How to Manage Your Shoulder Arthritis with Exercise

Shoulder arthritis is present in approximately 15% of people over the age of 65.  It is more common in women.  As with other forms of arthritis, most often it begins with a slow progressive loss of cartilage within the joint.  This leads to changes of the bone and joint lining.  Joint inflammation, stiffness, muscle weakness, pain, and deformities within the joint are common.  Despite popular belief, arthritis is not always a perpetual cycle of pain culminating in a joint replacement surgery.  Many people we work with who have shoulder arthritis achieve excellent results by committing to the right exercise program.


Non-Surgical Treatment of Shoulder Arthritis

Lifestyle changes, activity modification, and adoption of strategies to protect the shoulder joint are important parts of treatment.  Activities that involve weight bearing or impact on the joint should be minimized or avoided.  Examples include push-ups and heavy overhead work.  In cases of acute pain, medications or injections can be helpful.  However they should be used sparingly due to their long-term adverse effects on the joint and other body systems.

Exercise is beneficial because it improves health of the existing cartilage, decreases joint stiffness, improves muscle strength, decreases pain, and improves function.  Gentle passive exercises are performed first.  These are usually performed lying down with the assistance of a cane or wand.  Manual therapy techniques performed by a physical therapist can enhance the benefits of exercise.  As pain and range of motion improve, stretching exercises are progressed and strengthening exercises are added.  The following 5 videos show examples of exercises we have used with excellent results for many people with shoulder arthritis.

Wand-Assisted Shoulder Flexion

Begin on your back holding a cane or wand in each hand.  Space your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width.  The cane or wand is grasped between your thumb and index finger with a thumb-up position.  The thumb-up position will maximize movement at your shoulder joint.  With both elbows straight, lift your arms overhead until a mild to moderate stretch is felt.  Hold this position for 5 to 10 seconds.  Then slowly lower back to the start position.  Perform 10 to 20 repetitions each day.

Wand-Assisted Shoulder External Rotation

Begin lying on your back with a small pillow or towel roll under the upper arm.  Hold a cane, golf club, or similar object in both hands.  Use the non-involved arm to passively rotate your involved arm out to the side.  Your elbow of the involved arm should be maintained at a 90-degree angle throughout the exercise.  When a mild stretch is felt, pause and hold the position for 5 to 10 seconds.  Perform 10 to 20 repetitions each day.  Avoid exercising through pain.

Waiter’s Bow

Begin standing with the hand of the involved arm resting on a table top or counter.  Relax the shoulder and neck muscles.  Slowly step backwards while keeping the hand on the table or counter.   When a mild stretch is felt, pause and hold the position for 5 to 10 seconds.  Perform 10 repetitions each day.  Avoid holding your breath, bouncing, or exercising through pain.

Wall Chest Stretch

This purpose of this exercise is to restore normal posture and position of your shoulder.  Most people with arthritis develop rounded shoulders and this further increases joint stress within the shoulder.  To begin, stand next to the corner of a wall or door jam.  Place the hand, forearm, and elbow on the wall.  Take a small step forward and slightly turn your body away from the wall.  You should feel a mild to moderate stretch in the front of your shoulder or chest.  Hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds and perform 3 to 5 repetitions daily.  If you experience pain, slightly lower the arm or decrease the intensity of the stretch.

2-Arm Band Row

The row is a great exercise to begin strengthening the muscles around the shoulder.  This exercise emphasizes the muscles that hold the shoulder blades back.  To perform this exercise, anchor a resistance band to a piece of furniture or door knob.  Grasp the ends of the band in each hand and step back so there is tension on the band with the arms stretched in front of you.  Pull the hands and elbows back.  The most important part of the movement involves squeezing or pinching the shoulder blades together.  Perform 10 to 20 repetitions for multiple sets 3 times per week.

Get Started

Exercise can not reverse or cure arthritis.  Nothing can, not even surgery.  But the pain and suffering from shoulder arthritis can be managed with the right exercise program.  Shoulder surgery can be extremely successful for some but it is not an option for everyone.  If you are looking for a different approach, your physical therapist can help you.  Begin with the strategies discussed in this article.  And if you need more help and are interested in teaming up with a physical therapist, give us a call.

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