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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anna, PT

Shoulder Strain Solutions

Rehabilitating a painful shoulder does not have to be time-consuming. If you have a minor strain, simple rehab solutions can get you back to your workouts in no time.

I have a friend who travels the far reaches of the globe for work. Her name is Jess, and she has gone scuba diving with whales, summited Denali, Safaried the east African plains, and played with penguins in the Antarctic. Her current work endeavors have taken her to the dark winter of Greenland. (Temperatures there are as severe as -86* F with winds a screaming 60 mph. Did I mention it was dark? All the time? I couldn't do it.) To pass the time when she's not supporting science in Greenland, she has taken to working out an hour a day.

A few days ago she sent me a message asking for some PT advice. Her shoulder started hurting after a workout and there's nobody in her field camp to help. What should I do?, she asked.

So this is where it gets tricky. My first advice whenever somebody asks me casually, "hey, what should I do if (choose-your-body-part) hurts?" is, "Go get evaluated by a physical therapist." Nothing can replace a quality evaluation where a therapist is watching how you move, assessing joints and tissue quality, and ultimately getting to the root of your issue to establish your path to recovery. However, Jess doesn't have this luxury. I had to take a stab in the dark to give her advice about her shoulder pain.

She suspects it's her rotator cuff (four muscles in the shoulder responsible for rotating the arm inward or outward) that is impaired (e.g. hurting from a muscle strain), so I had to go with that.

If a rotator cuff muscle is impaired, then these are my first line of defense exercises to try:

A) Soft tissue massage with a ball

B) Resisted shoulder external rotation

C) Resisted shoulder horizontal abduction

*Soft tissue massage with a tennis or lacrosse ball (*affiliate links for tennis ball or lacrosse ball)- Allow the ball to press into your rotator cuff muscles by leaning into it against a wall. Once you have isolated a spot that is tender you may sustain your pressure or gently roll the ball around it like a massage. Both are effective. Perform for 2-3 minutes, 2-3 times/day. (Top left picture.)

*Resisted shoulder external rotation (*affiliate link for resistance bands)- Start with your arm at your side, holding a resistance band with your elbow at a 90-degree angle. Keep your elbow bent at your side as you rotate your arm outward, pulling the band away from your body. Perform 3 sets of 12 repetitions, 4-5 days/week. (Top middle and right pictures.)

*Resisted shoulder horizontal abduction- Start with your arm outstretched in front of you as you hold a resistance band. Keep your elbow straight as you pull the band across your body, ending with your arm outstretched at your side. Perform 3 sets of 12 repetitions, 4-5 days/week. (Bottom two pictures.)

The massage with a ball is to reduce soreness and improve pain-free range of motion due to muscle restriction. If you have tenderness in the muscle, this can help release a tight band of muscle causing that tenderness. It can also help increase blood flow to the muscle to facilitate healing. As I tell my patients, this part isn't the "cure all- be all", but it can help your shoulder to start feeling better.

The resistance exercises are meant to start strengthening the muscles around the shoulder. If there IS in fact a strain, then starting to lightly strengthen helps ultimately eliminate pain and prevent injuries from occurring in the future. Be sure to not perform these if this reproduces your pain, or worse- exacerbates it. There are always more exercise to do to continue progressing your rehab, but as I said, I like these for starters.

If you try these and your shoulder pain is not improving, please help yourself by going to see your local physical therapist. Shoulders can be cantankerous when they are hurting, but they typically will respond favorably with the correct therapy treatments. If these exercises aren't working for you, be sure to get on a program that does work. My hope, however, is that these DO in fact help! They're a part of many of my patients' initial home exercise program when getting them on the road to recovery.

If you've given this a try, let me know how this worked for you! I'd love to hear.


*By making purchases for your rehabilitation supplies through the affiliate links, Mountains & Motion gets a small percentage of the purchase price at no cost to you. This supports the ongoing efforts of Mountains & Motion. Thank you!

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