The shoulder is the most mobile of any joint in the human body—here's how to keep yours pain-free.

By Sara Dickinson
May 28, 2020
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Getty / Pongsak Tawansaeng / EyeEm

The shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint made up of several tendons, ligaments, and muscles that all work together to give you a wide range of motion. As we grow older, the soft tissues surrounding the shoulder deteriorate, which is when pain most often sets in. There are many causes of shoulder pain, including swollen tendons, arthritis, torn cartilage, a torn rotator cuff, a pinched nerve, or a dislocation. Sometimes, though, your shoulder pain is secondary to another injury, perhaps to your neck or arm.

Dr. Oke Anakwenze, an orthopedic surgeon at Duke University Hospital, says that this joint is one of the most intricate: "It is the most mobile of any joint in the human body and is employed for most tasks we perform daily,″ he explains. ″As a result, occasional shoulder pain is not uncommon." Luckily, there are a few steps you can take to treat your shoulder pain at home; if pain persists, be sure to seek medical advice from your doctor.

At-Home Remedies

The first thing to do if you're experiencing shoulder pain is rest the joint. This will likely mean adjusting many of your daily activities to avoid too much movement; if you find it difficult to  keep the joint still, consider an arm sling or a shoulder immobilizer. To mitigate pain, apply a cold compress wrapped in a towel to the area for 20 minutes; repeat this several times throughout the day. Taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen or naproxen, can also reduce pain and swelling.

When to See a Doctor

If the pain in your shoulder is making you feel weak and the joint isn't showing signs of improving with at-home treatment, Dr. Anakwenze suggests giving your primary care provider a call; he or she may then refer you to a specialist. Certain shoulder pain can get worse over time, so don't hesitate to get yours checked out: "Shoulder pain affecting sleep and lasting over four weeks should be evaluated by a professional," he says.

Dr. Anakwenze recommends having your shoulder evaluated right way if you've recently experience a fall, as you'll need to make sure your rotator cuff isn't injured. If it is, you could require surgery. Depending on your diagnosis, your doctor may also recommend a steroid injection, anti-inflammatory medications, prescription drugs, physical therapy, or a combination of these treatments.

Try Physical Therapy

Performing daily shoulder stretches and exercises won't only help relieve your pain, but can also prevent future injuries down the road. And you don't need a referral from your doctor to see a physical therapist, so find one in your area to improve your flexibility and strength. They'll put together a treatment plan and might even provide a soft tissue massage of the area. Your physical therapist will suggest various arm, neck, and chest exercises that will help ease your specific point of pain. These exercises can usually be done in the privacy of your own home, but it's best to see an expert first to make sure you're targeting the appropriate muscles.

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