How to Use Yoga for Shoulder Pain

Two Parts:Understanding Your Shoulder InjuryUsing Yoga to Combat Shoulder Pain

The human shoulder joint has the most range of motion of any joint in the body and is in virtually continuous use throughout the day and during most of the night. As such, it should come as no great surprise that athletes and office workers alike commonly complain about shoulder aches and pains. Shoulder injuries can be acute (from sudden trauma) or chronic (from long-term wear and tear or repetitive movements), but most can be managed without medical intervention. Yoga has become very popular in North America over the last 20 years and can be great for making you more limber and less stressed, but you should be cautious if you have any musculoskeletal injuries. Yoga tends to really challenge the joints and muscles of most people, so it should be seen more as a strengthening and injury prevention activity instead of an injury treatment activity.

Part 1
Understanding Your Shoulder Injury

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    Consult with your family physician. Shoulder joints are susceptible to various injuries involving numerous tissues, such as muscles, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, bones, nerves and blood vessels.[1] But keep in mind that the degree of the shoulder pain is not always commensurate with the seriousness of the injury. Some serious injuries can generate only mild-to-moderate pain, whereas relatively minor sprains and strains can cause severe short-term pain. As such, get your doctor to examine your shoulder pain to make sure that it's stable enough to participate in yoga classes. Your doctor may take x-rays of the shoulder joint or send you for an MRI or CT scan to get a better idea of what's causing your shoulder pain.
    • Less serious causes of shoulder pain that could possibly benefit from yoga exercises / positions include mild ligament sprains, bursitis and osteoarthritis (the wear and tear type); mild-to-moderate muscle strains and contusions (bruises).
    • Shoulder injuries and conditions not appropriate for yoga include glenohumeral dislocations, acromioclavicular separations, inflammatory arthritis (rheumatoid), advanced osteoarthritis, nerve impingement, severely torn ligaments or tendons, and any type of bone fracture or tumor.
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    Make sure your shoulder is stable and functional. Yoga involves a number of poses or positions that put pressure on the shoulder girdle. If your shoulder pain is caused by an injury or condition that makes the shoulder joint unstable (severe arthritis, cartilage tear, nerve impingement, broken bones, dislocation), then joining a yoga class is not a good idea at all. Get your family physician, chiropractor, physiotherapist or even personal trainer at the gym to assess your shoulder for stability, which includes testing it for normal range of motion and strength.[2]
    • If your painful shoulder has near full range of motion and strength, then doing yoga poses that put weight on your upper body is likely okay and maybe even beneficial.
    • Too much movement in the shoulder joint is the hallmark sign of instability and usually caused by severely stretched or torn ligaments surrounding the joint capsule.
    • Reduced range of motion in the shoulder is often caused by arthritis, cartilage damage, excessive scar tissue or build-up of inflammation.
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    Consider light exercises and stretches before attending yoga classes. Yoga postures require a base level of strength, flexibility, balance and coordination to accomplish.[3] Unfortunately, many Americans are out of shape and lack the flexibility and strength to do yoga properly (at least initially), which actually increases their risk of a musculoskeletal injury. As such, if you are in average or worse physical condition, then do some light stretches and exercises for your shoulders (and other major joints such as your hips and low back) at home or at the gym before joining a yoga class. You'll reduce your risk of injury and get more out of the classes. On the other hand, if you are already fit and flexible, then you may need such preparation.
    • While standing, 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. Hold for 30 seconds and do at least 3x daily.
    • Also while standing, reach behind your back and grab the wrist of the other hand (the one with shoulder pain). Slowly pull down on the wrist until you feel a good stretch in the affected shoulder. Again, hold for 30 seconds and do at least 3x daily.
    • Good strengthening exercises for your shoulders include rowing, swimming, push-ups and pull-ups.
    • Recreational activities that can strengthen and mobilize your shoulders include tennis, bowling and archery.

Part 2
Using Yoga to Combat Shoulder Pain

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    Pick the most appropriate yoga class. Bear in mind that there are different kinds of yoga, ranging from fairly gentle and less challenging to vigorous and very challenging. Most yoga taught in the United States is a form of hatha yoga, which involves the use of classic poses along with controlled breathing.[4] For beginners, hatha yoga may be a little too difficult — unless you find classes tailored to total newbies. Instead, Iyengar yoga (also widely practiced in the U.S.) emphasizes precise physical alignment and makes extensive use of bolsters, blocks or blankets to help you move easily into each pose. Iyengar yoga is probably best for those with physical limitations, including the disabled, the elderly and people who don’t exercise.
    • Perhaps the most vigorous form of yoga is called ashtanga, as it involves assuming a series of postures called sun salutations in rapid, flowing movements.
    • Even yoga for beginners burns calories — at about the same rate as walking slowly — but more advanced sessions are strenuous and burn calories at similar rates to cycling.
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    Ask the instructor about the best poses for the shoulders. All the classic and modified poses in yoga challenge multiple muscle groups and joints simultaneously, so none isolate just the shoulders. Having said that, some are more challenging or stretch the shoulders to a greater extent than others. Ask your yoga instructor about the poses best suited to strengthening or stretching the shoulders and then focus on them later at home. Make sure your technique is near perfect before trying to replicate postures at home while unsupervised, otherwise injuries might result.
    • There are many yoga poses (almost all with unusual names!), so decide if you want to primarily stretch your shoulder muscles or strengthen then. If stretching is more your desire, then decide if your pain is more in the front, side, back or top of your shoulder area. Research poses on the internet to become familiar with them before you join a class.
    • Yoga poses that primarily stretch the shoulders include the Bow, Camel, Cow Face, Extended Puppy, Gate and High Lunge.[5]
    • Yoga poses that primarily strengthen the shoulder include the Dolphin, Half Frog, Cat, Cobra, Firefly, Handstand, Scale and Side Plank.
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    Don't forget about your neck and mid-back. Your shoulder pain may not only involve your shoulder joint and related muscles. Additionally, your neck and mid-back may also be contributing factors, so don't forget to do some yoga poses tailored for these areas also. For example, the levator scapulae muscles attach your shoulder blades to your upper neck and are a common source of pain due to "stress neck" and habitual postures such as computer work and driving a car. Another example is the rhomboid muscles between your shoulder blades, which are commonly strained by bad (slouching) posture.
    • Yoga postures great for your neck and mid-back include the Warrior, Supported Shoulderstand, Revolved Triangle, Plow and Noose, among others.[6]
    • It's important not to try to attain poses or postures if they are significantly increasing your shoulder pain. Some muscle ache from a good stretch is likely okay, but sharp and shooting pains are never a good sign and an indication you should stop and take a break.
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    Continue with yoga for relaxation and injury prevention. Yoga may certainly help with your mild-to-moderate shoulder pain, but it's ability to reduce stress, increase overall muscle flexibility and strength, lower heart rate and blood pressure, and relieve anxiety, depression and insomnia are all proven by studies.[7] As such, you shouldn't look at yoga as a short-term fix for shoulder pain, but rather as a long-term lifestyle commitment to better your health and well being. If an easy short-term fix is all you want for your shoulder pain, then medications such as muscle relaxants or anti-inflammatories may be the better (and less expensive) option. Yoga takes time and commitment.
    • Realize that yoga in its full form combines physical poses, breathing exercises, meditation and a distinct philosophy regarding nutrition and lifestyle choices.
    • Remember that practicing yoga should not replace conventional medical care when it comes to musculoskeletal injuries or other health conditions.


  • People with high blood pressure, glaucoma or sciatica, and women who are pregnant should be very cautious practicing yoga.
  • Everyone's body is different, so yoga poses should be slightly modified in some situations based on individual abilities.
  • Carefully select a well-trained yoga instructor who is experienced with and attentive to your needs.

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