How physical therapy can help with your shoulder pain

Nov 21, 2017

Shoulder impingement syndrome is one of the more common conditions treated by St. Joseph’s/Candler physical therapists

Body aches and pains are a common part of life, especially as we age. However as common as they may be, that doesn’t mean you have to live the rest of your life in pain.

One option to deal with aches and pains is physical therapy. St. Joseph’s/Candler has five outpatient rehabilitation centers that offer physical, occupational and speech therapy. 

Bill Seiter

At Candler Hospital, one of the more common conditions physical therapists treat is shoulder impingement syndrome, also known as swimmer’s shoulder, says William Seiter, PT, DPT, physical therapist at Candler Outpatient Rehabilitation Center.

The shoulder is made up of several joints combined with tendons and muscles surrounding the collarbone, shoulder blade and humerus (upper arm bone) that allow for a great range of motion in your arm. Shoulder impingement syndrome occurs when the muscle and tissues in the shoulder get irritated due to repetitive, overhead motion, Seiter says.

“Anyone who participates in any repetitive activity of the arms is prone to shoulder impingement. If you are a painter; if you dust the ceiling fan or rearrange the top shelf of a cabinet. It can happen to anyone,” Seiter says. “Someone that exhibits poor posture with real bad slumping will make that shoulder space narrower, which predisposes you to injury. It also can be a result of a trauma, such as falling or being in an accident.”

More than 200,000 cases of shoulder impingement syndrome are reported in the United States each year, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. Seiter recently read a study that suggests one in three people will have a shoulder impingement in their lifetime, with 20 percent of those being symptomatic.

Symptoms of shoulder impingement syndrome include:

  • Shoulder pain across the shoulder to the side of the arm during both activity and rest
  • Pain sleeping at night or general leaning on the shoulder
  • Loss of strength and motion
  • Sudden pain with lifting and reaching movements
  • Difficulty doing activities that place the arm behind the back

Seiter says you should not experience any numbness or tingling. Nor should you see visual signs of swelling. There will be swelling of the shoulder joint but it will not be outwardly evident. You may see redness or feel warmth in the shoulder area and it may be tender.

If left untreated, you are increasing your risks of a torn rotator cuff, which not only includes pain but also lack of function and can lead to surgical intervention. Seiter encourages anyone with shoulder pain to talk to their primary care doctor about seeking physical therapy.

How physical therapy can help

There are several options to treat shoulder impingement syndrome ranging from surgery to steroid injections to rest and ice. Evidence shows that physical therapy is an excellence treatment option with proven success, Seiter says.

When a patient comes in for physical therapy, the first session includes an examination and education. Seiter will determine ways to control the pain and inflammation including ice, massages and/or electrical stimulation. The better part of the first meeting is educating the patient on what they are experiencing and making sure they understand the syndrome. Seiter also will show them some exercises they can do at home including position changes, postural changes and other exercises to decrease pain and inflammation.

Once the symptoms are under control and the patient can tolerate more activity, Seiter says they will move into more therapeutic exercises targeted at bringing the shoulder blades into a better position and strengthening the muscles so the shoulder becomes more efficient. After that, the shoulder is put into function where the patient practices lifting, reaching and carrying activities.

Physical therapy patients should expect one to three visits a week, depending on the symptoms. Sessions last an hour and may continue for four to six weeks.

“Physical therapy is quite effective,” Seiter says. “This is a repetitive activity syndrome so it comes over time and sometimes the solution can be simpler than you think. Come see us. We can definitely help.”

A physician’s referral is required for physical therapy. For more information or to find a physical therapist near you, visit our website.