5 Tips On How To Ease Your Chronic Shoulder Pain
By Raphael Ye, D.O.
There are many causes of chronic shoulder pain. The most common is rotator cuff tendonitis or bursitis. Rotator cuff tendonitis happens when the tendons become inflamed. Bursitis is also an inflammatory disorder in the shoulder, but this is when the inflammation is due to the growth of a fluid-filled sac. Nerve problems, such as cervical radiculopathy, i.e., nerve impingement along the cervical spinal cord, can also cause motor weakness in the shoulders as well.
Other causes of shoulder pain include: osteoarthritis in the should joint, overuse, injury to the nearby tendons, such as in the biceps, poor posture, tears in the rotator cuffs, dislocation, and a break in the shoulder bone. Tendon tears can happen no matter what your age is. But, for older individuals, due to degeneration of the rotator cuff fibers, any overexertion, lifting, or fall can lead to serious injury and damage. It is important for older individuals to be mindful of this decline in their shoulders and not participate in activities that could exacerbate a tear.
Your shoulder pain should typically resolve once you heal from these different causes. Therefore, it is important to be proactive if any of these issues arise; either by changing your activities and routine to support your pain or, if it persists, contacting your doctor.
The treatments typically available are those that are tailored to the specific cause of your pain. They range from conservative to invasive, depending on how your body responds to each of the treatments. Luckily, a lot of the “conservative treatments” are things you can do from home and may be pretty sufficient for relieving your pain.
Tip #1 Medicines and topicals
You can take over-the-counter medicines, such as acetaminophen, or Tylenol, for pain relief and/or NSAIDs, such as Ibuprofen or naproxen, to relieve any inflammation, which can improve your pain. Utilizing anti-inflammatory topicals can also be an effective treatment for reducing your pain. A topical non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, like diclofenac (such as Voltaren), may also help.
If over-the-counter medicines and topicals are insufficient, you should see your doctor, who can prescribe stronger medications to reduce inflammation and pain. Your doctor may even suggest getting injections into your shoulder to numb the area entirely.
Tip #2 Ice and Heat
Alternating between heat and ice are very effective tools to ease inflammation and soothe the pain in your shoulder. First, put ice on your shoulder for fifteen minutes and then remove the ice for fifteen minutes. You can do this at least 3 to 4 times a day for up to three days.
Try to use a cloth or a barrier between direct contact with the ice and your shoulder to avoid getting frostbitten. Otherwise, alternate between ice and heat; so that the heat can soothe the pain. If your pain is persisting or getting worse despite putting ice and heat on the local area, then it is time to see your doctor. They may look at more invasive options depending on your pain and how long it has persisted.
Tip #3 Stretch, Strengthen, and Exercise
Particularly, if you are suffering from rotator cuff problems, you should learn exercises to stretch and strengthen your tendons and shoulder muscles. You can do this on your own or may be referred to a physical therapist who will perform and teach you the exercises so that you can attempt them at home.
Otherwise, stretching exercises and strengthening the surrounding muscles can also support your shoulder pain. Stretch your neck, arms, and back muscles. If you are suffering from inflammation, such as recovering from tendonitis, try to do range-of-motion exercises daily to avoid locking your shoulder in place; so that you can avoid losing your range of motion or intensifying your pain. You can also work with a physical therapist who can teach and show you the exercises that best support you.
There are some disorders and problems where you should avoid exercising or stretching the shoulder. If your shoulder is completely dislocated, it must be put back into place before doing any activity. If you are experiencing a severe rotator cuff tear, you may not receive benefits from doing physical activity. Unfortunately, if you have experienced a tear, the only option may be surgery.
In general, however, daily exercise can be very helpful for relieving chronic shoulder pain. Not only does it usually lead to less inflammation in your body, but it also strengthens your other muscles, so you are not putting too much strain on your shoulder.
Tip #4 Get some rest
Getting rest is one of the best ways that your shoulder can recover from the pain. It may take at least four weeks before your shoulder starts to feel better. In the meantime, try not to overexert or overuse the shoulder to intensify or reaggravate your chronic shoulder pain.
You shouldn’t completely stop engaging and moving your shoulders, either. That is how you can get a “frozen shoulder,” where you can lose mobility, or it’ll become stiff from nonuse. However, you should avoid any strenuous activity or participate in any heavy lifting. Even when your shoulder may be feeling better, allow yourself to slowly get back into your day-to-day routine.
Tip #5 Focus on altering your activities
When you have chronic shoulder pain, you should consider changing your routine to relieve the stress in your life. Stress cannot only add to the pain you may be experiencing; when you get stressed, your cortisol level increases, increasing inflammation in your body. Reduce your stress levels by meditating, doing yoga, or doing anything that improves your overall well-being.
This also includes changing the way you sit or work all day. If you are used to sitting in an office chair and not moving, you should stand at your desk. Do active shoulder stretches throughout the day, and take breaks more often. Also, when you sit at your desk, you can use a pillow to support the pain in your shoulders. It also may be helpful to work on your posture and sit up more with your shoulders rolled back.
If these activities do not help within two weeks to ease the pain, contact your doctor so that they can see if you would be a better candidate for surgery.
Raphael Ye, DO, is a Board Certified anesthesiologist and pain management physician. Dr. Ye joined Advanced Pain Care after finishing his Pain Fellowship at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. He was raised in Brooklyn, New York and attended New York College of Osteopathic Medicine. View Profile