My shoulder hurts, and I can’t see a doctor. What should I do?

Carolyn M. Hettrich, MD, MPH
Chief of Shoulder Surgery
Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School

Whether this is due to busy schedules, travel, or a pandemic, there are things that can be done to ease shoulder pain without seeing a physician in person.

  1. Cold Therapy – Whether it be frozen peas, gel ice packs, or fancy cooling devices, cold therapy is very effective in decreasing inflammation and alleviating pain. Make sure to have a cloth in between the skin and the ice pack, to check the skin often, and to not use cold therapy for more than 30 minutes at a time to avoid frost bite to the skin.

  1. Stretching – The most common cause of a painful shoulder in my clinics is a posterior capsular contracture. What this means is that the posterior part of the shoulder becomes tight/stiff over time and this makes the shoulder ‘impinge’ and causes pain and inflammation.  Excellent videos of 3 stretches that you can do at home can be seen on https://carolynhettrich.com/physical-therapy-videos/posterior-capsular-stretching/.  My favorite of these is the sleeper stretch.

  1. Over the Counter Medications – Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and naproxen (Aleve) are very effective in alleviating shoulder pain. Please take as instructed by the manufacturer, and if you have any medical problems call your primary care physician to make sure it is OK for you to take these.

  1. Rest – Avoid lifting/strengthening/loading the shoulder to the extent that you can. When a shoulder is inflamed and painful, using bands/weights will only exacerbate the pain.  Bands/weights should not be used until the shoulder is pain free.

  1. Wear a Sling – If your shoulder pain is severe, wearing a sling for a short period of time may be necessary. Be sure to only use it for the minimum period of time needed, and make sure to straighten your elbow multiple times per day to avoid stiffness.

  1. Virtual visits – If the suggestions above are not helping, your shoulder doctor may be able to do a virtual visit to further customize a plan for you.
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2019 - Carolyn M. Hettrich MD, MPH. All Rights Reserved.