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The shoulder is a complex structure. A ball at the top of the upper arm bone (humerus) fits into a socket in the shoulder blade (scapula) A group of muscles and tendons (rotator cuff) surrounds the joint.
Fluid-filled sacs, called bursae, function as cushions to reduce friction. These structures all work together to allow for great range of motion. But sometimes these tissues can get irritated.
What’s causing the pain?
“As you raise your arm up, the tendons or bursa can get pinched between the humerus and the collar bone (clavicle) on top of the scapula,” explains physical therapist Kelly Kinsey, PT.
If this happens continuously over time, you can develop impingement syndrome. And if it goes on for too long, the tendons can start to fray and potentially tear.
How stretching can provide relief
“With stretches, we can improve the mechanics of the shoulder so you’re no longer pinching the tissues,” Kinsey says. The problem is many people try to strengthen the shoulder before stretching.
“Some people come to see us after they’ve done a bunch of strengthening exercises, and they’ve just irritated it,” she says.
Posture also plays a role
Kinsey recommends starting by improving your posture. Sitting in a slouched position causes the shoulder blades to come forward, which can cause pinching. To counter this, sit up straight and tall and squeeze your shoulder blades back and together. This opens up the space under the clavicle to make room for the rotator cuff.
When you sleep on your side, don’t support your head by putting your arm under your pillow. Use a taller pillow instead.
The next step is stretching exercises to improve range of motion. A physical therapist can teach you mild-to-moderate stretches that stretch out the muscles to create more space.
When will I feel a difference?
While the shoulder heals, avoid repetitive overhead activities. With these measures, most people improve within three to four weeks. If you are no better or your symptoms are worse, it’s time to get a further evaluation.
This article originally appeared in Cleveland Clinic Arthritis Advisor.