Ways to Prevent Pain and Maintain Daily Activities

Techniques and devices that can help you live better with shoulder pain.


Many shoulder injuries can be treated at home with over-the-counter (OTC) nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) and naproxen (Aleve). If you cannot tolerate NSAIDs, or you already are taking anti-inflammatory drugs for arthritis, contact your doctor before taking an OTC pain-reliever.

Within 48 hours of the injury, you should also begin self-care measures. Use the acronym RICE to help remember these treatments:

  • Rest. Take a break from activity. Avoid using your injured shoulder ankle.
  • Ice. Place an ice pack on your shoulder for 15 to 20 minutes at a time to reduce pain and swelling.
  • Compression. Compress the shoulder with an elastic bandage to help stabilize the shoulder and reduce swelling.
  • Elevation. As much as possible, keep your shoulder elevated higher than your heart. Use pillows to prop up your shoulder when you lie down.

Whether you have an acute injury or chronic arthritis, medications don't always relieve pain completely. At times when you need extra help with pain relief, recovery or help with daily activities, here are some techniques and devices worth trying.

Hot and cold. While cold is helpful for reducing inflammation from a new shoulder injury, it also can be helpful for chronic pain or for the pain and inflammation of an arthritis flare. For aching shoulders without acute inflammation, heat may provide relief.

Physical therapy. In the early stages of arthritis, physical therapy may be helpful for strengthening the shoulder muscles and maintaining joint range of motion. Your doctor may also prescribe physical therapy for some shoulder injuries or to help in recovering from shoulder surgery.

To locate a physical therapist, check out the American Physical Therapy Association.

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). A technique in which a weak electric current is administered through electrodes placed on the skin, TENS is believed to stop messages from pain receptors from reaching the brain. It may be useful for short-term pain control in some people with shoulder arthritis.

Slings. For certain shoulder fractures, including most fractures of the scapula, nonsurgical treatment using a sling to immobilize the joint is an effective treatment. The shoulder may be stiff when your doctor first removes the sling. An exercise or physical therapy program will be necessary to regain full motion of the shoulder after immobilization.

Read more about treatment for shoulder blade fractures from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

Electrical stimulation. Electrical stimulation of muscle tissue (called neuromuscular electrical stimulation) around the shoulder may be useful for strengthening the muscles that support the joint and relieving pain in and around the joint. In the shoulder, this technique may be a helpful adjunct to surgical treatment for rotator cuff tears. A number of studies have shown the treatment to be effective, however, studies have focused specifically on the treatment for knee osteoarthritis.

Assistive devices. When your shoulders are stiff or painful it can be hard to perform daily tasks, such as bathing, getting dressed, driving or reaching for items in your kitchen cabinets. Many devices are available to make these activities easier, including reachers, zipper pulls, long-handled brushes or sponges and specially designed adaptive clothing. You can buy many assistive devices through medical supply stores and specialized mail-order catalogs. Talk to your doctor and physical and/or occupational therapist about using these assistive devices.

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