How to Fix Shoulder Pain for Athletes

Two Parts:Managing Shoulder Pain at HomeReceiving Professional Treatment

It's no surprise that athletes often experience shoulder pain because it has the most range of motion of any joint in the body, which makes it vulnerable to injury.[1] Most shoulder pain is caused by muscle pulls (strains), although joint sprains and dislocations happen frequently also. A quick and full recovery from shoulder pain is particularly important for athletes, who want to return to their sport as soon as possible. An athlete can help manage their shoulder pain at home, although advice and treatment from a health professional is always beneficial and often necessary for a speedy recovery.

Part 1
Managing Shoulder Pain at Home

  1. Image titled Fix Shoulder Pain for Athletes Step 1
    Rest your shoulder injury. Shoulder pain in an athlete is usually caused by overexertion or some kind of awkward fall or positioning. These sorts of mishaps can happen while playing sports (football, hockey, baseball, volleyball and tennis, in particular) or training for them while at the gym. The best advice when you feel significant shoulder pain (not just mild aches that are common from working out) is to take a break from all activity that stresses the involved shoulder. After a few days of rest, you may be surprised at your body's ability to heal the injury.
    • If your shoulder pain is related to lifting weights at the gym, then you may be working out too aggressively or with bad form — consult with a personal trainer.
    • Although resting your shoulder for a few day is a beneficial, completely immobilizing it in a sling is not recommended for minor strain / sprain injuries — it promotes the development of "frozen" shoulder (adhesive capsulitis). At least some gentle shoulder motion is needed to encourage blood flow and stimulate healing.[2]
    • Achy shoulder pain usually indicates a muscle strain, whereas sharp pain with movement is often caused by joint / ligament injuries. Shoulder joint pain is usually worse at night while in bed compared to pain generated mainly from muscle pulls. Certain inflammatory conditions, such as bursitis, may also cause a worsening of shoulder pain at night. If your shoulder pain gets worse at night, see your doctor immediately.
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    Apply ice to acute shoulder pain. If your shoulder pain is acute (new) and involves swelling, then apply a bag of crushed ice (or something cold) to the most tender area in order to reduce inflammation and numb the pain.[3] Cold therapy is best for acute sports injuries that involve inflammation. Apply the crushed ice for about 15 minutes or so every couple of hours until the discomfort in your shoulder subsides.
    • Compressing the ice tightly against your sore shoulder with a Tensor or Ace bandage is even more effective at reducing swelling.
    • Always wrap crushed ice or ice cubes in a thin towel before you apply it to your skin — it prevents potential irritation and frostbite.
    • If you don't have any type of ice, then use a frozen gel pack or bag of veggies from the freezer — frozen peas or corn works great.
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    Apply moist heat to chronic shoulder pain. If your shoulder pain is chronic (long term) and caused from overuse or an old injury, then apply moist heat instead of ice — particularly if the pain feels stiff and achy instead of sharp. Moist heat warms up the soft tissues (muscles, tendons, ligaments) and increases blood flow to the area, which can be helpful when recovering from an old sports injury or dealing with "wear and tear" type arthritis (osteoarthritis).[4] Great sources of moist heat include microwavable bags filled with grains (usually wheat or rice), herbs and/or essential oils. Toss the bag in the microwave for a few minutes and then apply it to your chronic shoulder pain for 15 to 20 minutes first thing in the morning and before any type of light exercise.
    • Remember to cover the herbal bag with a towel to help keep the heat from dissipating too quickly.
    • Taking a warm bath also provides moist heat to achy soft tissues. Add some Epsom salt for even better results — the magnesium in the salt relaxes and soothes sore muscles.
    • Avoid applying dry heat from regular heating pads. They can dehydrate muscles and increase the risk of injury.
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    Take some over-the-counter medication. If your shoulder pain isn't impacted greatly by applying ice or moist heat, then try taking some over-the-counter anti-inflammatories or pain killers. Anti-inflammatories are more appropriate for acute shoulder injuries involving significant inflammation, such as moderate-to-severe sprains and strains, bursitis and tendonitis. Common anti-inflammatories include aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) and naproxen (Aleve). Pain killers are more appropriate for pain not obviously caused by inflammation, such as nerve irritation and general wear and tear achiness. Pain killers (analgesics) almost always include acetaminophen (Tylenol and Paracetamol) as the main ingredient. Keep in mind that these medications are short-term solutions for shoulder pain and not meant to be taken regularly for more than a couple weeks at a stretch — they can lead to stomach, kidney and liver issues.[5]
    • Another option for shoulder pain, particular if you feel spasms or tightness in the muscles, is taking muscle relaxants (such as cyclobenzaprine), but don't combine them with anti-inflammatories or analgesics.
    • Whatever medications you try, always take them with food and not on an empty stomach.
    • Keep in mind that ibuprofen and aspirin are not recommended for young kids — aspirin, in particular, has been linked to Reye's syndrome.
    • Always follow the instructions and dosage information on the drug's packaging.
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    Attempt some light shoulder stretches. If your shoulder injury is not severe and does not involve sharp, stabbing or shooting pain, then try some light shoulder stretches after a day or so of rest. Stretching is not a good idea for shoulder dislocations or severe strains and sprains, but less serious injuries often respond well to light stretches because it relieves muscle tension, stimulates blood flow and improves flexibility.[6] Hold the shoulder stretches for about 30 seconds and do them at least three times per day until the pain fades away.
    • Mild movement and light stretches reduces the chances of scar tissue, chronic stiffness and loss of mobility from developing in the shoulder.
    • While standing or sitting with a straight back, reach around the front of your body and grab the opposite elbow. Gently pull on the back of the elbow across your chest until you feel a stretch in the corresponding shoulder muscles. Hold for 30 seconds and then repeat three times.
    • Again while standing or sitting erect, reach behind your back towards your shoulder blade and interlock with the opposite hand. Then slowly pull on the hand with the shoulder pain until you feel a good stretch.
    • While sitting in a chair, bring the affected shoulder behind your back, with your palm facing away from your body. Slowly lean back so that your back is resting against the back of the seat and pressing against your hand. Slowly rotate your body to the same side as the stretched shoulder. You should feel a nice gentle stretch. Hold this position for 30 seconds. Rest, and then repeat the stretch four more times. If you feel any increase in pain or discomfort, stop the exercise.

Part 2
Receiving Professional Treatment

  1. Image titled Fix Shoulder Pain for Athletes Step 6
    Consult with your family doctor. Although your doctor is not likely a shoulder specialist or an athletic therapist accustomed to dealing with sports injuries, they can certainly help you understand the type and severity of your injury. Most shoulder injuries are mild-to-moderate strains and sprains, which usually take one to two weeks to heal. More serious shoulder injuries include a joint dislocation, shoulder separation (sprained acromioclavicular joint), torn rotator cuff muscles, bursitis and bone fractures (of the upper arm, shoulder blade and/or collar bone).[7] These serious injuries can take up to six months to heal (depending on complications), but your doctor can give you a good idea of prognosis and necessary treatment.
    • If warranted, your doctor may take an x-ray, bone scan, MRI or nerve conductance study to diagnosis your shoulder pain / injury.
    • Fractures, torn muscles / ligaments and some dislocations require shoulder surgery — your doctor will refer you to an orthopedic surgeon in these cases.
    • Bursitis (inflamed bursa), tendinitis, shoulder separations and severe sprains can often benefit from a local corticosteroid injection (prednisolone). Corticosteroids quickly reduce inflammation and pain, and improve range of motion. Ask your doctor about the pros and cons of corticosteroid injections.[8]
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    Get a referral to a physiotherapist. For athletes, its not only important to fix the shoulder pain, but also to ensure the joint is stable and strong so it can withstand the demands of their sport. As such, seeing a physiotherapist is an important part of your recovery because they can show you specific stretches and strengthening exercises to rehabilitate your shoulder.[9] Strengthening exercises typically involve weight lifting or pulling on rubber bands under tension. Physical therapy is usually required two to three times per week for four to eight weeks to positively impact significant shoulder injuries. You'll be allowed to return to your sport once your shoulder is pain free and has full strength and mobility.
    • If warranted, a physiotherapist can treat your injured shoulder muscles with therapeutic ultrasound or electronic muscle stimulation, which can make a quick impact on pain.
    • In addition to resistance training, other good strengthening exercises for the shoulder include push-ups, pull-ups, swimming and rowing.
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    Try a shoulder massage. If your shoulder pain is not too severe and you're still able to move the joint without too much difficulty, then getting a deep tissue massage from a qualified therapist is a good strategy. Deep tissue massage alleviates muscle tightness and tension, improves flexibility and flushes out inflammation — all of which contribute to the sensation of pain.[10] Massage is most helpful for mild-to-moderate shoulder muscle strains, but it's not recommended for more serious shoulder joint injuries (mentioned above). Get a diagnosis of your shoulder injury before considering massage therapy.
    • Start with a 30-minute massage session focusing on your injured shoulder, but also including your neck and mid-back between your shoulder blades. One session may "fix" your pain, but a few more sessions may be required.
    • Allow the therapist to go as deep as you can tolerate it, as there are many muscle layers in your shoulder that may need attention.
    • Always drink lots of purified water after a massage or else you risk getting a headache and feeling a little nauseous.
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    Try trigger point treatments. Some shoulder pain can come from muscle knots, also known as trigger points. Trigger points can often cause local pain or pain to other areas of your body. For example, a muscle knot in the middle back can refer pain to the top of the shoulder joint. Trigger point therapy, or myofascial release, can help to relieve this type of muscle pain.[11]
    • Try seeking trigger point treatments from a health professional who is trained in trigger point therapy. Someone who is trained in trigger point therapy can search your shoulder muscles and muscles in other areas, such as your mid back, to find the underlying cause of your pain.
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    Consider acupuncture for your shoulder. Acupuncture is a treatment modality developed many centuries ago in China designed to reduce pain and stimulate healing.[12] Acupuncture involves sticking very thin needles into the skin at specific points (sometimes close to the injury, but often in distant parts of the body) for between 15 to 45 minutes per session. The needles trigger pain-reducing compounds (such as endorphins) to be released into the bloodstream, so pain can disappear quickly with acupuncture. Although the effectiveness of acupuncture is not well studied for shoulder pain specifically, it has proven very helpful for most musculoskeletal injuries. Furthermore, given it's excellent safety record and relatively low expense, it's certainly a good option for athletes trying to fix their shoulder pain.
    • Acupuncture is now practiced by a wide variety of healthcare practitioners, including some physicians, chiropractors, physiotherapists and massage therapists.
    • Whichever professional you decide upon should be NCCAOM certified.
    • One acupuncture treatment may make a significant impact on your shoulder pain, but sometimes it takes a few more session, so be patient for results.


  • If there is a deformity or dent in your shoulder muscle and you feel severe pain, then your may have a joint dislocation. See your doctor immediately.
  • The most common kind of shoulder surgery is arthroscopy. In this type of surgery, the surgeon inserts an arthroscope into the joint, which is a small camera that can transmit clear pictures on a screen.
  • To reduce your shoulder pain, try sleeping on your back. In general, stomach sleeping can irritate the shoulder and lower neck joints.
  • If your shoulder pain is chronic and recurring, try supplementing with glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM and/or various fish oils — they may help lubricate the joint and reduce inflammation, although two to three weeks is usually needed to notice significant results.

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Categories: Pain Management and Recovery