10 Common Reasons For Shoulder Pain

Photographed By Alexandra Gavillet.
Ugh: Your shoulder hurts. Maybe it’s throbbing after a long day hunched on a keyboard, maybe you tried a new yoga pose you weren't exactly ready for, maybe you slept funny — or maybe it just started aching for no apparent reason. The shoulder is a complex thing, and understanding exactly why it hurts can help you make the right tweaks to feel better.

For starters, your shoulder isn't just one joint. “There are a number of different joints that work together to provide the movement of the shoulder, so the shoulder is susceptible to stress,” says Allen Chen, MD, MPH, FFAPMR at ColumbiaDoctors Midtown and Assistant Clinical Professor of Rehabilitation and Regenerative Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. Your shoulder is also the most mobile joint in your body, and all that movement comes at the cost of injury-preventing stability, and can come along with inflammation and pain, Chen adds.

Unless you recently had an accident that tore tendons (if you did, work with your physical therapist to learn exercises that can safely heal and strengthen your shoulder), the root of your shoulder issues is probably that the muscles and tendons around your shoulder are too weak, or because you're too flexible, Chen says. “The key is to focus on strengthening those rotator cuff muscles; they’re important for keeping that shoulder in place,” Dr. Chen says.

We talked to doctors and experts to figure out the most common reasons and habits that could be causing shoulder pain, and found easy ways you can start to fix it. It's worth remembering: Pain isn't something you should just live with — there's definitely a difference between normal soreness (like from a great workout) and actual pain. So please do see a medical professional if you're in pain. That said, while we can't diagnose your injury over the Internet (sorry!), it is helpful to know what might be making you ache.
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Shoulder weakness.
When it comes to your shoulder strength, it's a use-it-or-lose-it situation: If you don't work your muscles, they get weak and you feel pain. You don't have to do crazy shoulder exercises (especially if you're not 100% confident about your form), but if you don't try to use your shoulder more, it could cause something called shoulder impingement, says Kimberly Sackheim, DO and rehabilitation medicine physician at NYU Langone’s Rusk Rehabilitation. It happens when your rotator cuff pinches between your humerus bone (upper arm) and scapula (a.k.a. shoulder blade), and it can make your shoulder hurt when you do an overhead motion, like put on a t-shirt or lift a box. Dr. Sackheim recommends seeing a physical therapist to learn how to you can open up the space between your bone and muscle by strengthening the surrounding muscles.
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Carrying a heavy purse or bag.
Toting a heavy bag around on your shoulder can put stress on your tendons and lead to tendonitis, or put stress on the bursas (the sacks of fluid that lubricate your joints) inside your shoulder and lead to bursitis, says Dr. Sachkheim. Sometimes, the pain may not actually originate in your shoulder joint, but instead is happening because your heavy bag is putting too much strain on your trapezius muscle, which spans like a triangle from the base of your skull to your shoulder and mid-back. Take a load off and consider a two-strap backpack if you have to carry lots of things all day.
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Spending too much time at your desk.
Repetitive motions, like moving your computer mouse or reaching a cabinet, can also lead to shoulder pain. Dr. Sackheim says that setting your desk area up properly can help mitigate some shoulder pain. The top of your computer monitor should be at eye level. “If it’s low you’re flexing [your neck], if it’s too high you’re extending,” she says. Your arms should form a 90-degree angle when your hands rest on your keyboard, so you don't have to lift or lower your arms to type.
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Bad posture.
Shocking, right? Having bad posture earns you a fast-track to shoulder pain. If you need a posture bootcamp, you can use Dr. Sackheim's method: Set an alarm on your smartphone to go off every 15 minutes. When the alarm sounds, check your posture. Are you leaning forward or hunched? Roll your shoulders back and think about keeping your chest wide. Misty Copeland posture wasn't built in a day, so make it a habit.
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Stiffness from not stretching.
You don't have to go full-on yogi, but skipping mini-stretches throughout the day can make your shoulders feel stiff or just painful. Get up every so often and lean against a wall and try pushing your neck backwards and tucking your chin in, says Dr. Sackheim. You can also reach toward a wall, so your fingertips are extended, and slowly walk your fingers up the wall to stretch out your arms and shoulders. “Finger crawls make sure you have full range of motion and keep everything loose and more in shape,” Dr. Sackheim says.
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Neck tension.
General tension in your neck can directly lead to shoulder pain. “We hold a lot of tension in our upper back, and that can radiate to the neck and shoulders,” Dr. Sackheim says. Even if you're stretching regularly and thinking about your posture, stress can cause neck tension, which also causes shoulder pain. Deciding to "stress less" is easier said than done (and if we could, obviously we would), but if you do have regular neck pain consider finding a relaxation practice that works for you to manage your stress.
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Working out incorrectly.
There's a difference between feeling sore and feeling like you're in pain, and exercising too much or just improperly can lead to inflammation in your shoulder, says Dr. Sackheim. If you always do the same exercises, but your shoulders aren't feeling great while you do them, ask a trainer to take a quick check of your form. They're almost always happy to help (trainers are nice!) and it'll save you an overuse injury in the long run.
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Sudden lifestyle and fitness changes.
If you’re not used to throwing a softball and suddenly join a softball league, you're going to have some inflammation and soreness, explains Dr. Chen. Suddenly having to carry around a baby or even a backpack also count as lifestyle changes that could mess with your shoulder. Strengthening and stretching with the appropriate exercises, plus knowing your limits (maybe sit out as pitcher for a few softball games), will help. If they don't, you could have an overuse injury.
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Frozen shoulder syndrome.
You've probably heard of a "frozen shoulder," which is technically called adhesive capulitis. It's a common condition that literally makes the tissues in your muscle stick together, decreasing your range of motion and causing a lot of pain, Dr. Sackheim says. Doctors aren't totally clear on why exactly it happens, but it tends to impact people who've had their arm immobilized for a long time from an injury.
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Text neck.
All that scrolling, staring and hunching over your phone can cause shoulder pain and possibly even injury. Aim to hold your phone at eye-level (it'll feel weird at first) or even consider taking a phone break at times when you'd usually be sucked in. (Bookworms and Kindle lovers may experience the same thing, of course.)

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