4 Sneaky Reasons Your Shoulders Hurt

By K. Aleisha Fetters |

Are you unintentionally causing pain and stiffness in your body? Here’s how to find out—and defy it.

older woman holding her shoulder

A stiff shoulder is a real pain in the butt—or back, neck, and arms.

That’s because the shoulder joint, which is really a collection of joints, is designed to be the most mobile joint in the human body, explains Brandon Erickson, M.D., an orthopaedic surgeon at Rothman Orthopaedic Institute in New York. But over the years, the shoulder gradually becomes less and less mobile. And when that happens, something has to pick up the slack.

“Your body is great at adapting and compensating,” Dr. Erickson says. “But unfortunately, the way it compensates to help keep you moving isn’t always healthy.”

Results may include weakened back muscles, a tense neck, or a tight chest. Additionally, your upper-arm bone—the humerus—can get wobbly in the shoulder joint, clanking around, rubbing down cartilage, and even pinching muscles and other tissues. Ouch!

“Without a mobile, stabile shoulder, you put a lot of strain on the other joints and tissues of the body, with pain being widespread,” Dr. Erickson says.

It’s a feeling many people know. A 2015 study in Myopain found 13 percent of older adults suffer from both neck and shoulder pain that affects their ability to perform everyday tasks. What’s worse, the researchers believe even more older adults are suffering in silence.

If that’s you—or you want to avoid being a statistic—here are four primary contributors to shoulder pain and immobility, plus simple ways to defy them for a stronger, healthier body.

Reason #1: Poor Posture

Kyphosis—the condition in which the upper spine takes a C shape and limits mobility—can occur for multiple reasons, including osteoporosis. But a history of poor posture is very often a major contributor.

Our modern ways don’t help: If you own a smartphone or tablet, there’s a good chance you spend a lot of time hunched over.

Why that’s bad: While the average human head weighs about 10 to 12 pounds, if you tilt yours forward to look down on your phone or the newspaper, you put up to 60 pounds of pressure on your neck, according to research in Surgical Technology International. Imagine hanging a 60-pound weight around your neck like a necklace. Safe to say it wouldn’t feel great.

Defy it: “Simply sit in a comfortable, neutral position, and make sure to get up every 30 minutes,” says Nicholas Maroldi, D.P.T., a physical therapist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. “That’s better than worrying about ergonomic furniture.”

Make a point to take breaks, stretch your chest, move your arms, and pinch your shoulder blades down and back, Maroldi says. These small things can go a long way in helping reduce stiffness.

Even better, add this anti-slouch workout to your weekly routine. It’s specifically designed to help strengthen the muscles of the core and upper back, improve posture, and load the body through standing weight-bearing exercises that help increase bone density and prevent osteoporosis in the spine.

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Reason #2: A “No Pain, No Gain” Exercise Mentality

Osteoarthritis of the shoulder—which occurs when the protective cartilage on the ends of the bones wears down—is very common, affecting nearly 33 percent of patients over 60, according to one Arthritis review.

While exercise can be hugely beneficial in reducing discomfort and progression of arthritis, pushing through pain can risk long-term damage to the joint and more issues down the line.

Defy it: Listen to your body. Never force your shoulders into any exercise that causes pain or makes them click or pop. There are countless exercise options for shoulders, so try an alternative, like one of these five moves for healthy shoulders.

“It’s best to work on shoulder strength through non-loaded movements such as wall slides and shoulder squeezes before performing loaded raises,” Dr. Erickson says. “That’s especially true for exercises that are overhead and require a good amount of mobility to perform safely and correctly.”

Check out our guide to the best and worst exercises for your shoulders to limit wear and tear.

Reason #3: Neglected Back Muscles

More than 20 muscles work together to keep your shoulder blades in a healthy position, Maroldi explains. But unfortunately, the back muscles are often weak, or at least not as strong as the muscles in your chest.

“This means they get overpowered and the shoulder blades pull out of healthy alignment,” he says.

Defy it: Pay more attention to strengthening the muscles you can’t see in the mirror.

“Start with your upper back and work your way down to your glutes, hamstrings, and calves,” Maroldi suggests, explaining that the entire posterior chain (a.k.a. backside) is connected and works best together.

Not sure which exercises to do? Try this 20-minute build-your-backside routine.

Once you’re familiar with the best exercises for your posterior chain, including hip hinges, bent-over rows, and glute bridges, remember this general rule of thumb from Maroldi: “Most people should perform two to three backside-focused exercises for every frontside one.”

Reason #4: Estrogen Deficiency

As if hot flashes weren’t bad enough for women, a growing body of research shows menopause may contribute to joint pain. That’s because estrogen, which declines after the onset of menopause, helps mitigate inflammation, Dr. Erickson says. So too-low estrogen levels can lead to worsening inflammation, swelling, and pain in the shoulder joint.

Defy it: While more research is needed, a 2016 review in Arthritis and Research Therapy suggests estrogen therapy may help reduce menopause-related arthritis. NSAIDs like ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) or aspirin can also help control inflammation, but they should be taken sparingly and aren’t a long-term solution.

If you suspect menopause may be messing with your joints, make an appointment to talk to your doctor.

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