Rehab Exercises for Shoulder Pain

Shoulder exercises can be useful in the treatment of many of the common causes of shoulder pain. These exercises are also part of the usual rehabilitation after shoulder surgery. Shoulder exercises should be performed under the direction of a healthcare provider to ensure safety and proper muscle movements.

Man performing shoulder exercises with a physical therapist
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After surgery, it's important not to do any exercises that would overly stress the healing shoulder.

When to Rehab

Shoulder rehabilitation focuses on two important aspects of shoulder motion: flexibility and strength.

  • Range of motion can be limited by shoulder stiffness. Many common tasks require a good range of motion and flexibility, such as reaching behind the back, buckling a seatbelt, or combing hair.
  • Strengthening the muscles around the shoulder is another goal of shoulder therapy.

With both of these goals, it is important to not stress the rotator cuff muscles of the shoulder. These muscles may be susceptible to injury and inflammation if improper exercises and activities are done.

Stretching

Stretching is an important part of preparing for any exercise program. Stretching exercises can help loosen the muscles that surround the shoulder joint.

Shoulder conditions often involve shoulder stiffness. The most common cause of a stiff shoulder is adhesive capsulitis, also called a frozen shoulder. This condition can result from immobilization after a shoulder injury or shoulder surgery, or it can arise without any specific reason.

Shoulder stretches are important for the treatment and prevention of a frozen shoulder. 

As a general rule, strengthening exercises should only be done after joint mobility, range of motion, and stability have been achieved.

Many shoulder problems can be traced back to poor posture and straining of the muscles of the upper back and neck. Any good shoulder exercise program should also incorporate some simple stretches and exercises for the cervical spine and upper back muscles.

Rotator Cuff Injuries

The rotator cuff is the group of four muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint. Injuries to the rotator cuff are the most common cause of shoulder pain.

With many shoulder injuries, exercises involving the rotator cuff may be avoided to prevent stress on these shoulder muscles. Therefore, it is important to understand a few ways to safely work the upper extremity, without stressing the rotator cuff.

Some tips about rotator cuff safety:

  • The simplest shoulder exercises are called pendulum exercises. These are performed by bending forward to allow your arm to hang down towards the ground. Small circles are made with the hand, allowing momentum to carry the arm around effortlessly.
  • The rotator cuff muscles are not the large lifting muscles. As such, any exercise targeting these muscles should be done with little or no weights. If more weight is being used, the exercises are probably being done improperly.

It is important to avoid exercising the rotator cuff until your healthcare provider gives you the go-ahead, especially after surgery. In many cases, the shoulder will need to be immobilized until healing has progressed sufficiently.

Improving Joint Mechanics

The shoulder is a complex joint. It is a ball and socket joint, and the socket is part of the shoulder blade (a bone that moves on the back of the rib cage).

The movement of the shoulder blade and the movement of the ball and socket must be coordinated in order for the mechanics of the joint to be normal. Many people with shoulder pain symptoms have abnormal shoulder mechanics.

If the mechanics and alignment of the shoulder are not functioning normally, it does not matter how strong your muscles are; the shoulder will almost invariably be compromised and limited.

Your physical therapist will begin your exercise program by evaluating your shoulder movements and working with you to correct any abnormal shoulder mechanics. Problems with shoulder mechanics are not usually due to any weakness of the large muscles of the shoulder, but rather are a result of abnormal function of the small muscles that span the shoulder region.

A Word From Verywell

Working with a knowledgeable therapist can help improve shoulder joint pain and help with recovery after surgery or an injury. Having a strong shoulder does not mean the mechanics of the shoulder are necessarily going to function normally, and your therapist will help you improve your range of motion, shoulder mechanics, and stability.

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9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Rotator Cuff and Shoulder Conditioning Program. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. October 2012.

  3. Le HV, Lee SJ, Nazarian A, Rodriguez EK. Adhesive capsulitis of the shoulder: review of pathophysiology and current clinical treatmentsShoulder Elbow. 2017;9(2):75–84. doi:10.1177/1758573216676786

  4. Chan HBY, Pua PY, How CH. Physical therapy in the management of frozen shoulder. Singapore Med J. 2017;58(12):685-689.  doi:10.11622/smedj.2017107

  5. Posture and Back Health. Harvard Medical School. March 2014.

  6. Shoulder Pain: 3 Most Common Causes and How to Fix It. Cleveland Clinic. September 2019.

  7. Torn Rotator Cuff. Emory Healthcare.

  8. Scapular (Shoulder Blade) Disorders. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

  9. Physical Therapist (PT) Education Overview. American Physical Therapy Association.

Additional Reading
  • "Shoulder Surgery Exercise Guide" American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. 2007.