4 simple exercises to prevent and relieve shoulder pain

Joint Health

by Eddie Lo, MD

Jun 20, 2023

Sitting at a desk all day. Arching your shoulders while looking at your phone. Poor posture when driving. Repetitive motions during sports. Changes in the shoulder joint as you age. All of these can lead to shoulder pain.

After low back pain, shoulder pain is one of the most common orthopedic concerns that people bring up at the doctor. In young people, shoulder pain is often related to instability or poor posture. In older adults, early-onset rotator cuff issues or arthritis may be the cause. Either way, it’s likely that you’ll experience shoulder pain and stiffness at some point in life.

Fortunately, there are ways to help prevent shoulder achiness, pain and tension. With a few simple exercises, you can help maintain flexibility and strength in your shoulders and achieve good shoulder posture for better mechanics and less pain.

Exercises and stretches for shoulder pain

Here are four exercises that anyone can do to put their shoulders in the best position for improved function and strength.

1. Shoulder rolls

Shoulder rolls can help with tense shoulder blades. Shrug your shoulders up like you’re saying, “I don’t know.” Then, hold for 3 seconds, roll your shoulders back and relax them down. Repeat 10-20 times to contract and relax the muscles.

2. Shoulder blade set (elevation/depression and retraction)

Use these moves to help keep the shoulders strong and work the muscles in the back of the shoulder that help control your posture. These important muscles are often neglected and contribute to shoulder pain.

Similar to the “shoulder roll” above, these moves are used to help with positioning the shoulder blades for improved shoulder mechanics and less pain.

  1. Pinch the shoulders up as high as possible and hold for 3 seconds, trying to touch your shoulders to your ears like a “shrug.” Then push the shoulders down away from your ears and hold for 3 more seconds. Try to work your way up to 20.
  2. Pinch your shoulder blades toward each other and the center of your spine. Hold this position for 3 seconds when you reach your maximum pinch. Try to do this 20 times also.

3. Core engagement

The “core” is a group of stabilizing muscles of your body that help to support your trunk and all your extremity movements. While this exercise does not involve the shoulders directly, a strong core is essential for proper functioning of the shoulders and arms.

This exercise is done by trying to “pull” your belly button toward your spine, like after a deep exhale. It can be done in a sitting or lying position. You can begin lying down at first, but then progress to sitting, and even standing as you get stronger. Hold for 3-5 seconds and repeat. Perform 20 times.

4. Elbow press

This exercise is done while sitting in your chair. The idea is to push your elbows directly into the armrests to contract all the muscles around your shoulders. Hold for 3 seconds and try to repeat 10-20 times.

It’s also important to note that there are some motions or exercises that aren’t good for your shoulders. Any activity that requires repetitive overhead pushing or pulling should be avoided. Common exercises like an overhead press, military press or dumbbell press can be more harmful than helpful.

Keeping your shoulders moving

When you have shoulder pain, your first reaction may be to avoid movement and exercise. However, outside of a major injury such as a shoulder dislocation or fracture, keeping your joint moving is important. If you don’t move, you may increase the problems we’re trying to prevent, such as stiffness, poor posture and pain.

If you continue to have pain for several weeks after using shoulder exercises, ice or over-the-counter medications, then you should see your provider. Sometimes formal physical therapy is helpful for ongoing shoulder pain. A visit to a shoulder specialist can also help identify what’s going on in the shoulder and provide you with recommendations to feel better moving forward.

Learn more about care for shoulder injuries or take our shoulder assessment. Then find a shoulder specialist near you today.

About the Author

Dr. Lo is an attending physician at The Shoulder Center at Baylor University Medical Center, part of Baylor Scott & White Health, in Dallas.

We make it easy.

Healthcare doesn't have to be difficult. We're constantly finding ways to make it easy so that you can get Better and stay that way.

Better tools make it easier

We all have different healthcare needs. Handle them your way with the MyBSWHealth app. Download the app today and take a hands-on approach to your healthcare.

Text Better to 88408