Jack was working away at the computer and, about 30 minutes later, he grabbed his shoulder and massaged it a bit. It was hurting again, and the pain was worse than it was the day before. He didn’t remember doing anything to injure it. He popped another aspirin and wondered if he needed to see his doctor. Was he just getting old?
Bernice woke up in the morning, sat up and was greeted with a stabbing pain in her shoulder. She grimaced and rolled it a few times, trying to loosen it up. This was the fifth morning in a row she’d woken up with pain in that right shoulder, and she wondered why. Was she sleeping on it wrong?
Shoulder pain is a common ailment, but that doesn’t make it any more pleasant to live with. The joint itself is the most mobile in the body with muscles, tendons, and ligaments allowing it to move freely in many directions. We don’t think about it most of the time, but if it starts hurting, it can make an otherwise nice day pretty miserable.
Although there are significant injuries that can cause shoulder pain like a torn rotator cuff, osteoarthritis, bursitis, fractures and more, most of the shoulder pain that people suffer from today is caused by daily habits that strain muscles and tendons. One of the main culprits is our time at work. According to a 2002 study of more than 1,500 people, neck and shoulder pain were prevalent among both women and men and could be blamed on conditions at work.
Just what are we doing wrong to cause this shoulder pain, and how can we fix it?
5 Habits that May Be Causing Your Shoulder Pain — and Solutions for Each
First, a word of warning: If your shoulder pain is severe, and it doesn’t get better, be sure to see your doctor. If you suspect you may have injured it while playing sports, working or lifting weights or other heavy objects, it’s best to see your doctor and get it checked out.
If the pain is nagging or irritating, however, and not unmanageable, it may be caused by one of the following lifestyle habits. That’s good news as you can make changes that will help ease the pain and prevent future suffering.
1. Poor Ergonomic Setup at Work
The majority of people must now spend considerable time at the computer at work, and that can spell bad news for the shoulders. Repetitive movements like reaching for the mouse, typing or holding the arm up can all cause muscle and ligament strain that eventually becomes painful.
These are called “repetitive stress injuries” (RSIs), and, although they are common in people frequently working with computers, they can make it difficult to continue doing your work as the more you repeat those movements, the worse the pain gets.
Other forms of work can cause similar problems. If you’re checking people out at a supermarket, swiping those items continually over the scanner can cause RSIs. If you’re serving people at a restaurant, carrying items on trays can cause similar issues. If you’re working at a factory and repeating the same movements day after day, you can expect shoulder strain to arrive at some point unless you put some preventative measures in place.
When this sort of shoulder pain comes on, it usually shows up gradually, so you may not be sure exactly what’s causing it. What you need to do is look at how you’re working each day. The following activities usually cause RSIs:
- Holding the same position for a long time
- Working in awkward postures that require your muscles to stay taut in one position
- Having to hold your arms above shoulder level
- Repetitive movements that require the shoulder muscle to tense or tighten
The other reason work areas can cause pain is that, over time, your shoulder muscles weaken. If you’re spending all day at the computer and you’re neglecting your upper body workouts, your muscles will dwindle away, which makes RSIs and their resulting pain more likely.
What to Do:
- Create the proper ergonomic setup for yourself at work. Your monitor should be slightly below eye level, and you should have armrests on your chair to help avoid shoulder pain. Keep your mouse close by so you don’t have to reach for it, and consider choosing a trackball or other type of mouse that is less likely to cause RSIs.
- Support your arms when standing. If you’re using a standing desk, angle your keyboard down and away from you so that you don’t have to hold your arms at a 90-degree angle all day. This angle is fine when you’re sitting if you have armrests, but if you’re holding this position while standing, expect shoulder pain. You can also purchase armrests that attach to your desk and extend up to cuff around your arm.
- Take regular breaks and stretch, walk and roll your shoulders.
- Alternate sides — use both your right and left hands to carry those trays, for example, or to scan for prices. Find ways to change it up, so you’re not always working in the same way.
- Make sure your weekly exercise routines include exercises that strengthen and stretch your shoulder muscles.
2. Poor Posture, Particularly When Using Cellphones and Tablets
Poor posture, in general, can cause shoulder pain, but what creates the issue for most people today is that hunched-over posture we see when people are using their computers, cell phones, and tablets. We spend so much time with these technological tools that the shoulders tend to be slouched consistently, with the head jutted forward and the neck and shoulders under strain to hold that posture hour after hour.
Several reports have indicated that spine specialists are noticing an increase in patients with neck, upper back and shoulder pain related to poor posture while using their smartphones. The condition has become so common that doctors now call it “text neck,” although the strain put on the neck is also put on the shoulders, so shoulder pain is another natural result.
The situation is worse when we’re sitting and looking at our gadgets compared to when we’re standing, according to studies, as we drop the neck even lower, putting excess pressure on the shoulders and spine. Doctors are particularly worried about young people who are on their phones all the time — concerned they may show up in the surgeon’s office by the age of 30.
What to Do:
- Be aware of where your head is. Make sure it’s straight up as much as possible. When you tilt your head forward, the pressure on your neck and spine increases. Check that your ears are over your shoulders and your shoulders are over your hips.
- Use your core muscles to lift yourself up into a better posture while working at the computer or using your tablet. Shoulders should be relaxed and back.
- Take regular breaks — get up at least once every 30 minutes and walk around, stretch and roll your shoulders.
3. Regularly Carrying a Heavy Backpack or Purse
How heavy is your child’s backpack? The American Occupations Therapy Association (AOTA) states that when kids carry more than 10 percent of their body weight, they can suffer injuries that can lead to health problems lasting into adulthood.
It’s not only the weight of the pack that can cause problems but how the pack fits on the child. The top shouldn’t be lower than the shoulders, and the bottom shouldn’t hang lower than 2 inches below the waist.
Women’s purses, too, can cause shoulder pain easily. Carrying it only on one side distorts the normal gait, causing the body to shift into an unnatural posture to compensate. The arm that’s got the bag can’t swing like normal, and the other arm has to swing more. Muscles are off balance and posture goes to pot too. Over time, muscles on the side carrying the purse get stronger and bigger while those on the other side stay the same. That causes one side to pull on the other and, voila! — you have shoulder pain.
Carrying a heavy load on one size can also lead to the shoulder muscle tightening so much that it goes into a spasm, which means stiffness and pain.
What to Do:
- Make sure your backpack, purse or other bag is no more than 10 percent of your body weight. With purses, it may be better to limit that to only 5 percent. Check yours to see how heavy it is.
- Look for bags with wider straps as they help distribute the weight over a wider area, protecting the delicate nerves in the shoulder.
- Pick purses with alternate carrying straps, such as the one you can carry in your hand or carry cross-body to create a more even distribution of the weight.
- Check your gait. You should be able to swing your arms and hips easily as you move. If your purse is getting in the way, shorten or lengthen the strap or move it to a different carrying position.
- Switch shoulders. It may feel uncomfortable to carry your purse on the opposite shoulder, but it will help develop your muscles equally, which could save you some pain.
- Make sure your exercise workouts include muscles in the shoulder, so these muscles don’t get weak. Shoulder exercises with exercise bands work well for helping to avoid backpack and purse shoulder pain.
4. Poor Sleeping Habits
If you’re waking up with shoulder pain, you could have a few problems. First, your mattress could be old and may no longer be supporting your body like it should. Second, your pillow could also be failing to support your head and neck in the right position. Third, you could be sleeping in a position that increases the risk of pain.
If you’re a “stomach sleeper,” that could be your problem. Although we may sleep well on our stomachs as children, when we’re adults, we lose some of that easy flexibility. While you’re on your stomach, you have to turn your head to breathe and rotating your head from side to side regularly can put a strain on your neck and shoulders.
If you sleep with one or both arms over your head, that could also irritate the rotator cuff tendon and the nerves in the shoulder, causing you to wake up with pain. If you wake up with your arm feeling numb, this may be your issue.
If you sleep on your side and you wake up with tingling or numbness, it could be because your mattress doesn’t have enough “give” to allow that position, or it could be that you favor one side over the other, creating a muscle imbalance between the two shoulders.
What to Do:
- Make sure you have a quality mattress that supports your body properly. This is not the place to save money. The mattress doesn’t need to be the most expensive but neither should you go for the cheapest model. Choose one that is built to provide long-term support.
- Make sure your pillow adequately supports your head and neck. It should allow you to sleep with your head, neck and shoulders aligned with your spine. Back sleepers may benefit from a thinner pillow that has extra cushioning in the bottom third to cradle the neck. Side sleepers usually need firmer, thicker pillows to keep the head and neck where they need to be.
- Try a different sleep position, particularly if you’re a stomach sleeper. It can be hard at first, but if you stick with it for a week, you will adjust and soon be able to sleep just fine on your back or side.
- Perform a stretching routine before bed. This can relax tight muscles, increase blood flow and help you relax while sleeping, so you’re not tossing and turning as much.
5. Wearing a Bra That Doesn’t Fit Properly
An ill-fitting bra can cause shoulder pain for two reasons:
- Straps are digging into the shoulders
- Fails to support the breasts properly
There’s a medical term for “bra strap syndrome.” Doctors call it “costoclavicular syndrome” because the pain occurs around the clavicle bone in the neck and shoulders. The syndrome was first used to describe pain in soldiers who carried loaded knapsacks, but now it’s common in heavy-breasted women who wear tight, narrow bra straps. These straps can cut into the shoulders and compress the arteries and veins around them while putting pressure on the clavicle (collarbone). Over time, that can cause significant pain.
Women with breasts that are heavy can also suffer from shoulder pain if their bras aren’t sufficiently supportive. It’s not the shoulder straps but the band underneath the breasts that should carry most of the weight.
What to Do:
- Get a bra fitting done at your local department or lingerie store to be sure you have the right size.
- Purchase a bra with wider straps, and then adjust those straps, so they’re not too tight.
- Look for full-coverage cups as they allow for better all-over support.
- If you’re experiencing considerable pain, consider using a strapless bra for a short time to help your shoulders heal.
- Purchase shoulder pads made to go under the bra straps to help cushion the shoulder.
- Consider “posture bras” that are made for heavy breasts and are designed to help relieve shoulder and neck strain.
- Take the bra off when you can to give your shoulders a break.
- Practice yoga or another similar type of stretching exercise to help loosen tight shoulder muscles.
If you want to heal, lengthen and strengthen the muscles and tendons near your shoulders, loosen your shoulder joint and reshape your shoulder, so you can reduce and eliminate your shoulder pain and prevent it from occurring again in the future, then check out the Shoulder Pain Solved program.
AOTA. (2017, September 19). How Heavy Is Your Child’s Backpack? Retrieved from https://www.aota.org/Publications-News/ForTheMedia/PressReleases/2017/091917-BackpackDay.aspx
Cuéllar, J. M., & Lanman, T. H. (2017). “Text neck”: an epidemic of the modern era of cell phones? The Spine Journal, 17(6), 901-902. doi:10.1016/j.spinee.2017.03.009
De Silva, M. (1986). The costoclavicular syndrome: a ‘new cause.’ Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, 45(11), 916-920. doi:10.1136/ard.45.11.916
Fredriksson, K. (2002). Work environment and neck and shoulder pain: the influence of exposure time. Results from a population based case-control study. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 59(3), 182-188. doi:10.1136/oem.59.3.182
Spine specialists predict an epidemic of ‘text neck’ from smartphone use | CBC News. (2017, April 14). Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/health/text-neck-study-1.4071191