Building strength, stretching, and improving posture will improve shoulder health and keep you in action.
Your shoulders are a crucial part of your mobility and independence. You need them to be healthy and pain-free so you can drive a car, lift groceries, do housework, or pick up a child. But as we age, the shoulders become vulnerable to health problems and pain that may curtail activity. “Fortunately, most older adults can reduce pain and improve shoulder strength without surgery,” says physical therapist Amy Devaney, of Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.
The shoulder joint is made up of the collarbone, upper arm bone, and shoulder blade. Gradual wear and tear can lead to arthritis and tears in the rotator cuff—the group of tendons and muscles that helps you raise and rotate your arm. Other problems include inflammation in the bursa, a small cushion that reduces friction between tendons and bones, and tendinitis, inflammation that comes from overuse of the joint.
Poor posture also plays a role in shoulder pain. “When shoulders are rolled forward and rounded, the scapular muscles in the back of the shoulder get overstretched and weaker. You’re stretching the muscles for a long time, and it hurts, like trying to hold a laundry basket out for a while,” Devaney explains. If you don’t use your shoulder because it hurts, the muscles and ligaments will shorten, causing more pain.
What you should do
To reduce your shoulder pain, start by talking to your doctor to make sure you don’t have a severe tear in the rotator cuff. “Some people may need surgery if the tendon has torn away from the muscle or bone,” says Devaney. If the tear isn’t severe, a course of physical therapy is usually a successful line of defense. The therapy focuses on three strategies.
Improving posture. Posture exercises aim to reverse forward-shoulder positions. The shoulder blade squeeze is an example. To do this, pull your shoulder blades back and hold the position for a few seconds. “Do 20 repetitions, two or three times a day,” advises Devaney. Posture must improve before it’s time to start strengthening the shoulder muscles. That may take a few weeks.
Strengthening. Strengthening focuses on the four rotator cuff muscles and the shoulder blade muscles. For the rotator cuff muscles, it involves rotation and arm elevation. One example is called a “full cans.” While sitting or standing, straighten your arms and lift them from your sides to so that you form a letter T. Hold the position a moment, then lower your arms. Repeat the exercise three times for one repetition, and then do 15 repetitions.
In another exercise, called a bilateral external rotation, you tuck your elbows in at your sides, and then rotate your forearms away from your body, so that you form a W shape. Hold the position for a moment, and then return to the starting position. Repeat this three times for one rep, and then do 15 reps.
To strengthen the muscles near the shoulder blades, Devaney suggests making rowing motions with resistance bands, using a rowing machine, or lifting dumbbells while bending slightly.
Stretching. Muscles that must be stretched for shoulder health are in the front of the body and on top of the shoulders. “In older age, the pectorals in the chest area are stronger than the rotator cuffs, because there’s so much leaning forward when we sit or do any activities in front of us such as driving and typing.” But when the pectorals are tight and too strong, they pull the shoulder forward. Stretch them by lying on your back and reaching your arms out to the sides in a T position. Hold for 60 seconds, then repeat two times.
Ideally, you should speak with a physical therapist before trying any of these exercises.
Move of the month
This move stretches the muscles in the shoulders and pectorals in the chest.
Sit up straight, facing sideways in a chair without arms.
Roll your shoulders down and back, and then clasp your hands behind you.
Gently lift your hands toward the ceiling until you reach the point of mild tension, but not pain.
Hold 10 to 30 seconds.
Slowly return to the starting position.
Repeat this exercise two to four times.