, you’ll typically see a bump on the top of your shoulder. 
  • Impingement: a shoulder impingement occurs when the tendons of the rotator cuff get pinched by the bones in your shoulder, causing pain and possibly swelling. Impingement is often caused by repetitively lifting your arms over your head. 
  • Adhesive capsulitis: adhesive capsulitis, or “frozen shoulder”, happens when adhesions, or abnormal bands of scar tissue, form around the joint and either limit or totally prevent movement in your shoulder. 
  • Cartilage tear: cartilage is a connective tissue found at the ends of your joints. One of its functions is to act as a cushion between bones, so that they don’t grind or scrape together. Many cartilage tears can happen due to overuse and repetitive motions over time. Symptoms include lingering pain, weakness in your shoulder, and a painful locking sensation. 
  • Rotator cuff tear: the muscles and tendons holding your shoulder together, also known as your rotator cuff, can become damaged either through sudden injury or overuse. The symptoms of a rotator cuff tear include lingering pain and a crackling sound when you move your arm. 
  • Bursitis: bursae, the fluid-filled sacs that protect and cushion your joints, can get swollen and irritated by repetitive motions over time. 

At-Home Treatment 

How you treat shoulder pain depends on the type of injury you’re dealing with and its severity. But in many cases, a painful shoulder problem doesn’t require intensive medical treatment. Oftentimes, mild shoulder pain can be treated at home by simply applying ice and resting. You’ll just have to focus on minimizing the use of your shoulder and avoid putting your arms over your head or straining yourself in any way. 


Besides resting and applying ice, there are a number of other at-home treatment options available to you as well. Some of the easiest and most effective home remedies for shoulder pain include: 

 

should pain treatment options infograph

 

Anti-inflammatory medications

Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications like aspirin and ibuprofen can help relieve your shoulder pain and minimize inflammation. If you’re not sure what type of anti-inflammatory medication you should use for your particular injury, then you might consider consulting with a doctor, who can provide you with advice. 


Muscle relaxants 

If anti-inflammatory medications aren’t doing the trick — or if you feel like you need to supplement them with something — then talk to your doctor about muscle relaxants. They can help to treat pain by reducing soreness and stiffness in the affected area. If your shoulder injury is making it hard to sleep, then taking muscle relaxants at night and sleeping with MedCline’s Shoulder Relief System may make it easier to get the rest you need. 

Pain medications 

Over-the-counter pain medications like aspirin can help in providing some relief from your shoulder pain. Talk with a doctor to see which pain medication is right for you, as well as discuss the potential side effects. 


Heat therapy 

If the source of your shoulder pain is an injury to the muscles, then heat therapy may be able to help. Things like heated compresses and hot water bottles can reduce stiffness and get your muscles to relax. You might also try topical heat creams and ointments, which in some cases can provide relief for small aches and pains. 


Medical Shoulder Pain Treatments 

If at-home treatments don’t prove to be an effective solution to your shoulder pain, then it may be time to consider getting medical treatment. To decide on the medical treatment plan that’s best for you, you’ll first have to consider your own condition and consult with a doctor who can advise you on the best course of treatment. 

older man at doctors office holding his shoulder in pain


When you go to see a doctor for shoulder pain, they’ll look over your medical records and ask you a series of questions. They’ll inquire about the intensity of the pain, how often it occurs, the first time you noticed it, and so on. The next step will be to conduct a physical exam to check for structural problems and common injuries. The doctor will likely try to test your range of motion by applying pressure to your shoulders or having you rotate them. 


After an initial physical exam, your doctor may order additional testing in order to arrive at a conclusive diagnosis. These tests may include: 

  • X-rays 
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan 
  • Ultrasound

Shoulder Exercises and Stretches 

According to Harvard Medical School, performing shoulder exercises and stretches two to three days per week can help reduce pain by keeping your muscles strong and flexible. If you’ve already suffered a shoulder injury, then consistently exercising and stretching the muscles in your shoulder can accelerate recovery and lower the chances of reinjury. Just remember to always ease your way into exercise by warming up and stop if you start to experience any pain — after all, you don’t want to end up reinjuring your shoulder through exercise. 

 

shoulder stretches information infograph

Once you’ve been stretching for a while and you begin to feel some progress being made towards recovery, you might start doing basic shoulder exercises to build up muscle. Here are two easy exercises that may help if you’re suffering from frozen shoulder or a similar condition:

  • Outward rotations: Take a rubber exercise band and hold it between your hands. Keep your elbows at your sides and at a 90 degree angle. Keeping your elbows close to your body, slowly shift the lower part of the affected arm two to three inches outward and hold for five seconds. Do this 10 to 15 times, and keep at it on a daily basis. 
  • Inward rotations: Hook one end of a rubber exercise band around the knob of a closed door. Hold the other end of the exercise band with the hand of your affected arm. While keeping your elbow close to your body and at a 90 degree angle, slowly pull the band two to three inches towards your body and hold for five seconds. Do this 10 to 15 times, and keep at it on a daily basis.  

Shoulder Pain Prevention 

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Prevention is the best medicine”? Taking preventative steps to minimize your risk of a shoulder injury is usually easier than having to treat an injury after the fact. Here are a few things that you can do to potentially lower your risk of experiencing a shoulder injury:

how to prevent shoulder pain graphic

 

Stay active 

Leading an active lifestyle can help reduce the risk of a shoulder injury. That’s because when you regularly exercise, go to the gym, play sports, or do whatever you need to do to stay fit, you keep your body limber and strengthen your muscles. If you’re particularly concerned about a shoulder injury, then it may be a good idea to build up your shoulder strength, which can help stabilize the joint. However, it’s important that you don’t overtrain your shoulder and that you give it plenty of time to rest after each workout. 


Always warm up 

It can be dangerous to jump straight into rigorous exercise without properly warming up. Before doing any serious exercise, it’s important to stretch out, get your blood pumping, and increase your heart rate. So make sure to always thoroughly stretch and complete some mild exercise — like a light jog, for instance — before starting any intense workout. 


Adjust your sleeping position 

Did you know that sleeping on your side every night can contribute to shoulder pain? Over time, it can irritate your rotator cuff and result in lingering pain or soreness. To prevent shoulder pain from side-sleeping, try switching up your sleeping position. Sleeping on your back instead of your side can help take some stress off of your shoulder and ensure that your weight is more evenly distributed. 



Alternatively, if you feel most comfortable while side-sleeping, you should check out our shoulder relief pillow, which supports your entire body, takes pressure off your shoulder, and allows you to sleep comfortably throughout the night. 


Summary

Shoulder pain can be an issue that impacts your day-to-day life and stops you from doing the things you love. But once you diagnose your shoulder injury, you can begin to treat it. You’ll often be able to address the pain through simple home remedies, but if the injury is more severe it may require medical treatment. So, if you’ve been experiencing shoulder pain, visit a doctor sooner rather than later. They can help you identify the root of the pain and come up with the best course of treatment. 



References:

  1. “Diagnosing Shoulder Sprains, Strains & Tears.” Patient Care at NYU Langone Health, NYU Langone Health, nyulangone.org/conditions/shoulder-sprains-strains-tears/diagnosis. 
  2. Iftikhar, Noreen. “Treating and Managing Shoulder Pain .” Edited by Gregory Minnis, Healthline, Healthline Media, 4 Sept. 2018, www.healthline.com/health/shoulder-pain-remedies. 
  3. “Ouch! Shoulder Pain and How to Treat It.” Harvard Medical School, Harvard Health Publishing, 13 Apr. 2020, www.health.harvard.edu/pain/ouch-shoulder-pain-and-how-to-treat-it. 
  4. “7 Stretching & Strengthening Exercises for a Frozen Shoulder.” Harvard Medical School, Harvard Health Publishing , 30 Aug. 2020, www.health.harvard.edu/shoulders/stretching-exercises-frozen-shoulder. 
  5. “Shoulder Injuries and Disorders.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 9 June 2020, medlineplus.gov/shoulderinjuriesanddisorders.html. 
  6. “Shoulder Pain.” Versus Arthritis, Versus Arthritis, www.versusarthritis.org/about-arthritis/conditions/shoulder-pain/.


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