Updated: Oct 31, 2022
It's normal to go through life experiencing wear and tear on our shoulders, especially if you are an active person. In fact most people will experience shoulder pain related to tendinitis, bursitis, strains, and/or a rotator cuff tear at some point in their life. While these aches and pains are unfortunately part of the game of life, resting or halting exercise is rarely the best approach when symptoms occur. Movement truly is medicine if we are after longevity. So the issue then becomes, how do we figure out what the right movements are? And just as important, which moments should we stop doing?
As a Ready State Certified Movement and Mobility Specialist, the intent of this post is to provide general guidelines to help keep your shoulders moving in a healthy, strong, and pain free way. It's also an approach that may help you manage aches and pains related to the neck and shoulders for yourself. This is based on The Ready State principle that “all human beings should be able to perform basic maintenance on themselves.” Dr. Kelly Starrett.
I want to be clear that this post is not a replacement for medical advise or diagnosis. If you are unsure about a specific issue, please reach out to a health professional. You can also share these concepts with them, as I’m sure they will encourage the recommendations :)
The following tips are targeted towards every day life and activities. I am not including specifics related to the gym yet for 2 reasons. The first is I wanted this post to be as inclusive as possible (these tips apply to everyone). Secondly, even if you are a gym goer, I wanted to shed light on the importance and magnitude of the hours spent outside the gym, and how much of an impact the following practices can have on an injury and recovery time. For those wanting more guidance related to the gym, you will have to wait for the Gym Rat Edition of this post :)
6 Tips For Healthy Shoulders
1. Posture. Most of us spend a large part of the day hunched over a desk (spinal flexion). The spine affects how the shoulders and neck function. The best way to counter this is with 1 rep max/or mechanical breathing (basically taking the biggest breath possible). This type of breathing automatically organizes your spine into an optimal position (making it impossible to slouch). Mechanical breathing also helps desensitize pain and decongest the system by circulating lymph (think bringing the garbage out and groceries in). Here's how to do it and apply it throughout the day.
2. Not enough recovery. While this may not be the shiny piece of the recovery puzzle you are looking for, I assure you it's as big of a factor as anything else!! The lowest hanging fruit you have is to make sure the basics of sleep, water, and sound nutrition are prioritized. You can’t expect a quick recovery if you are burning the candle at both ends or are living off fast food. Sleeping 8hrs a night is a top priority if you want to maximize your body's capacity to heal (this may require you to be in bed for 9 hrs). Check out these 10 tips to maximize the quantity and quality of your sleep
3. Lack of movement throughout the day. Yes, even if your dealing with a shoulder injury, getting as much movement in throughout the day will help speed recovery by improving the internal environment of the shoulder . Again, the lymphatic system is key to healing as it brings waste products out and nutrients back into tissues. The lymphatic system relies on muscle contraction to do its job properly. So even if you are bummed out about a shoulder issue, try to do as much physically as you can anyways, it all helps! Make sure you are getting at least 10k steps/day in. I would also prioritize T-spine mobilizations, throughout the day, especially before activity. This additional movement will also help you sleep better by increasing sleep drive!
4. Poor tissue quality. Healthy tissue should not be painful (or sensitized) to compression. Daily soft tissue practice is a staple for restoring sliding surfaces and brining blood flow to tissues. Learn how to do the basics here. A lacrosse ball and 5-10 minutes a day can be a game changer on how the body feels and performs. Percussion devices such as the Theragun can also help get motion and blood flow into the tissues. The rule of thumb is that all tissues are fair game as long as you can take a full deep breath in and out. If not, reduce the downward pressure or lower the vibration. Contracting/relaxing and moving the muscles while using the device has added value.
5. Tissues related to the shoulder are not warmed up before a task or an activity. Going from rest to redline is a recipe for disaster. Especially if you are trying to do a task that typically causes pain. Having a good sweat on is a good indicator that core temperature is elevated enough and the fascial system is ready to perform. Even if your sport is raking leaves, shovelling the driveway, or carrying a grandchild, a little movement prep for the shoulders can go a long way ! Try warming up with this shoulder spin up before you challenge your shoulders next.
6. Proper mindset! Yes it can be very frustrating if you are dealing with an injury as I've been there! However, focusing on what you CAN do, vs what you can’t will get you back on track much faster than the alternative. This may be especially hard for those that are passionate about a sport or pushing themselves in the gym. If you are struggling, keep in mind that even though it may not feel like it, in most cases your injury is only temporary. So try to use the time as an opportunity to explore other avenues of activity, fitness, or sport. I would also suggest learning as much as you can about your issue. This is important because if you do all the right things (probably a combination of all the above and/or specifics your health professional recommends), there's a good chance you can come back stronger than before because you may have addressed the underlying issues. Secondly, the #1 predictor of injury is previous injury. So if you don’t handle it properly now, chances are it will resurface again. So whatever you do to return from an injury is most likely what you need to KEEP DOING to prevent it from coming back again!
Some final points before closing:
1. The shoulder is meant to work hard and last for 100 years
2. Pain is a signal for change (both mental and physical)
3. Our bodies have a miraculous ability to adapt and heal, and this applies to everyone from the varsity athlete to the grandparent. (There's no expiration date on this)
4. Before considering a limitation permanent, ask yourself how much time and effort have I put into trying to resolve the issue? Either with the above practices and/or working with a health professional.
5. Tissues do take time to heal, (typically 4-6 weeks depending on severity). So patience and consistency is key. If you are not making forward progress with the above suggestions after a few weeks please contact a health professional if you have not already.
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If you, or someone you know, needs help or an assessment with a shoulder, back, or knee issue, please reach out. Either online or in the gym, I specialize in helping busy professionals over 40 get fit without burning out. My personal training studio services downtown Toronto and is just steps away from the UP Union to Pearson Express Station.