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Stiff Shoulder Treatment

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Stiff Shoulder? Consider these 3 easy treatment options

The shoulder joint is a complex combination of different joints and muscles that allow us a huge range of flexibility and movement. This movement at the shoulder is possible because of the amount of mobility the shoulder joints allow. The glenohumeral joint (shoulder ball and socket joint) allows huge amounts of roll and glide within the joint to enable us to reach up above our head. This is also helped by extra range that comes from the glide of the scapula (shoulder blade) on the rib cage and also the rotation of the clavicle (collar bone) joint. These three joints combine to give us a large reach above our head, behind our back and out to the side. Unlike other joints in the body where so much movement does not occur, the shoulder complex has to rely on carefully and combined muscle activity in order to allow this range of movement to occur. Without good muscular control we would not be able to achieve these movements well, or without causing potential injury.

If you have suffered from stiffness within your shoulder at any point you will know how frustrating this can be. Limitation to your normal shoulder movement means you cannot easily reach cupboards in the kitchen or perform sporting activities that you usually manage well. Stiffness in the shoulder can be caused by many different ways but some areas are easy to address yourself. It is always useful to have a clear diagnosis for why your shoulder is stiff and/or painful prior to starting treatment. Getting a good assessment is imperative to ensure you fully understand what is going on with your shoulder and how to manage it.

Three common areas where stiffness can occur: Simple treatments to improve your shoulder movements:

1) Mobilise your mid back:

If you are aware you have a stiff mid-back that limits your shoulder mobility then try taping two tennis balls together with some sellotape. Wrap it around the two balls in a figure of eight so they are firmly attached next to each other.
Put the balls either on the floor and lie on them or up against the wall and lean against them. Try to get the balls between your shoulder blades in the mid-back area. Apply some body pressure to the balls and roll up and down on them to release off your mid-back. This should feel like a ‘nice pain’ that is helpful. Do this for 2-3 minutes over the middle of your back, moving up and down a bit to cover all the potentially tight areas. Once you have done this repeat your shoulder movement to see if it feels any better. This technique can be done 1-2 times per day and takes just minutes to do.

2) Release off the muscles and tissue at the back of your shoulder:

Often the tissues at the back of the shoulder can get tight or overworked (latissumus dorsi/infraspinatus/teres minor/posterior capsule). This can lead to restriction in normal shoulder movement and add to pain around the shoulder. Try massaging the back of your shoulder for 4-5 minutes each evening and see if it releases your shoulder a little. This can be done in two easy ways.

The first is to sit upright away from the back of a chair. Cross your good arm under your painful arm and reach under the armpit to the back of the shoulder (the back of the armpit area). E45 cream or coconut oil works well to do this. Massage into the back of the armpit area in circles and press firmly into any tender spots you find. Hold the firm pressure on these tender spots for up to 30-60 seconds or until they start to release and get less tender. The massage should start slightly tender but get more comfortable as you continue. Re-test your stiff or painful movement again when you finish and see if your movement is better. If it is then it is worthwhile trying this technique for several weeks.

3) Stretch your Lats:

Sometimes the muscle that runs under your shoulder and attaches near the ball and socket joint (latissimus dorsi) can be a cause of pain and stiffness. Consider trying to relax this muscle by stretching it and see if this helps your movement. Stand facing a wall. Place your forearms on the wall in front of you, elbow to wrists touching the wall. Both wrists should be together and touching and so should both your elbows. Keep your back flat and don’t be tempted to lean your tummy in towards the wall. Slowly slide your forearms up the wall, trying all the time to keep your elbow and wrists together in front of you on the wall. When you cannot slide any further up the wall stop and hold this position, breathing nice and slowly and relaxed. It should feel strong but not painful when you hold it. Hold the stretch for around 60 seconds then relax back down. Try this several times a day and if you feel it is improving your shoulder movement, keep it going.

All three of these techniques are simple and quick to try for yourself. We have chosen them as in our experience they often occur with patients who complain of shoulder pain and stiffness. It is worthwhile trialling some techniques yourself to see if you are able to improve your shoulder as you will feel more in control of the problem and better equipped to deal with it. Always ensure that if the problem does not go away that you consider seeking advice and full assessment with a physiotherapist.

Leanne Plenge

Bristol Manager
Specialist MSK Physiotherapist 
Physiocomestoyou Ltd