Non Surgical Treatments for Shoulder Bursitis

Simple ways to reduce rotator cuff inflammation

Shoulder bursitis is one of the most common causes of shoulder pain. Often called rotator cuff tendonitis or impingement syndrome, the condition is characterized by inflammation of the rotator cuff tendons as well as the bursa cushioning the shoulder.

Typical symptoms include:

  • Pain with certain shoulder movements
  • Pain with lifting items overhead
  • Pain at night that can awaken you from sleep

The good news is that, with simple treatment, most people with shoulder bursitis can find relief without surgery. Here are some options that may help:

Rest the Affected Shoulder

Woman touching aching back

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The first step to treating acute shoulder pain is to decrease the inflammation of the rotator cuff tendons and surrounding bursa. The rule is simple: if a certain movement causes you pain, stop it.

While too much immobilization is not a good idea, often the best way to do this is to temporarily stop or reduce the activities that cause you pain.

Time is your best friend when faced with a rotator cuff injury. By giving your shoulder the rest it needs, your body has the chance to heal itself.

Use Anti-Inflammatory Meds

Ibuprofen pill pack on table
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Inflammation can be greatly alleviated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as Advil (ibuprofen) or Aleve (naproxen). These over-the-counter medications provide effective, short-term relief by concurrently reducing pain and swelling associated with bursitis.

While Tylenol (acetaminophen) is great for pain relief, it doesn't offer any of the anti-inflammatory benefits of NSAIDs.

As with any medication, there are a number of possible side effects that may make them unsafe for treatment in some in people. Be sure to speak with your doctor or pharmacist before embarking on non-prescription therapy to ensure it's safe and appropriate.

Ice the Shoulder

woman icing her shoulder with an ice pack
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Ice is especially helpful for any condition caused by inflammation. Ice packs are usually most beneficial when the pain is acute or if chronic bursitis suddenly flares up.

But be sure to do so safely. Do not leave an ice pack on one spot for more than 15 to 20 minutes at a time. Avoid placing ice directly on the skin without a layer such as clothing or a towel in between. Doing so can actually cause frostbite.

Schedule Physical Therapy

Physical therapist leading older man through shoulder exercise

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Once the acute pain and swelling have been relieved, physical therapy can help return your shoulder to normal activity. The aim of therapy is to help strengthen the muscles around the rotator cuff and restore the shoulder's flexibility and full range of motion. 

People will often be surprised how much muscle tone they have lost after just a week of immobilization or inactivity. To ensure you fully recover and are less prone to future injury, talk to your doctor about options for physical therapy followed by a structured routine of shoulder-strengthening exercises.

Ask About Cortisone Shots

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If none of the above listed treatments provide adequate relief, you may want to speak with your doctor about whether a cortisone (steroid) injection is an appropriate option.

While effective for reducing shoulder pain and inflammation, cortisone shorts can accelerate joint damage and weaken tendons if overused.

It's not a form of treatment you should rush into but can be helpful in severe cases. Talk with your doctor about the most appropriate treatment options for your specific diagnosis.

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Article Sources
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  1. Faruqi T, Rizvi TJ. Subacromial Bursitis. [Updated 2019 Jun 4]. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2019 Jan-. 

  2. Varacallo M, Mair SD. Rotator Cuff Tendonitis. [Updated 2019 Jun 4]. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2019 Jan-. 

  3. Williams CH, Sternard BT. Bursitis. [Updated 2019 Sep 11]. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2019 Jan-. 

  4. Burger M, Africa C, Droomer K, et al. Effect of corticosteroid injections versus physiotherapy on pain, shoulder range of motion and shoulder function in patients with subacromial impingement syndrome: A systematic review and meta-analysis. S Afr J Physiother. 2016;72(1):318. doi:10.4102/sajp.v72i1.318

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