– James Nugent, PT, DPT, OCS, MTC, Cert MDT
Shoulder pain impacts between 18 and 26% of adults at any point in time. According to population surveys, it is the third most common musculoskeletal complaint people bring up with their primary care providers and 1% of adults see a doctor about new shoulder pain every year.
Because it is so common, understanding shoulder pain, including when to seek care for shoulder problems and the role that physical therapy plays in healing, can help you support the health of these important but injury-prone joints.
Physical Activity is Key to Shoulder Health
The shoulder joint has a greater range of motion than any other joint but it’s also the least stable. This means that your shoulders are more vulnerable to injury and age-related deterioration than your other joints.
Luckily, there are steps you can take to keep your shoulder joints healthy. By far, the best way to support shoulder health is to engage in regular physical activity. Whether it’s walking, swimming, doing yoga or simply pulling weeds in your garden, exercise is by far the best predictor of good outcomes when it comes to joint health. It doesn’t matter so much what kind of activity you do as long as you do it regularly.
Sometimes, staying active to protect your shoulders just means getting up from your desk and moving around every hour or so. Standing up, stretching your arms overhead and doing a few shoulder rolls can make a big difference in keeping your shoulder joints healthy. You can even set an alert on your phone to remind you to take “mobility breaks.”
Tools, like foam rollers and massage balls, can also be useful in relieving muscle tension that can cause joints to stiffen. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on fancy equipment—a tennis ball works just fine as a trigger point massager. These tools are wonderful for relieving stress, a major contributor to shoulder pain and stiffness.
Treating Rotator Cuff Injuries and Other Shoulder Problems
The group of muscles and tendons that surround your shoulder joint is called the rotator cuff and it’s very prone to injury. General wear and tear on the joint, overuse and trauma can cause a condition called rotator cuff tendinopathy that is characterized by inflammation and pain. Over 2 million Americans are affected by this condition, which can become chronic.
Given that movement is so crucial to joint health, it’s no surprise that physical therapy can be very helpful for treating rotator cuff tendinopathy and other shoulder problems. One study found that structured exercise, the type performed in physical therapy, worked as well as surgery for 65% of people with a subacromial spur, a bone spur that forms in the small space between the upper arm bone and the top of the shoulder blade.
Working with a physical therapist can also help improve your mental health which, in turn, can affect how well you recover from a shoulder injury. Likewise, your chances of a successful recovery are greatly improved when being treated by an empathetic therapist who promotes a positive attitude.
Moving Past the Pain
If you are dealing with shoulder issues, whether for the first time or recurrently, you don’t have to live with pain. Getting help from a healthcare provider who can diagnose your condition and guide you through treatment will help you find relief.