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

Back to Shoulder pain

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

Use over-the-counter painkillers

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 two weeks without seeking medical advice.

Your pharmacist should be able to provide guidance on what medication to take and how to use it.

Apply heat or cold to the joint

If your shoulder pain is due to a recent injury or 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.

For most other types of shoulder pain, heat packs can help to ease the pain, particularly if your muscles feel sore and tense. You can use:

  • a reusable heat pad (which you can buy from chemists and sports shops)
  • a microwaveable wheat bag
  • a hot-water bottle.

Don't put heat or ice packs directly onto your shoulder, to avoid burning or irritating your skin. Wrap them in a towel (a damp towel for ice packs) before you put them on your skin.

Improve your posture

Poor posture or working habits can make shoulder problems worse. This can include shoulders becoming rounded and slouching, particularly when you're sitting at a desk.

Leaning forwards for long periods when sitting, with pressure through your arm or with your arm held tightly by your side, can make the problem worse, especially if some of the pain is coming from your neck.

Changing your position frequently and sitting in a supported upright position may be helpful.

Your upper body posture improves if your lower back is supported. When sitting, you may need to place a pillow or cushion behind your lower back, depending on the chair. Make sure your arm is supported and that you feel comfortable. If your shoulder is really sore, consider supporting your arm using a cushion or pillow on your lap.

Look into a mirror and make a conscious effort to hold your shoulder blades up and back. This should make your chest stand out as if you were taking a deep breath.

If your shoulder is painful to lie on, sleeping in 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.

Reduce the strain on your shoulders

Generally it's best to carry out your normal activities, but don't over do it. Your body is designed to move but you may need to pace yourself and try to gradually 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 your shoulder to your hip.
  • Limit the amount of time when you're sat looking at tablets and mobile phones. Instead use a stand and place them on a table to reduce neck strain.
  • When doing DIY (such as painting and cleaning the walls or ceiling) try to give yourself enough time to finish the task and ask for help if you need it. Take lots of rests by moving around, and switching tasks and positions if you can.

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. Make regular gentle movements through the full range of your neck and shoulders.
  • If you use a computer, keep the keyboard and monitor 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.
  • Don’t trap the phone between your head and your shoulder when you're making a call. If you're on the phone a lot, use a headset.
  • Avoid any manual work that hurts while you’re doing it.

If your job involves repetitive actions and/or awkward postures that might contribute to your shoulder problems, it's important to look for advice.

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.

Get a balance between rest and exercise

Aim for a balance between rest and activity 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. 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 at the side 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.

Try our exercises to manage shoulder pain. They're designed to help ease pain and strengthen the structures that support your shoulder.

If your pain increases when exercising, stop doing it and seek medical advice. Otherwise, remember to keep exercising regularly, even after your shoulder pain has cleared up.

Try complementary medicine

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

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