9 Tips for Managing Chronic Shoulder Pain

  • woman-in-workout-clothes-touching-shoulder
    Got the weight of the world on your shoulders?
    Many things can cause chronic shoulder pain: arthritis, an injury, stress, repetitive motion—the list goes on and on. And so, it seems, does the pain. Chronic pain can make it hard to focus on anything else and can greatly affect your ability to work and perform daily activities. Fortunately, there are many options available for relieving your shoulder pain, ranging from medications to massage. And while you may have to try a few different strategies, chances are there’s something out there that can bring you some much-needed relief.

  • male doctor and patient with shoulder pain
    1. Consult a professional.
    First things first: if you’ve been experiencing shoulder pain that won’t go away, it’s important to see your doctor. Getting at the root of the problem is top priority, and understanding the cause will lead you in the right direction to treating the problem. Your doctor can test to see if your pain is a symptom of a condition like arthritis, if it’s a result of an injury, or some other cause. Depending on your diagnosis, your physician can prescribe or recommend the right treatment path going forward. And you can find the right doctor for your shoulder pain at Healthgrades!

  • Ice pack
    2. Chill out (literally).
    For short-term but effective pain relief, apply an ice pack to your shoulder for 15 to 20 minutes, several times throughout the day. The ice restricts your blood vessels, slowing your circulation and numbing nerve endings so you don’t feel the pain as intensely. You can try using a bag of frozen veggies wrapped in a towel or an ice pack specifically designed to fit around your shoulder. Ice longer than 10 minutes to really have an impact, but remove the ice after 20 minutes to avoid frostbite. And never apply the ice directly to the skin—use a towel or other cloth as a buffer.

  • woman-receiving-TENS-treatment-on-neck
    3. Try a TENS unit.
    With transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), a small device sends electrical charges to the painful area and interferes with your nerves so they don’t transmit painful signals as strongly. Your doctor may prescribe a TENS unit for you, or you can purchase an over-the-counter (OTC) TENS unit at your local pharmacy or drug store. Using TENS is a great option for non-pharmaceutical pain relief without side effects. However, there are still some risks associated with the use of TENS units, so be sure to talk to your doctor before trying one out.

  • blank tube
    4. Consider a new kind of painkiller.
    If you live with chronic shoulder pain, it’s likely you’re very familiar with painkillers like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve). But these oral medications can have some side effects like stomach irritation and risk of gastrointestinal bleeding. You can avoid these issues and still get much-needed relief by using topical NSAIDs in the form of gels and creams. These products are applied to the skin of the painful area and studies show that they’re fairly effective in relieving pain for short periods of time.

  • Massage
    5. Schedule a massage.
    Massage therapy may be the earliest and most primitive strategy to improve pain—experts have found references to massage in Chinese documents from 2700 BC! But just because it’s ancient doesn’t mean it’s not effective. In fact, massage therapy has been found to provide immediate relief for shoulder pain. The most effective type of massage therapy for shoulder pain is called myofascial trigger point therapy. This isn’t your typical relaxation massage. Your massage therapist will apply pressure to your “trigger points,” which you probably think of as “knots.” You might experience pain during the massage as the trigger points are released and softened, but patients tend to experience a great amount of pain relief afterwards.

  • woman-with-eyes-closed-in-meditation-class
    6. Channel your inner Zen.
    Often, chronic pain is associated with increased stress levels, so it makes sense that reducing stress can be a great way to reduce pain. Look into meditation and breathing exercises that can help you learn to respond—instead of react—to your pain. A professional can guide you through this process during cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT explores the relationships between your thoughts, emotions, actions and pain. By understanding these connections, you can change the way you interact with your pain and use strategies and techniques to gain more control over it.

  • woman-doing-eagle-pose-by-pool
    7. Take up yoga and strike a pose.
    Yoga is an excellent way to find pain relief through movements that increase relaxation, flexibility and strength. According to the American Chronic Pain Association, people with chronic pain should begin with a gentle, slow-paced yoga class where props are offered for support. If you’re self-conscious about your yoga skills at first, consider meeting with a yoga therapist for a solo class to get comfortable. Plus, your instructor can recommend specific poses and techniques for your individual pain issue.

  • Group of Young People Practicing Tai Chi Outdoor
    8. Try your hand at Tai Chi.
    To reduce pain and stress, take a shot at the ancient art of Tai Chi. Tai Chi is structured around a series of gentle, flowing movements that make up a slow routine; these movements help you to gain strength and flexibility. Ongoing research suggests that Tai Chi is very effective at improving the physical function of those with chronic shoulder pain—it helps build connective tissue, improves circulation, and can correct posture. But Tai Chi can impact your mental health as well as your physical health—as you move, your breathing is coordinated with the different poses, and this combination relieves stress and tension while also easing pain.

  • woman with acupuncture needles in her arm and shoulders
    9. Give acupuncture a go.
    Acupuncture has been shown to provide effective pain relief, even though it might seem counterintuitive that placing small needles throughout your body can actually reduce your pain. During an acupuncture session, needles will be placed into specific locations on your body. The placement of the needles can have an analgesic, or pain relieving, effect, but medical experts have not yet determined the exact mechanism that reduces pain. Because of this, acupuncture is a controversial therapy, but more and more data shows its benefits. In fact, many insurance companies will cover the cost of acupuncture today.

9 Tips for Managing Chronic Shoulder Pain

About The Author

Allie Lemco Toren is a health writer and regular contributor to Healthgrades, where she also serves as Senior Health Editor. Her work has also been featured by ShareWIK Health Entertainment, WebMD, Everyday Health, and Food Solutions Magazine. A graduate of Emory University’s journalism program, Allie particularly enjoys writing about medical innovations, the mind-body connection, and thriving with chronic illness.
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  9. Myofascial Trigger Point Therapy – What Is It? National Association of Myofascial Trigger Point Therapists. http://www.myofascialtherapy.org/myofascial-therapy/index.html
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Oct 17
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