Without realizing it, much of our day-to-day tasks and activities involve using our shoulders and arms in some capacity. When any kind of pain is felt in these areas, even the simplest of tasks can turn into painful challenges.
If this is your current reality, you’re not alone. Shoulder pain is one of the most common orthopedic problems, along with back and neck pain. For about half of the people affected, the suffering goes away within six months. But for some, it can continue for years to come.
Fortunately, in our modern world, a wide array of non surgical shoulder treatments are available to assist with helping you on your recovery journey. This includes the wonders of physical therapy, the healing powers of red light therapy, and much more.
For those looking to revive the mobility in your aching shoulder, here are 7 non-surgical shoulder treatments to help you say goodbye to discomfort.
What Is Shoulder Pain?
Shoulder pain is any pain or discomfort in or around the shoulder joint.
The actual shoulder comprises two joints: the acromioclavicular and the glenohumeral joint. The acromioclavicular joint is where part of the shoulder blade and collarbone meet.
The glenohumeral joint connects the humeral head (ball of the shoulder) to the glenoid (the socket.)
The rotator cuff then connects the upper arm bone to the shoulder blade, which includes the tendons of four muscles.
Shoulder pain could refer to aching, soreness, throbbing, burning, or stabbing-like pain in any of the areas listed above. As well as these locations within your shoulder, other areas of the body may be affected too.
Typically, when one area is doing less of the work for day-to-day activities, other muscles have to pick up the slack - sometimes resulting in those places feeling the strain. For shoulder injuries, the upper and lower back could be just as affected, which is incredibly frustrating when you’re trying to recover.
Different Types Of Pain
Although your shoulder pain can consist of more than one issue, and a singular problem can cause more than one type of pain, understanding what you are experiencing can help determine the main culprit.
Are you experiencing an aching or dull pain?
This might be constant and uncomfortable, making sleeping difficult and serving as a consistent reminder when going about your daily tasks. Conditions with this type of pain could include:
Frozen Shoulder: Also known as ‘adhesive capsulitis,’ this is a debilitating condition affecting the shoulder joint. This develops over time, but it can feel as though the loss of ability sneaks up on you rather quickly. And it usually involves a gradual decrease in shoulder mobility.
Glenohumeral Osteoarthritis: This is a form of arthritis that is degenerative and focuses on the joint. The cartilage and other structures in the glenohumeral joint are broken down, which limits range of motion over time.
Rotator Cuff Tear: When one or more of the tendons of the rotator cuff in the shoulder become damaged or torn, there could be a partial or complete tear.
Rotator Cuff Tendonitis or Tendinopathy: Related to inflammation and irritation of tendons in the rotator cuff, this condition can worsen when lifting heavy objects or items overhead.
Do you have a shooting pain in your shoulder?
This could be a shooting pain that stays in one place, similar to a burning or numb sensation. Or it could travel down to your hands or neck. If this is your current experience, this could be the result of:
Pinched Nerve: Sometimes referred to as nerve compression or nerve impingement, this is where a nerve is under pressure or is being compressed. The normal functioning of the nerve is then altered and can bring on a whole range of symptoms that vary in severity.
Brachial Plexus Injuries: The brachial plexus is the network of nerves in your shoulder. These carry movement and sensory signals from the spinal cord to the arms and hands.
The most common cause of brachial plexus injuries is trauma, like a car or motorbike accident, falls, sports injuries, or any other incidents that can damage the nerves.
These injuries can range from a slight stretching of the nerves or bruising to the complete tearing of the nerve roots. With this, you may find your shoulder, arm, or hand to be weak, numb, or without sensation and movement.
Brachial Plexus Neuritis: This is known by some as Parsonage-Turner syndrome or neuralgic amyotrophy, and it’s a rare neurological disorder that affects the network of nerves in your shoulder. It usually features sudden and severe shoulder and arm pain, followed by weakness and muscle wasting in the affected arm.
Is the pain sharp?
This sharp pain could be triggered by sudden movements or heightened when rotating. This type of pain could mean:
Frozen Shoulder: This condition can greatly impact a person’s ability to perform everyday activities and can range from several months of discomfort and pain to a few years.
Shoulder Impingement Syndrome: This occurs when the tendons and bursa in the shoulder are compressed or irritated as they pass through the subacromial space. The most common symptom is pain at the front or side of the shoulder, which is worsened by lifting the arm, reaching overhead, or behind the back.
AC Joint Arthritis: This is a degenerative arthritis that affects the acromioclavicular joint (located at the top of the shoulder.) You can hear a clicking or feel a popping sensation when moving your shoulder, and you may have swelling around the joint, as well as pain at the top of the shoulder.
Does your shoulder feel warm?
If you feel a warm, hot, or burning situation, this could involve the following conditions:
Shoulder Bursitis: This refers to inflammation of the bursa in the shoulder. A bursa is a small sac filled with fluid that sits between the tendons, muscles, and bones. It helps to reduce friction and enable the smooth movement of your shoulder.
Rheumatoid Arthritis: This chronic autoimmune disease primarily affects the joints. You may experience joint stiffness, with random flare-ups happening over time. It can cause your shoulder, arm, or hands to feel warm to the touch due to the inflammation. Swelling is likely too and your skin may physically change temporarily to be pink or red in tone when the inflammation is rife.
Infection: From postoperative infections to soft tissue issues, there are various symptoms and reasonings behind infections that can be found in the shoulder area. A medical professional should help to diagnose the underlying issue causing this.
Where Does It Hurt?
Another way to determine why you’re experiencing shoulder pain is by figuring out where it affects you most.
Many injuries and conditions can trickle down to your arm and even your hands, so while it might not appear like a shoulder injury to begin with, that could always be the starting point.
Pain in your shoulder joint and upper arm: If you have stiffness in the ball of your shoulder joint, this could be a rotator cuff problem. Rotator cuff disease, for example, is most commonly felt at the front of the shoulder.
A shoulder sprain can be felt in your shoulder, upper arm, and collarbone. You could also be experiencing a separated shoulder, brachial plexus injury, brachial neuritis, calcific tendinitis, dislocated shoulder, torn rotator cuff, or shoulder osteoarthritis.
Pain between the shoulder and elbow: If you feel pain radiating down to your upper arm, this could be a dislocated shoulder, upper arm fracture, frozen shoulder, calcific tendinitis, torn rotator cuff, or rotator cuff disease.
Pain all the way down to the hand: If your pain reaches your hand and fingers, this could be thoracic outlet syndrome. Or you could be experiencing cervical radiculopathy or brachial plexus injuries.
Common Causes Of Shoulder Pain
Inflammation is the body’s natural response to injury, irritation, or infection in the shoulder joint or surrounding tissues. It can present itself in strange ways, including feeling warm to the touch. The color of your shoulder may change to a rosy red shade, and the size may increase due to swelling.
This can be quite annoying as there’s not always a clear answer as to why your shoulder is reacting in this way. It could be due to an injury like a rotator cuff tear or something like bursitis.
The latter is where the bursa sacs (the fluid-filled sacs that provide cushioning within your shoulder joint) become inflamed. Again, the most common causes are due to an injury or overuse of the shoulder.
The frozen shoulder condition massively limits how much your joint can move and can cause discomfort. This is due to an abnormal band of tissue that has built up in the joint, preventing your shoulder from moving freely.
Typically, the impacts of a frozen shoulder can be most felt in the outer shoulder area and sometimes the upper arm. The first freezing stage can last from six weeks to nine months and comes on slowly. Although, it is often referred to as a ‘stealth condition’ that can appear at its worst suddenly.
A pinched nerve, also known as an impingement, occurs when the tendons within the rotator cuff get pinched in the bones of the shoulder. It’s pretty common too, with 44% to 65% of all shoulder pain complaints being related to shoulder impingement syndrome.The first signs of a pinched nerve include:
- Pain when lifting your arms over your head.
- Tenderness in the front of your shoulder.
- Pain that moves from the front of the shoulder to the side of your arm.
The four most commonly described types of shoulder impingement are anterior acromial impingement, subcoracoid impingement, posterosuperior glenoid rim impingement, and suprascapular nerve impingement.
Rotator Cuff Tear
The rotator cuff holds the muscles and tendons that effectively hold your arm in place and allow you to lift it over your head. This can be damaged through overuse and can unfortunately show wear and tear as you age.
The first signs of a tear could be a grating, popping, or a cracking sound when you move your arm. Another is difficulty or feelings of weakness when raising, lowering, or rotating your arm. This can feel more intense after periods of rest or at night.
Treating Shoulder Pain Without Surgery
You can treat shoulder pain without surgery. We've mentioned a range of methods below.
How Does It Work?
Red light therapy is a non-invasive treatment that harnesses the power of specific wavelengths of light to promote cellular function, repair, and regeneration.
These wavelengths can penetrate the skin, reach cells, tissues, and even deeper structures like muscles and bones. Once this connection is made, it stimulates a series of biochemical reactions, including the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) - which is the molecule that gives us energy.
It’s non-thermal and doesn’t produce heat, so it’s a whole lot safer than other treatments or surgical procedures. There’s also not a huge long list of uncomfortable side effects or mountains to overcome in preparation for using this treatment. It’s as simple as using a light therapy device and placing it on the bothersome area for 5-15 minutes per day.
When you use a high-quality device, like our medical-grade Move+ Pro which is trusted by top health experts and professionals worldwide, it’ll have the optimal dosage every time. This means you’ll have the correct and consistent amount of light for fast and effective relief.
Customers who have used the Move+ Pro, a portable red light therapy device, report an 80% reduction in pain within 1-4 weeks!
Benefits For Pain Relief
Red light therapy has several benefits as a non surgical treatment. By promoting the release of endorphins and reducing inflammation, red light therapy can effectively alleviate post-operative pain without the need for pain medications.
The stimulation of ATP production accelerates tissue repair, allowing patients to recover more swiftly. All the while, the help with pain management provides relief quickly.
One of the main aspects of this type of therapy is the ability to reduce swelling and inflammation. This is key to making you more comfortable in the days, weeks, and months after the initial pain from your aching shoulder.
The use of red light therapy has another advantage; it has shown promise in improving mood and reducing depression symptoms as it enhances the brain’s production of serotonin.
The Benefits of Shoulder Exercises
Exercising and stretching can improve the shoulder joint’s range of motion and eventually increase flexibility and reduce stiffness.
When the shoulder joint has been weakened due to trauma or injury, targeted exercises can help rebuild strength. Regaining this is essential for restoring stability and function in the shoulder.
These don’t have to be strenuous, they can be built up over time. Low-impact exercises can greatly improve your strength and blood flow and relax your muscles. Walking, swimming, pilates, and yoga can be the perfect first step for gaining confidence and ability back in yours shoulder.
A Personal Plan
Jumping straight into a stringent exercise routine could wreak havoc on your shoulder. Consulting with a healthcare professional is vital if you are eager to return to heavier and more intense exercises.
An orthopedic specialist or physical therapist has the experience and qualifications to assist you with a rehabilitation plan that will help and not hinder.
This process usually involves an initial assessment, followed by a diagnosis, and then a personalized plan. You’ll likely have to return to be monitored, with adjustments made to ensure you’re not overexerting yourself, as this can lead to re-injury.
Ergonomic And Physical Changes
The Importance Of Posture For Health
Your posture can impact your bones and muscles in more ways than you think. It can hamper the whole upper body, affecting your lower back and upper muscles the most.
When you slouch or sit incorrectly, your back and core muscles become strained and tense. Over time, they weaken and can develop stiffness in various areas of your body.
It’s not just the back though. The supraspinatus tendon runs through a space at the top of the shoulder bone (called the subacromial space). When you slouch or even round your shoulders, this space narrows. As a result, there’s less room for the supraspinatus tendon to run through.
This then leads to the tendon becoming pinched and grating against the padding in the shoulder, resulting in shoulder impingement, swelling, and inflammation.
To counteract this, ensure you’re maintaining a good posture and not sliding down your seat - especially if you’re sitting for a prolonged period.
Making ChangesSome simple changes can be made to improve your posture. If your job entails working at a desk or sat in a chair all day, consider investing in an ergonomic chair, as this can make a huge difference to your daily life.
It can give you proper lumbar support, minimizing the strain on the lower back and spine. This chair should have adjustable seat height, seat depth adjustment, reclining and tilt mechanisms, and armrest support.
Your posture extends to your sleeping position too. Avoid sleeping on the shoulder that’s hurting you, and ensure your mattress and pillows provide adequate support for the neck and shoulders. There are specific orthopedic and contoured pillows for these very problems.
Aside from purchasing new chairs and pillows, taking regular breaks to stand up and stretch is a really easy way to prevent stiffness. Keep everything within easy reach, especially on your work desk, so you’re not overextending your arms.
And above all, be mindful of your posture throughout the day. You should have a neutral spine and relaxed shoulders. Avoid hunching or slumping. If you catch yourself with poor posture, take a second to readjust before carrying on with your day.
MedicationPain relievers, like Ibruprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, etc.) and naproxen sodium (Aleve), can sometimes help relieve discomfort when the pain is at its highest.
If the inflammation is persistent, there are anti-inflammatory medications that can reduce this.
You should use these as directed and should contact a medical professional if you have any concerns or are looking for other medication that may be suitable. While medications can’t bring back your healthy shoulder, some people use them with other non surgical treatments to manage the pain.
What are the side effects of medication?
Unlike many of the other treatments, medication can have a significant influence over your body - causing some unpleasant responses.
This can differ depending on which medication you’re planning to take, but common side effects include:
Drowsiness: Pain relievers can sometimes make you feel incredibly sleepy and drowsy. Taking these during the day can become a problem as you may not be able to do as many activities as usual. If you are experiencing confusion or disorientation, contact a doctor immediately.
Nausea: Medication can stimulate the vestibular apparatus, which is the sensory system that creates our sense of balance and spatial orientation. As a result, nausea can occur due to being off-balance.
Constipation: Some types of pain medication, like opioids, slow down the movement of stool through your bowel, leaving you to be constipated. This cannot be treated by changing what you eat or drink. Instead, you should tell your healthcare team so they can advise on the best approach.
Highly addictive: Painkillers, or opioids, are very addictive substances as they interact with our brain’s opioid receptors, attach to the receptors, and create a surge of dopamine.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that signals the body to feel pleasure and is recorded in the brain's reward system. If you are to use any type of medication, consult with medical professionals to see if it is needed and right for you.
MassageMassages have long been a go-to recovery method for athletes, and for good reason. They help to improve circulation, reduce inflammation, and promote overall relaxation.
A skilled massage therapist can help the tense muscles in the shoulder and neck area. When you’re suffering from an aching shoulder, other muscles may be working overtime to compensate for the temporary loss of shoulder movement. This more prominent workload can leave your back muscles feeling the pain too.
Another benefit is the almost instant stress reduction. As your muscles relax, so will you. Massages have a relaxing effect on both the body and mind, promoting overall well-being.
Before booking your first session, consider the most appropriate type and style for you. Typically, for assistance with the shoulders, a deep tissue massage and trigger point massage therapy are most suggested.
Remember that you don’t just want any random person working on your shoulders. It should be a therapist with the relevant credentials, qualifications, and license. Another indicator is client reviews and testimonials. Visit their social media pages to see what previous customers have said about their skills.
How often are massages required to see a benefit?
In the first stages, the appointments may be more frequent - around once or twice per week.
Once you're well on your way to recovery, sessions could taper off slightly to once a week or every other week.
A good masseuse will guide you through the process and explain the projections for frequency depending on your personal circumstances.
You should also monitor how your body reacts and feels after each massage. If your pain returns quickly, you may wish to increase massages until you’re pain-free for longer in between sessions.
AcupunctureAcupuncture is the practice of inserting needles into the body to stimulate sensory nerves in the skin and muscles.
Rooted in Chinese medicine, this is now a well-loved treatment used worldwide.
It can look a little scary, but acupuncture shouldn’t be painful. The needles are hair-thin, so most people report a minimal tingling sensation or a dull ache when the needle is inserted. But this subsides once it’s fully inserted.
If you are experiencing any significant pain, let the practitioner know as soon as possible.
However, if acupuncture is your non-surgical treatment of choice, some factors must be considered…
Qualifications: Your chosen acupuncturist should be licensed and certified according to your country and state. Preferably, this person has lots of experience under their belt and can answer your burning questions before you begin. To ascertain this, simply ask about their acupuncture history and if they have any certifications or specialties.
Treatment goals: Clearly communicate what you hope to get from this practice, whether it’s pain relief, stress management, or other reasons. The acupuncturist can then tailor your sessions to meet your specific needs. It’s worth noting just how expansive the world of acupuncture is.
There are around 20 commonly known styles. These include: Traditional Chinese Medicine Acupuncture, Five Element, Japanese, Electroacupuncture, Dry Needling, Medical or Western, Auricular, Scalp, Sports, Acupuncture Physical Medicine, Kiiko Matsumoto, Korean, French Energetic, Master Tung, Dr. Tan, Miriam Lee, Jeffrey Yuen, Meridian, Vietnamese, and Acupressure.
These follow different teachings and techniques, each being best for different issues and people.
Hygiene and Cleanliness: Due to the use of needles, it’s important that the clinic is clean. This is essential for your safety. The needles shouldn’t be used more than once, and each one should be sterilized before they are used on your body. Receiving acupuncture in an unsafe environment, by an unqualified practitioner, can be really harmful.
Is acupuncture safe?
There are side effects to acupuncture, including:
Bleeding, bruising, and soreness at the insertion sites.
Infection if the needles are unsterilized.
In rare cases, damage to an internal organ can be caused if the needle breaks.
These potential side effects show why it’s crucial you choose an experienced and knowledgeable specialist and one who takes their craft seriously.
Acupuncture needles are classed as medical devices and are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so there are set standards to meet. These devices must be sterile, nontoxic, and labeled ‘for one use only’ by a licensed practitioner.
For more articles on shoulders, read:
- Shoulder Recovery Exercises For Rotator Cuff And Shoulder Rehabilitation
Relieving Pain with Red Light Therapy After Shoulder Surgery