Blame it on all the time you spend doing computer work, driving, lifting babies, or scrolling through your Instagram feed on your phone: All of these activities (and more!) contribute to the rounding forward of your shoulders, creating tight muscles that cause a telltale "hunch."
Reasons your shoulders hurt
More than 20 percent of people suffer from shoulder pain, usually stemming from stiffness in the shoulders after long hours hunch over a desk. There are plenty of reasons why you might be experiencing shoulder pain, whether it's from a recent injury like a torn rotator cuff, or something that's developed over a long period of time.
There are four main causes of shoulder pain:
Tendon inflammation or tear: This encompasses conditions like tendinitis, tendon tears, and bursitis, when small, fluid-filled sacs called bursa, which cushion the bones and reduce friction in the shoulders joints, become inflamed and swollen. It's also possible for the top of your shoulder blade to rub against the rotator cuff tendons and bursa, which is called impingement.
Instability: Your shoulder becomes unstable when the top of your arm comes out of the socket either from an injury or overuse. The more this happens, the more likely it will continue to reoccur, which leads to an increased risk of developing arthritis.
Arthritis: Osteoarthritis begins around middle age, when you may notice swelling, pain, or stiffness in the shoulders as a result of daily use or work injuries. It's also possible to develop other types of arthritis in the shoulder.
Bone fracture: If you've broken your collarbone, upper arm bone or shoulder blade, which usually happens after a fall or car accident, then severe pain is likely around the shoulders.
In much rarer instances, shoulder pain cause also be an indication of infection, nerve problems, or cancer - such as a Pancoast tumour, which is a type of lung cancer, or metastatic breast cancer. If your shoulder is hurting, don't panic - it's likely a much more minor issue. See your doctor if the pain is severe or persists over several days.
Other factors to consider
Certain aspects of your daily lifestyle may be hurting your shoulders without you even realising it. For example, think about your mattress - is it too soft? Studies have found that a medium-firm mattress tends to work best for people who experience neck and back pain. If your shoulder pain is worse at night, it's likely an issue with the rotator cuff, which could be irritating the bursa, orthopedic surgeon Dr Howard Luks, wrote on his website. Some at-home remedies for night pain include sleeping in a semi-reclined chair, wearing a cooling or heating pad, and using a shoulder support pillow. You can also try sleeping on your good side, with a pillow behind your back to keep you from rolling onto your painful side, recommends Arthritis Research UK. Sleeping on your back with a pillow to support your painful shoulder may help too.
Finally, try to be conscious of your posture throughout the day, whether you're sitting in front of a computer or driving. Taking steps to improve your regular posture may help your shoulder pain go away on its own.
When your shoulder is aching, all you want is instant relief - and luckily, there's plenty you can do yourself to help ease the pain. "It's relatively easy to unlock tight shoulders and chest muscles with simple exercises that can be done while sitting on a chair, standing, kneeling, or sitting on the floor," says Meg Plotsky, group exercise and corporate recreation coordinator. "These exercises and stretches are truly accessible to everyone and can be done any time throughout the day."
Here, Plotsky and other personal trainers, physical therapists, and chiropractors share their favorite exercises that will help your shoulders stop hurting:
When your shoulders are rounded, the front of your chest collapses inward. This stretch opens up those chest muscles and "re-sets" your shoulders so they're in their natural position, says Plotsky.
How-to: Grab a yoga strap, jump rope, or belt, and come to a comfortable seated or standing position. Take your strap or belt in both hands and straighten your arms out at shoulder height, with your palms facing down. Bring your hands a little wider than shoulder-distance apart on the strap and, on an inhale, lift the strap up and overhead, palms facing forward. As you exhale, bend your elbows to about shoulder height and lower the strap, drawing your shoulder blades down your back and in toward your spine. (Think of forming a goalpost shape with your arms, with the strap behind your head.) Inhale and reach your arms back up; exhale and return to your starting position with your arms out in front of you at shoulder height. Repeat 3 to 5 times.
Back Bound Hand Stretch
When you spend much of your day with your shoulders hunched, that inward rotation of your shoulders can become habitual. This move counteracts that bad habit, says Plotsky.
How-to: Come to a comfortable seated or standing position and slide your shoulder blades down away from your ears and together toward your spine. Then bring both arms and hands behind you. Grab your right elbow with your left hand and your left elbow with your right hand. (If this is too hard, grab your wrist or forearm with the opposite hand.) Lift your chest and press your shoulder blades down your back while drawing them toward your spine. Take 3 to 5 deep breaths, then switch sides by grabbing your left elbow with your right hand and your right elbow with your left hand. Lift your chest and press your shoulder blades down your back and toward your spine. Again, take 3 to 5 deep breaths here.
Shoulder Blade Squeeze
This move strengthens the scapular/shoulder blade muscles, which prevent your shoulders from hunching forward, and also gives you better awareness of good posture, says Jesse Lewis, a physical therapist and a certified strength and conditioning specialist.
How-to: Sit up tall with good posture and bring both shoulder blades together as if you were holding a pencil between them and down away from your ears as you squeeze. Hold for 10 seconds, repeat 10 times, and repeat this move 3 to 4 times throughout your day.
Soft-Tissue Chest Massage
Lewis says this move loosens up your chest muscles, which is important because when they're tight, they pull your shoulders forward, worsening a hunch.
How-to: Take a tennis ball and place it against your pectoral muscles, just inside your shoulder bone and underneath your collarbone. Lean gently against a corner of a wall, with your chest resting against the ball on the wall and your face in the space the corner makes. Press gently into the wall with your body and massage throughout this area. If you find a tender spot, let the pressure of the ball sit against that knot until you feel the tightness release.
Great to do first thing in the morning or before you go to sleep, this relaxed chest-opener also helps to loosen tight pecs, which can cause your shoulders to hunch forward, says Lewis.
How-to: Lie flat on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place your arms out to the side, palms up, as if forming a "T" with your body. You can increase the stretch by placing a rolled towel or foam roller lengthwise along your spine. Make sure to keep both your hips and head on the roller or towel if you're using one. Do for 10 minutes each day.
This exercise strengthens the muscles in your upper back, which reinforces proper alignment in the shoulders, says Jill Franklin, a Pilates, yoga, and aerial instructor.
How-to: Attach a resistance band to a steady doorknob or piece of furniture at waist level. Grab the ends of the band and step a few feet away, with your feet parallel and hip distance apart. Soften your knees and keep your torso upright with an elongated spine (you can also sit on a chair or stability ball). Begin to bend your elbows back behind your waist while squeezing your shoulder blades together, then slowly return to your starting position. Start with 10 reps, and increase to 2 or 3 sets of 10. If you want more resistance, step farther away from the doorknob; if you want less resistance, move closer.
This exercise not only strengthens the muscles responsible for holding your shoulders back (the opposite movement of hunching them forward), but it also reminds the brain where shoulder range of motion should be, says chiropractor Eric Saxton.
How-to: Stand with your back against the wall with your arms out to your sides and then bend your elbows and rotate your arms so that the back of your hands are touching the wall directly above your elbows. Slowly move your arms up and over your head while focusing on maintaining contact between your elbows, hands, and the wall, and then lower your arms. Only go as high or as low as you can to keep the backs of your hands and elbows in constant contact with the wall. Raise and lower your arms like this 10 times slowly, as if making a snow angel on the wall.
First published: 26 Mar 2020