Chronic shoulder pain is common, affecting millions of men and women each year. Unlike acute pain that follows a traumatic injury, chronic shoulder pain is usually associated with repetitive movements, like lifting and reaching. Those might seem like simple movements, but over time, they can cause a lot of wear and tear in and around the shoulder joints. And without proper treatment, you can wind up with pain, stiffness and a loss of joint function.
How Repetitive Movement Strains Your Shoulder
Your shoulder joint contains lots of components, including muscles, tendons and cartilage. Repeated movements can wind up affecting any of these joint “parts.” As we get older, one of the more common causes of chronic joint pain is osteoarthritis. In arthritis, the protective layer of cartilage inside the joint breaks down. Normally, cartilage reduces friction inside the joint when you move your shoulder. But as the cartilage disappears, your bones lose that natural protection. Every time you move your shoulder, the ends of the bones rub against each other, causing painful friction and swelling in and around the joint.
Like arthritis, shoulder strains also occur more often as we age. A shoulder strain occurs when the muscles or tendons are “overstretched.” Sometimes, a strain causes tiny tears to form in muscle or tendon tissue. These small tears cause pain and inflammation, often interfering with normal joint movement. Swelling in the soft tissues increases the risk of impingement, when soft tissues get trapped or pinched by the bones and other harder structures. If scar tissue forms, you can develop adhesive capsulitis or frozen shoulder.
Interestingly, repetitive movement isn’t the only cause of shoulder strains. Some strains can occur when the shoulder remains in one position for a long period of time. For instance, if you spend a lot of time typing, holding your shoulders still for hours on end, you can develop a strain as well. Carrying a heavy backpack or messenger bag also increases your risk of a strain.
Shoulder Strain Symptoms
Most shoulder strain symptoms occur when you move your shoulder, especially when raising your arms above you head. You might also have pain when lifting objects in front of you. Pain can occur on the front or side of the shoulder or near the shoulder blade.
Depending on what area of your shoulder is affected, you might notice weakness in your shoulders or down your arms. The shoulder might feel very stiff when you raise or rotate your arm. As inflammation increases around the joint, swollen tissues can press on nerves, which means you might have pain or numbness in the neck, upper back, arms and hands. Although a strain is rarely a major injury, if you delay medical care, that strain could develop into a serious problem.
How do you treat a shoulder strain?
Most shoulder strains respond very well to conservative treatment. If you have a shoulder strain, the first thing you should do is try to rest your shoulder as much as possible. That doesn’t mean immobilizing it; it just means avoiding strenuous activities, like heavy lifting. Some movement is good, including gentle stretches to promote circulation and keep the joint flexible.
Taking over-the-counter pain medication can help reduce both discomfort and swelling. You can also try applying an ice pack for about 15 minutes a few times a day. If you’re a side-sleeper, try sleeping on your other side or on your back to avoid irritating your shoulder. And if you spend a lot of time sitting at a desk, take plenty of breaks and try doing some gentle stretches in between tasks.
When these “home remedies” don’t work, Dr. Van Thiel might recommend physical therapy to strengthen the shoulder and relieve swelling. In some cases, he might suggest injections into the joint space. Less commonly, he may recommend a minimally-invasive diagnostic procedure called arthroscopy to “see” inside the joint and perform minor repairs.
Shoulder strain recovery time can vary, based on the severity of the injury, your activity level and other factors. As with other types of joint pain, the best way to speed up your recovery is to seek medical attention as early as possible. Even though some shoulder strains respond well to home care and conservative treatment, other shoulder problems need specific, targeted treatments to help them resolve. When you ignore shoulder pain, there’s a good chance the damage inside the joint will become worse. Having a medical evaluation at the first sign of pain ensures your shoulder is getting the care it needs to recover.
Find relief for your shoulder pain
Your shoulders play a big role in a lot of your daily activities. If you’re like most people, you probably don’t realize how much you depend on your shoulders until they start to hurt. As a top-ranked orthopedic specialist in Rockford and Northern Illinois, Dr. Van Thiel is skilled in diagnosing the cause of shoulder pain so it can be successfully treated. If you have chronic shoulder pain, find the relief you’re looking for by scheduling an office visit today.