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People rarely think of shoulder pain as something that results from anything other than sports and activity or labor-intensive work. But your desk job can also be a culprit. (1)
Any shoulder pain that results from working at a desk is most likely due to poor posture. Most desk work consists of working on a computer or answering phones.
The muscle actions for these tasks are:
- Overactive “front-side” muscles (the muscles of the chest that pull the shoulders forward), muscles that elevate the shoulders, and muscles that keep the upper part of the arms locked in at the sides of the body (2)
- Overstretched “back-side” muscles (the muscles that attach to the shoulder blades)
What Are the Best Ways to Prevent Work-Related Shoulder Pain?
People can easily tell if someone has good or bad posture, but they rarely pay attention to their own.
So, the first thing to do is be realistic about your own poor posture and take steps to fix it. Not only does it add to your overall personality, but it also saves you from a lot of physical pain and distress.
Here’s how you can do it:
1. Learn the basics of good posture
A good visualization to guide you to have good posture is to imagine that someone has placed a pencil between your shoulder blades and you have to squeeze them together to keep it in place.
2. Take regular breaks
Good seated posture can help with some poor shoulder positioning. (3) The chair you use should support and encourage good posture, but not necessarily be all-supportive to the muscles that should be doing their job as this can “teach” those muscles that they are not needed.
It is also always good to find a task every 30–45 minutes that requires you to stand up and even walk around. Standing up regularly throughout the day (and doing a little walking, even just down the hall) will give you a sense of awareness of your body position and will also improve blood flow.
3. Keep changing your position
Staying in the same position for too long can wear out your muscles, leading to awkward posture.
Muscle fatigue can make you stoop or lean in a crooked position or round your shoulders, all of which negatively affect your back alignment. This, in turn, will put extra pressure on specific points and strain the underlying muscles, causing pain and discomfort.
So, it is recommended to switch your position from time to time. If you have been sitting for a while, consider getting up and going for a little walk around the office. If you have been standing for a while, give yourself some rest by sitting down. And so on.
Simple stretching exercises help relax your tense muscles, relieving pain and restoring full range of motion.
Tense muscles are stiff and therefore get easily injured in the face of sudden motion or constant strain. This is why every cardio workout and strength training session must be preceded by stretching exercises that will warm up your body and loosen your muscles for easy mobility. (4)
Similarly, poor posture or sitting at the work desk the whole day can also strain your shoulder muscles. Stretching the overworked muscles of your back, neck, and shoulder will help loosen them up, so that they are less prone to straining, injury, or re-injury. (5)
5. Practice yoga
Yoga involves light exercises or poses that aim to build your core strength, make your body more flexible, stimulate blood circulation, relieve stress, and improve your breathing. (6)
Since you are not required to lift any heavy weights, yoga is perfect for people suffering from neck, shoulder, or back pain.
6. Use a phone headset
Using a phone headset instead of a handheld receiver relieves the stress off the shoulder muscles that you usually use to hold the receiver in place.
7. Eliminate stress
Of course, practicing yoga and/or meditation are always good ways of eliminating stress. However, even finding 5 minutes here and there throughout your day to just clear your mind and remind yourself of things in your life that you are grateful for can also bring calmness to your mind.
If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed, sometimes it is a good idea to make a list of the things that you have to get done and the things you are willing to let go of.
What Exercises Can Be Done to Reduce Work-Related Shoulder Pain?
a. Stretching exercise for shoulder muscles on the back
- Use your right arm to pull your left arm across your body.
- Maintain this pose for 10 seconds, and then release.
- Do 3–5 repetitions and then do the same on the other side.
b. Stretching exercise for shoulder muscles on the front
- With your upper arms at your sides, bend your elbows to extend your forearms in front.
- Push your elbows back to squeeze your shoulder blades together.
- Hold this squeeze for 5–10 seconds and then return to the starting position.
- Repeat 3–5 times.
c. External rotations
- Lie down on the side opposite your painful shoulder.
- Rest your injured upper arm on the raised side of the body, and bend your elbow to place the forearm on your stomach.
- Close the hand into a fist and elevate it toward the ceiling without lifting your elbow from the side.
- Bring down the raised fist slowly back to its original position.
- Repeat this entire exercise 10 times.
d. Wall angels to increase strength
The wall angels exercise improves shoulder mobility and strengthens the upper back to help retract the shoulder blades, extend the thoracic spine, and return the shoulders to a neutral position. (7)
This exercise is the primary strength exercise for shoulder impingement/subacromial pain syndrome.
- Press your head, shoulders, upper back, and hips against the wall while keeping your feet 6–12 inches away from the wall. Slightly bending your knees while doing so can help relieve some of the muscle tension.
- Extend your arms straight above your head while keeping the backs of your hands on the wall. This is your starting position.
- Tighten the muscles in your midback as you slide down your arms toward the shoulders. Make sure that your upper body remains pressed against the wall throughout.
- Stop when the elbows reach just below the shoulders and stay in this pose for a second before sliding your arms back to the starting position.
- Do 2–3 sets of 15–20 repetitions.
What Yoga Poses Help Reduce Work-Related Shoulder Pain?
Standing intervals are a good opportunity to perform some low-key exercises.
1. Downward-facing dog (adho mukha svanasana)
The downward-facing dog relieves shoulder and neck pain by improving the range of motion of the shoulders, enhancing the flexibility of the back muscles, and strengthening the muscles in or around the spine.
- Place your palms and knees on the ground, keeping your hands shoulder-width apart and your arms straight. Your hands should be slightly ahead of your shoulders and your knees just below your buttocks. This is also known as the table pose.
- Open out your palms as much as you can, pressing down through all four corners of your hands.
- Turn your toes under.
- Take in a deep breath, and as you exhale, lift your hips up and back, initially keeping your knees a little bent and your heels lifted off the ground.
- Push the floor away from you with your hands while sucking your belly in, firming up your core muscles, and keeping your arms straight.
- With an exhale, slowly lift up your upper thighs to straighten your knees without locking them, and place your heels on the floor.
- Tighten your outer arms and push down your index fingers actively into the floor.
- Extend your arms and lengthen your spine.
- Firmly press your shoulder blades against your back, and then widen them and push them toward your tailbone, all the while keeping your head between your upper arms.
- Hold this pose for 10 or more breaths.
- Bend your knees on an exhalation, and come back to the starting position.
2. Feet-Spread intense-stretch pose (prasarita padottanasana C)
This easy-to-do inversion pose flexes your inner thighs, hamstrings, pectorals, and fronts of your shoulders. It stretches the involved muscles to make them loose and limber.
Plus, the inversion helps relieve the tense neck muscles. All this helps you acquire and maintain the correct posture while also easing any muscular pain or soreness on account of bad posture.
- Extend your arms to the side and widen your legs so that your feet are parallel and your ankles lie below your wrists.
- While keeping your legs straight, raise your kneecaps to engage your thigh muscles.
- Hold your hips, take a deep breath, lift your chest, and slowly squeeze your shoulder blades towards the spine.
- Release your breath while keeping your spine extended and your legs straight but not hyperextended.
- Push out your torso as your body starts to fold forward but only to a comfortable degree. The minute you feel that your lower back is being overstretched or strained, bend your knees or come out of the pose.
- When your upper body becomes parallel to the ground, put your arms down to touch the mat with your fingertips right underneath your shoulders. While doing so, shift your body weight into the balls of your feet for a grounding effect and more balance.
- Keep lowering your torso while pushing your tailbone toward your feet. This will help activate your core muscles to stabilize your lower back.
- Slightly push your thighs back to become more parallel with your ankles.
- Move your hands back to bring your fingertips in line with your toes while firmly grounding your palms into the mat. Let the pressure fall on your neck and head.
- If comfortably possible, push back your torso even further without curving the spine, bend your elbows, and try to place the crown of your head down on the mat.
- Hold this pose for 10–15 breaths, and then release.
- Don’t forcefully push your body into a forward bend by bending forward from your navel to put your hands on the ground. This can strain and even injure your lower back in a serious way.
- Go for the stance that is most suitable and comfortable for your height. People with short legs won’t have as wide a stance as taller people.
3. Shoulder blade squeeze
The shoulder blade squeeze helps relax the upper back muscles attached to them.
- Stand up straight and keep your shoulders straight but relaxed with hands by your side.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together by pushing them back, and hold this pose for 5–10 seconds.
- Repeat this 10–20 times in one go.
4. Child’s pose
Child’s pose is a great exercise for the muscles underneath the shoulders that hold the arms locked in next to the body.
- Start on all fours, assuming the table pose.
- Exhale and lower your hips onto the heels, with your feet close together.
- Spread out your knees to cover the width of the mat while keeping the top of your feet on the ground and their big toes attached to each other.
- Lower your abdomen to rest between your thighs and your forehead to the ground.
- Extend your arms out on the floor straight above the head with your palms on the ground. But for strained shoulders, it is better to place your arms along your thighs with the palms facing upward.
- Loosen your shoulders and jaw.
- Stay in this pose for as long as you like, maintaining a steady series of deep inhales and exhales.
Who Are at a Greater Risk of Work-Related Shoulder Pain?
The obvious at-risk working population for work-related shoulder pain is people who work in manual labor, especially those who often work in a position that keeps their arms over their heads.
Also at risk are people who work at a desk or drive for a living. Driving places the shoulders in a very similar position as working at a computer.
The best way to relax the shoulder muscles while at work is to first become aware that they may be tight or stressed. (8) This can be difficult at first, so it may be necessary to select fixed times throughout the day to check in on your body and evaluate how you are feeling – lunch time and official break times are good times to do this.
The above-recommended stretches and exercises do not have to be done all at once. They can be done a little bit at a time throughout the day, whenever the opportunity arises. You can also choose to do them at the start of your day or at night before bedtime or both.