What can I do to help myself when i have shoulder pain?

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There are several ways that you can help yourself if you have shoulder pain.

Painkillers for shoulder pain

Simple painkillers or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) tablets and creams that you can buy at the chemist can be helpful, but don’t use them for more than 2 weeks without seeking medical advice.

Ice

If your shoulder is inflamed (warmer to touch than the other side), an ice pack may be helpful. Leave the ice pack in place for 10 minutes or so, making sure you protect your skin from direct contact with the ice by wrapping it in a damp towel.

Rest and exercise for shoulder pain 

Aim for a balance between rest and exercise to prevent your shoulder from stiffening. Try to avoid the movements that are most painful, especially those that hold your arm away from your body and above shoulder height. However, it’s important to remain generally active even if you have to limit how much you do.

When raising your arm, you can reduce the strain or pull on your shoulder by:

  • keeping your elbow bent and in front of your body
  • keeping your palm facing the ceiling when reaching up.

When lowering your arm, bend your elbow, bringing your hand closer to your body.

A good exercise is to use your good arm to help lift up your painful arm. Some people find that placing a cushion or rolled towel under the armpit and gently squeezing it can ease the pain.

You can also try exercises to stretch, strengthen and stabilise the structures that support your shoulders. You might find it more comfortable doing these exercises after applying ice to your shoulder.

Posture

Don’t sit leaning forwards with your arm held tightly by your side. This position can make shoulder pain worse, especially if some of the pain is coming from your neck.

Your upper body posture improves if your lower back is supported. When sitting, keep a pillow or cushion behind your lower back, with your arm supported on a cushion on your lap.

If your shoulder is painful to lie on, the following positions may reduce the discomfort:

  • Lie on your good side with a pillow under your neck. Use a folded pillow to support your painful arm in front of your body. Another pillow behind your back can stop you rolling back onto your painful side.
  • If you prefer to sleep on your back, use one or two pillows under your painful arm to support it off the bed.

Reducing the strain on your shoulders

It’s usually best to carry out your normal activities, but try not to overdo it. You need to pace yourself to start with and try to do a bit more each day.

At home:

  • When vacuuming, keep your upper body upright with the cleaner close to your body, and use short sweeping movements.
  • Only iron essential items, and make sure the ironing board is at waist height.
  • Use a trolley or a backpack to carry shopping, or divide the weight between two bags and carry one in each hand. Alternatively, use bags with long straps and carry them with the straps crossed over your body from shoulder to hip.

At work:

  • Try to maintain a good posture when sitting or standing. Avoid holding your neck in fixed or twisted postures.
  • If you work at a desk or workstation, try to get up and move around every so often. 
  • If you use a computer make sure the keyboard and monitor are directly in front of you, so you don’t have to turn your head or twist your body. Keep the mouse within easy reach so you don’t have to stretch.
  • When using the phone don’t trap the receiver between your head and your shoulder.
  • Avoid any manual work that hurts while you’re doing it.

It's important to seek advice if your job involves repetitive actions or awkward postures that might contribute to your shoulder pain.

Some companies have an occupational health department which might be able to help. Alternatively, contact your local Jobcentre Plus office, who can put you in touch with advisors specialising in physical difficulties at work.

Read more about looking after your joints.

Complementary medicine for shoulder pain

There are many different complementary and herbal remedies that are believed to help with pain relief, and some people do feel better when they use some complementary treatments. However, these treatments aren’t recommended for use on the NHS because there’s no conclusive evidence that they’re effective.

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