Shoulder Pain (omalgia)

Shoulder Pain Facts

Shoulder pain is a common ailment that affects 10% of the population at some time in their lives. Shoulder stability requires proper function of the rotator cuff and surrounding muscles which attach the arm to the torso. A properly functioning shoulder allows for excellent movement and proper stability when pushing, pulling or reaching overhead. Injury to the shoulder joint may limit movement and/or cause pain with activities. Since there is the capability for so much movement of the shoulder, problems can occur, leading to rotator cuff tendonitis or tears, shoulder impingement syndrome (pain while reaching overhead), shoulder bursitis, or complete loss of the shoulder’s range of motion (frozen shoulder or adhesive capsulitis). While many shoulder problems are frustrating and may take several months to heal, many spontaneously get better on their own. As much as 50% of all people with shoulder pain do not seek treatment at all with as many as 23% of the cases getting better in one month and 44% of the case getting better by three months. Trauma to the shoulder or recurring shoulder pain may be an indicator that there is a more serious problem and additional investigation may be required.

When should I see a doctor?

You should see a doctor when you can no longer cope with the pain or you can no longer perform activities which are important to you.

You should see a doctor when:

  • When the pain is too much for you to cope with and there are specific activities important to you that you are having difficulty undertaking.
  • When you have sharp pain shooting into the shoulder with or without numbness.
  • You notice a shrinking (atrophy) of the shoulder and/or arm muscles or an increased weakness in the hand or arm as a result of the shoulder dysfunction.
  • The shoulder pain is non-mechanical. It is painful and symptomatic when you are not moving it or it seems to arise from other areas of the body (i.e. chest).

Shoulder pain is very common and most people are fine coping with the pain as the condition slowly gets better. The chance there is serious disease causing the pain is rare, but it is important you tell your healthcare provider of any fears or concerns you may have or difficulties you may be experiencing at your workplace. It is normal to have feelings of worry. Often times there are ways to control the pain and ways of modifying your activities that help you get on with your life.

What can I do for myself?

Keep in mind that by staying active with your normal activities is one of the best things you can do for yourself. If your job requires movements that aggravate your shoulder, try to modify the task or activity. You may have to speak with your supervisor to see if there are ways to modify the job or activity to let the shoulder heal. Often reaching or lifting overhead will aggravate shoulder problems. Workstations may have to be changed to limit the cumulative tension in shoulders.

  • Remember to try to move the shoulder in the pain free range
  • Move before the shoulder stiffens up.
  • Do not stay in one position too long.
  • Take “mini” stretch breaks while doing repetitive tasks (computer work, desk work, etc.) ·
  • Don’t stop doing things, just change the way you do them.

Ways to increase your activity

First ask what is it that I want to do? Is it reaching into a cabinet, washing your hair, carrying a jug of milk, putting on a coat, etc.? Find out how long you can perform this activity without “flaring-up” your condition or making you worse off than when you started. This is individual to you. Reduce the amount or time of activity by 20% so you’re able to perform the activity, but it does not take you to the “flare up” point. Having a little discomfort is ok, though the duration of the activity should not make you worse off than before. Gradually increase the activity little by little, as not to reach the “flare-up” state. Slowly you will notice you’re able to do the activity longer without “flaring-up” the condition. Don’t be too upset if you have a “flare-up,” just reassess your activity level and continue on. If you unable perform the activity at all, try to change the way you use the shoulder. You may have to use a step stool to reach the cabinet, or bring your head closer to your hands while washing your hair, or carry a jug of milk with two hands rather than one. Find out how to modify your activity so you are able to complete the task that’s important to you. It’s normal to have good days and bad days. It takes some patience, but it works.

Ways to Modify Your Activities

The computer workstation

Make sure your shoulders are relaxed as you work. You may have to lower your keyboard or raise your seat. Take frequent microbreaks before tension builds in the shoulder. Structure your desk equipment so you do not have to reach too far for it.

Putting on a shirt or coat

Place the bad shoulder in the sleeve first. Then use your good shoulder/arm to place the shirt overhead or the coat around your body. You may have to twist your body a bit.

Washing/styling hair

Stoop and bring your head down to your hands. You may have to change your hairstyle until your shoulder function improves.

Reaching into a cabinet

Use a stepstool so you do not have to reach overhead.


Use two hands when carrying, even if the object is small.

Fastening your seatbelt

Use two hands to control reaching and fastening the seatbelt. You may have to twist your body a bit.


Take frequent rest breaks so you can get out of the car and move your shoulder. You may have to modify where you rest your arm in the car.


You may have to try different positions or support your shoulder with a pillow.


If there are specific activities which you are having difficulty with, a rehabilitation specialist can help. Once serious causes are ruled out and the pain is under control, the rehab specialist examines where the dysfunction lies. Often muscle and joint dysfunction leads to faulty movement patterns of the shoulder. This may lead to specific tissues and shoulder muscles getting “beaten up” by continually being reaggravated. First identify specific goals or limitations you wish to overcome that are agreed upon by both the practitioner and you.

The rehab specialist will perform a functional evaluation to determine what you are able to do and what areas may be causing some trouble. Bridging the gap between what you are able to do and what you want to do is the essence of rehabilitation. This may consist of specific exercises prescription that helps improve areas where you are having some difficulty. Sometimes manual therapy, soft-tissue therapy, medication, injection therapy and other modalities may also be used to further you towards your outcome goals.

Make sure and voice your thoughts and concerns with your healthcare provider. Pain and “flare-ups” may happen from time to time. This is normal and should not be the focus in care. Rather, try to focus on the exercises that are bridging the gap to your goals and what activities you want to do. Some shoulder conditions may require surgery. This is usually after non-surgical remedies have failed and the individual is unable to cope with the pain or dysfunction. Your thoughts and fears are important. Make your healthcare provider aware of any worries you may have with any procedure.