Shoulder Exercises for Arthritis

Any type of arthritis in the shoulder can cause severe shoulder pain and limit mobility, making physical activity challenging. However, not exercising the shoulder can result in muscle atrophy, joint instability, further joint degeneration, and possibly a frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis).

Under the guidance of a health professional, many people with shoulder arthritis can benefit from a comprehensive program of shoulder exercises that includes:

  • Shoulder stretches to encourage flexibility in the shoulder joint and surrounding muscles;
  • Shoulder strengthening exercises designed to build muscle around the shoulder, including the scapular stabilizing muscles, and
  • Low impact aerobic workouts, which promote a healthy blood flow throughout the body, including the shoulder joints.
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This article provides specific sets of exercises for shoulder stretches, strengthening, and low impact aerobic activities for those with arthritic shoulders.

Benefits of Shoulder Exercises

Stretching and strengthening exercising together with aerobic workouts can provide multiple benefits, including:

    Reduces pain. Exercise strengthens muscles, and stronger muscles provide better support to joints. One danger of shoulder arthritis is that the individual avoids activities that cause pain or discomfort, causing shoulder muscles to atrophy. By strengthening the muscles surrounding the shoulder, including the rotator cuff and scapular stabilizing muscles, the shoulder’s glenohumeral joint becomes more stable. This stability can help prevent bone dislocation as well as protect bones from impact and friction, thereby reducing pain. Exercise also releases endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers.

    Increases range of motion and function. Shoulder pain can discourage a person from being active, thus compounding the problem of joint pain with stiffness, which leads to increased pain. Regular exercise will help keep the shoulder joint and surrounding muscles limber, thereby increasing shoulder function.

    Supports healthy cartilage. Joint cartilage needs motion and a certain amount of stress to stay healthy. Synovial fluid is stored in cartilage like water in a sponge. When the joint is used, the synovial fluid excretes from the cartilage and delivers nutrients and lubrication to the joint. Synovial fluid is also thought to encourage a healing environment for the joint, thereby reducing inflammation and supporting healthy joint function.

    Helps with weight loss. Exercise combined with a nutritious, low fat diet can help shed pounds. While weight loss is not as crucial for people with shoulder arthritis as it is for people with arthritis in weight-bearing joints (e.g. knee), weight loss can improve overall health and mobility, making shoulder arthritis easier to bear.

    Helps maintain function. Chronic shoulder pain can prevent a person from doing day-to-day tasks or participating in sports and recreational activities. The limitations in everyday activities can be frustrating and sometimes depressing. Exercise - along with perhaps physical modifications - can help those with shoulder arthritis return to many of the activities they love, and engage in everyday routines.

Preparing for Shoulder Exercises

An individual should always work with a health care provider to design an exercise plan that meets his or her specific needs and physical challenges. A well-tailored warm-up and post-workout routine will help maximize the benefits of stretching, strengthening and exercise while minimizing the possibility for pain or injury.

    Warm up: Any exercise routine should typically be preceded by a 10-minute warm-up activity, which increases blood flow and literally warms up the body, making muscles more flexible. A walk or other slow-paced aerobic activity will help warm the body up. For those with more severe arthritis, gentle range-of-motion activities and a warm compress might also be sufficient.

    Post workout: After a workout, some people may need to ice the shoulders (a bag of frozen peas will do) and/or take an over-the counter NSAID medication (e.g. Advil, Aleve) to reduce swelling and relieve discomfort.

If any pain is felt during shoulder exercises, stop and seek advice from a healthcare professional or an appropriately qualified athletic trainer before continuing.

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Written by Grant Cooper, MD
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