One Simple Move to Ease Sore Shoulders

Featured Article, Healthy Living
on May 3, 2013
Man stetching his shoulder because of soreness.

Spring cleaning, tree trimming, a game of golf—all can leave you with sore shoulders. But overdoing isn’t the only cause for shoulder aches: arthritis, injury, or poor posture can take a toll as well.

Fortunately, relief can be simple—and quick—with these expert-approved remedies.

Ice. As soon as you feel pain, get out an ice pack, says physical therapist Doreen M. Stiskal, chair and associate professor, Department of Physical Therapy at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. Hold to the sore spot for 15 minutes to reduce inflammation, pain and swelling by constricting the blood vessels.

Witch hazel. An astringent made from willow bark and sold at drugstores, witch hazel also has a cooling effect, says Stiskal. Pour some on a cotton ball and rub on the sore area.

Heat. “The day after injury, apply heat to relax the muscles,” says Stiskal.  Take a warm shower or use a heating pad for 15 minutes. No heating pad? Put a cup of raw rice in a sock, tie ends, heat in a microwave, and put it on your shoulder until the rice cools. Or add a cup of Epsom salts to a warm bath. The magnesium in the salts further relaxes the muscles.

Over-the-counter remedies. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve) can help, says Dr. Jennifer Baima, a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School and staff physiatrist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. 

Massaging in creams or ointments like Icy Hot or Ben Gay may also help relieve pain and inflammation, but Baima warns that it is unsafe to use both oral and topical anti-inflammatories like Ben Gay at the same time. “They contain similar ingredients and you may get too much in your system,” says Baima.

Steroid injections. Depending on the cause of your pain, a corticosteroid injection may help relieve inflammation and pain, says Baima.

Stretching. Stiskal recommends the following simple moves.

Shoulder rolls: Bring your shoulders forward, circle up toward the ear, then toward the back in a slow clockwise motion. Do that 10 times, then do the same exercise counterclockwise.

Door stretch: Stand in a doorway, hands on either side of the doorframe, and lean forward, holding that for 15-30 seconds. “That pushes the shoulder blades back, which stretches your muscles, helping to improve [rounded shoulders],” says Stiskal.

Range of motion exercises. Range of motion exercises help loosen the shoulder muscles, says Stiskal. In fact, while you may think immobilizing your sore shoulder by using a sling will provide relief, Baima says it will do just the opposite. “Avoid a sling unless there is a fracture,” says Baima. “Slings can contribute further to stiffness and loss of motion.” Instead, try this exercise, Stiskal suggests: Bring your arm above your head, hold for two seconds, then bring it back to your side.  Then take your arm out to the side and back, as if you are signaling to hitchhike. Hold and repeat with the other arm.

Strengthening exercise. Baima suggests exercises using an elastic exercise band to strengthen the shoulder muscles. For instance, this rowing motion exercise is great for rotator cuff injuries, once the injury heals and you have some range of motion again:  Place an elastic exercise band on a door knob of a closed door.  Stand with your feet shoulder distance part, then pull both arms back towards your body as if you are rowing. Straighten your arms again and repeat 10 times.