The shoulder is an area of the body that is made up of three joints, three bones, and many different muscles. If it sounds complex, that’s because it is!
Your shoulder joint is a ball and socket joint that needs to balance mobility and stability. Its complexity is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it gives you the mobility and stability to move your arms in many different ways, allowing you to carry out all sorts of complex physical activities. On the other hand, it makes your shoulder prone to joint problems and muscle imbalances, all of which can give you unpleasant aches and pains.
The main muscles of your shoulder joint include the rotator cuff muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, subscapularis) and the serratus anterior. Your rotator cuff works to keep your ball and socket joint in place, and the serratus anterior (also known as the ‘boxer’s muscle’) provides pushing power and helps you lift your arms above your head.
Shoulder pain is unfortunately common. A Norwegian study by Hasvold & Johnsen found that 15% of men and 25% of women reported weekly episodes of shoulder pain. Even if you do not regularly lift heavy weights, your shoulder joint may still be negatively affected by the demands of your job and daily life.
Most jobs require you to work with your arms out in front of your body, often for long hours with repetitive movements. Over time, the muscles in front may tighten up and your back muscles may become weaker. This can then affect the balance within your shoulder joint and predispose you to various shoulder injuries, especially rotator cuff problems.
Here at Painless Movement, we believe that prevention is better than cure. As such, we would like to share with you the following 10 tips to keep your shoulders healthy, strong, and mobile.
1. Avoid sitting still for prolonged periods of time
Our first tip to keep your shoulders healthy is very simple – just move! Sedentary sitting is known to be bad for your body and causes stiffness everywhere, including your shoulder joints.
We recommend taking a break of at least 5 minutes for every hour spent sitting. Get up from your chair, walk around your office, and maybe even do a few stretches (we have outlined a few in the next tip). Get those joints moving and your shoulders will thank you for it.
However, if your job simply doesn’t allow you to take frequent breaks, do consider a standing desk. Research has shown that working while standing up is equally beneficial for the body as the traditional work break (taking breaks away from the work area).
2. Stretch often
Stretching is a great way to improve muscle and joint flexibility. It also boosts blood circulation. In fact, the Wellness Council of America (WELCOA) released a report in 2009 that highlighted the benefits of stretching in the office. This includes reduced musculoskeletal disorders, reduced workplace stress, and improved productivity.
Here are our favorite shoulder stretches that can be done even while seated, based on recommendations from The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.
- Shoulder Shrug. Move the tops of your shoulders upwards towards your ears. When you feel slight tension in your neck and shoulders, hold the stretch for 3 to 5 seconds before relaxing.
- Head Glide. Move/glide your head back on your neck horizontally while keeping your chin and face looking forward. If done correctly, you should feel like you have a double chin.
- Neck Relaxer. Draw circles in the air using the tip of your nose as a pen. As you draw circles, drop your head to the left, bring your chin towards your chest, roll your head up through the right, look up as you continue the circular motion and complete the circle on the left. Then, reverse your circles and repeat.
- Shoulder Roll. This stretch is especially great for your shoulders. This time, draw circles in the air with your shoulders. First, roll your shoulders backward in a circular motion and then, reverse the stretch to roll forwards.
- Chest stretch. With your hands behind your head, push out your chest and squeeze your upper back. You should feel your shoulder blades move down and towards each other.
3. Improve your posture
Sit as you usually do at your workstation. Then, check out your reflection in a mirror or ask a friend to take a photo of you seated. What is your posture like? Are you hunched over with a bent neck? Are your shoulders lopsided as you place more weight on one side of the body? Assess your posture and take note on how you can improve it.
For the rest of the day, make conscious effort to sit with more awareness. This is particularly important towards the end of the day. As you get more fatigued, the natural tendency is to slouch more and hunch your shoulders.
Also, make sure that your workstation is properly set up with the correct desk and chair heights.
4. Get a chair with adjustable armrests
Studies have found that shoulder discomfort is reduced by optimal desk height as well as having armrests on chairs.
In our ergonomic office chair buying guide, we recommend getting a chair that allows you to raise your armrests. This is because armrests need to be adjusted to your body for optimum positioning to reap the full benefits of that extra support.
By resting your arms while sitting, weight loading on your shoulder joints and spine is greatly reduced. Also, using fixed armrests that do not fit you well could result in awkward arm positions and undue stress on your shoulder joints.
5. Position your mouse and keyboard correctly
Do you have to constantly reach forward to grab your mouse or type on your keyboard? If yes, it is time to make some adjustments. Everything you need should be comfortably within reach while maintaining a healthy posture. Your workstation should fit you, not vice versa.
While using your mouse and keyboard, aim to have relaxed shoulders, straight wrists, and supported palms. If your keyboard has tabs on the underside to prop it up, flatten those tabs. This way, you can keep your wrists straight while typing. You can also consider upgrading to an ergonomic keyboard.
6. Adjust your monitor height
A common mistake when it comes to monitors is positioning them too high. This can lead to neck strain which can then progress into shoulder pain. Ideally, the top line of text on your monitor should be at eye height or slightly below. Then, angle the monitor away from your body. This way, your natural downward gaze would be perpendicular to the monitor screen, allowing you to focus on the screen while keeping neck and shoulders relaxed.
A monitor stand or monitor arm is a convenient way to easily adjust the height of your monitor.
7. Use a standing desk
The root cause of a lot of shoulder problems, especially those triggered by work, is poor posture. Despite your best efforts, it can be quite difficult to sit in a healthy manner for hours on end. It is definitely much easier to maintain a nice neutral spine while standing. In fact, you are a lot less likely to slouch and place unnecessary stress on your shoulder joints while standing.
As an added perk, your performance at work may also improve. A recent study by the University of Leicester has found that standing desks boost productivity among users.
We understand that despite its well-known benefits, a standing desk can be costly. If you are on a budget or just want to try out a simple standing desk before making a bigger investment, there are more affordable options for you to try.
8. Improve the health of your neck and upper back
Your joints do not exist in isolation. Everything in your body is connected. Problems in one joint can often be attributed to poor strength and reduced flexibility in the joints above it and below it. If there is tightness in your neck, your shoulders will attempt to compensate for it by increasing mobility and becoming less stable. Similarly, if you have weak upper back muscles, your shoulders will take on the extra unsupported weight.
Also, pain from the neck and upper back are often referred to the shoulder. Therefore, if your shoulder is persistently bothering you, take a look at your neck and upper back. Sit in an ergonomic chair that supports these regions. Do stretches to loosen up any tight muscles and consider doing exercises to strengthen your upper body.
9. Change it up!
Once you have your ergonomic office set up, take it one step further and move things around from time to time. If you usually keep your mouse on the right, switch it to the left. If you spend a lot of time on calls and usually hold the phone on the left, switch it to the right.
This way, you won’t be spending extended periods of time repetitively using your shoulders in one particular manner. If you usually use your desk cycle on the ground using your legs, put it on your desk and pedal with your hands for a change. Basically, organize your day in such a way that there is physical variety in what you do.
10. Don’t wait it out
Last but not least, if you start to feel discomfort in your shoulders, do not ignore it. There is a good chance that it is not going to go away on its own.
In fact, shoulder problems often get worse if left unaddressed. Research has shown that early intervention is particularly effective in musculoskeletal problems such as shoulder pain.
If you do not get relief from adjustments to posture, ergonomic furniture, stretching and basic exercises, do not hesitate to seek help from a physiotherapist or a doctor.
From brushing your teeth in the morning to tucking in your kids at bedtime, your shoulder joints keep you moving all day long.
Do not underestimate the negative impact painful shoulders can have on your quality of life.
Try out our tips and see if your shoulders feel better at the end of a long day. Improving your shoulder health will improve your posture, your gait, and your entire body.
Dr. Praveena Asokan, MBChB has a background in medicine, having graduated from the University of Leicester before working in various hospitals. Her additional experience as a medical researcher helped her transition to a career as a writer, and she now enjoys researching and writing on a number of health-related topics.