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You may not give much thought to your shoulder joints until you start to experience pain, stiffness, or discomfort. If you are dealing with shoulder pain, everyday tasks like washing your hair or grabbing something overhead can seem next to impossible.

As many as 67% of people deal with shoulder pain during their life. If it’s your shoulder though, you want to ensure you’re getting the best care. When is it a serious issue, and when should you seek help? Can physical therapy make a difference?

Causes & Symptoms of Shoulder Pain

Shoulder pain is a common problem that can involve the cartilage, ligaments, muscles, nerves, or tendons surrounding the joint. Many of the pain-causing issues that arise in the shoulder start in the rotator cuff. 

The rotator cuff isn’t just one muscle; it’s a group of four muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder blade, connecting the shoulder blade to the upper arm. There are also small sacs, called bursae, that provide lubricating fluid to the joint to prevent friction among the bones, ligaments, and tendons. The shoulder is a complex joint– and with frequent use and so many small connections, a lot can go awry. 

If you have shoulder pain that just won’t go away, chances are it’s the result of one of the three most common causes of pain and irritation:

  • Rotator cuff injuries: Rotator cuff issues arise for many reasons including tendonitis and strains. The bursae can also become inflamed, which is known as bursitis. 
    • Symptoms: This kind of injury can lead to pain and stiffness in the front and side of the shoulder.
  • Rotator cuff tears: A major rotator cuff tear of one of the tendons in the shoulder joint can also cause a great deal of pain. This can happen because of a fall, or as a result of overuse or repeated motion. The rotator cuff tendons can also weaken with age and cause a tear. 30% of those under the age of 70 and 70% of those over 80 have a rotator cuff tear. 
    • Symptoms: One of the most telling symptoms of a rotator cuff tear is night pain in the shoulder.
  • Osteoarthritis: Osteoarthritis in the shoulder happens when the cushioning cartilage in the shoulder joint deteriorates over time, which can cause pain and stiffness. Osteoarthritis could be the cause of an old shoulder injury that jumpstarts a degenerative process, but it could also be normal wear and tear over time. 
    • Symptoms: Osteoarthritis starts as a deep ache in the back of the shoulder, and develops into stiffness as it progresses. For many who deal with osteoarthritis in the shoulder joint, they lose the ability to reach behind their back.

Methods of Treatment

For acute shoulder pain or a recent injury, early treatment is key. It can take 8 weeks or longer for a short-term shoulder injury to heal properly. Ongoing issues may require regular treatment to keep pain at bay. 

Regular stretching and mobility exercises can help prevent injury, but in the event an injury occurs, acute shoulder pain should be treated in the following ways:

  • Heat and cold compression
  • Compression with an ace bandage
  • Muscle relaxants or pain medication
  • Rest and activity modification

For ongoing, worsening, or chronic pain, treatment can vary based on the cause of the pain. Some patients may find some relief with corticosteroid injections. Physical therapy is also used to relieve pain. After several months of treatments, if conservative efforts are not effective, more intensive procedures like surgery may be considered, which means physical therapy is a crucial step in avoiding surgery for shoulder pain. 

How Physical Therapy Can Help

The main goal of physical therapy is always to increase your quality of life, ease the pain, and help prevent future injury. A physical therapist can do this to address your shoulder issues by developing strength, mobility, and range of motion. 

If your doctor refers you to a physical therapist, your therapist will evaluate your injury as well as your strength and range of motion. They will then come up with a personalized treatment plan to ease your pain and increase your mobility. 

Your physical therapist will work with you to target the smaller muscles in your shoulder that aren’t strengthened through a typical weightlifting regimen to compensate for damaged tendons and improve the mechanics of your shoulder joint. This will start with range-of-motion exercises and progress to isometric exercises and scapular stabilization. 

Working with a physical therapist, you will also learn how to modify your activities and your ergonomics for getting through the day and staying pain-free at work. They will also develop an exercise program to improve your overall quality of life. In some instances, physical therapy can even help prevent the need for surgery.

Schedule an Appointment Today

At South Orange Rehabilitation & Wellness, we get to know you and your needs. Through our knowledge of your physical needs and your medical history, our specialists come up with the best physical therapy plan to get you feeling your best. 

Can we help with your shoulder woes? Schedule an appointment with us today.