10 Things Anyone Suffering from Shoulder Pain Should Try before Going Under the Knife

Physician and Shoulder Expert Shares Ten Tips for Alleviating Shoulder Pain


By Michael Carroll, M.D.

Summer is fast approaching.  We all have our visions of glory for our favorite season.  The winter coat of adipose, that thin layer of fattiness so many of us accumulate over the colder months, will no doubt be gone by the time of the fireworks finale.  The golf clubs will be relieved of insulting dust and will be propelling long hooks with authority. My college kids will be reminded that dad can still be a force to be reckoned with on the tennis court. 

Now if I can just avoid the pitfalls of last summer.  

The balky overhand serve and adventures on the golf course never came into line last year due to some progressive shoulder pain.  It was sadly ironic too – like something I’d worked with so many of my patients on – and now was suffering from myself. Shoulder pain can be so frustrating because it’s inconsistent in intensity and often difficult to pinpoint.  And it’s a summer-ruiner, to be certain – meaning less and less of the outdoor activities I love so much – and more and more of the sleepless, uncomfortable nights, caused by sharp, darting aches and pains radiating from the shoulder area.    Well-intentioned colleagues suggested surgery, but I didn’t want to have to deal with the recovery time if there was any possible way to avoid it.  

I spent the winter practicing the various shoulder strengthening and sparing elements of advice that I have so often preached to my patients, and it gave me a whole new perspective (physician, heal thyself, indeed).  My efforts have put my shoulder in fine working form in time for summer, no surgery required. My spring break weeklong, shoulder-testing foray into all things athletic was pain-free and my tennis serve had a lot of zip.  I am currently enjoying a distinct lack of what plagues 40 million Americans: shoulder pain. Here’s my 10-point program of tips and suggestions that anyone can practice in their own home to help alleviate shoulder pain.

  1. Strong foundation.  It turns out there are really 2 layers of muscles to the shoulder.  We know the names of the top layer: pectoralis, deltoid, and trapezius.  Many do not know the name of the most important layer: the rotator cuff.  The rotator cuff is actually 4 muscles that can be strengthened. A strong rotator cuff will keep the shoulder pain free and ready to roll.  So the first step is understanding this very basic anatomy of how our shoulders are constructed. 

  2. Add more strength.  A shoulder with a strong foundation is ready for building strength.  Go ahead and do an overhead press with the 20-pound dumbbells -- it won’t hurt.  The strength helps the tennis serve, going for that par 5 in two shots, and yes -- getting the heavy sugar bag from the top shelf. It’s amazing how just a little shoulder-benefitting exercise like this can go a long way to helping and healing your shoulder. 

  3. Sleep right.  I will spare you an anatomy lesson, but please know that one of the most important things you can do to help get rid of the pain long-term is to not sleep on the side of your bad shoulder.  Also, do not put your arm above your head when you sleep. Both of these positions cut off blood supply to really important parts of the rotator cuff that can rebuild while you sleep, as long as they are not being aggravated. 

  4. Protein powder works??  I hate being wrong, particularly when the error rests on the mantle of stereotype.  What can I say? I thought protein powders were for meatheads pumping stacks of iron at the gym.  Alas, good “protein powder” products can actually really can help your muscles get stronger, provided you are actually doing some sort of exercise that puts the excess protein to good use.  Old guys may “rule,” but we also lose 8% of our muscle mass every decade starting age 30. The truth of the matter is that successful aging requires keeping muscle. So when I look for a good protein or “essential amino acid” product, I look for the one with the highest content of leucine.  Of all the building blocks of muscle in the powders, evidence suggests this is the most important. Taking a modest amount of protein powder and doing some good exercise (as in #2 above or #5 below) is a recipe for success in beating away that shoulder pain.

  5. Jump rope.  As noted in tip #1 above a strong foundation is the best place to start when combating shoulder pain.  The cheapest, easiest, fastest way to build a great foundation of the shoulder is the simple act of jumping rope.  I am not sure why so many of my patients look at me as if I have told them to eat glass when I advise them to jump rope.  You don’t have to do it like a world-class boxer or professional athlete – whatever speed and duration suits your fitness level is likely fine.  The motions your shoulder undergoes during a session of jumping rope are anatomically ideal for building and exercising the muscles that will protect you from shoulder pain. 

  6. Occasional use of over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicines.  Not a long term solution, but until you get better, it’s OK to use this stuff on occasion when you’re hurting.  

  7. Treat pain early.  One thing I can tell you about the shoulder that applies to anyone at pretty much any stage of shoulder pain -- if you ignore the pain, it will not go away.  You need to do something, hence the list of tips in this article. The longer you try to “man up” and live through the pain, the worse it will get.

  8. Use your head – not your shoulder!  During the time you are working to strengthen your shoulder as a routine, you need to take it easy when it comes to routine actions that could compromise your progress and lead to pain-related setbacks.  For example, do not reach into the back seat of the car to get a coffee cup off the floor. Seriously, don’t. Take a moment to get out of the care, walk around to the car door closest to the offending coffee cup, and get it that way.  The brief and temporary burden of “walking around” will save you from the far more burdensome experience of added shoulder pain later that night and for several nights to come. Similarly, do not take up chainsawing down branches from a recent storm.  Hey, there are a few concessions we must make to age.  

  9. Ice really works.  It’s the really smart athletes – or the athletes with really smart trainers – that ice their joints after they work out -- even if those joints do not hurt.  Yes, if you want to change the bad things going on in a joint, or prevent bad things from happening there at all, cool the joint down! So, if smart young athletes are icing joints that don’t even hurt, you can take a few minutes to ice the shoulder that actually does hurt!

  10. Use healing tools that really work.  I actually helped design a simple, inexpensive system that helped some of my patients as well as myself.  It’s called the Rotatoreliever and is available online. It’s a kit that utilizes many of the pearls of wisdom above – providing some basic exercise techniques that specifically build the muscle foundation of the shoulder and helps the user create positions for sleep that help with the shoulder pain, etc.  Coupled with a jump rope, a few weights, and some common sense, it can be a great ingredient to a recipe for success getting rid of that infernal shoulder pain.

If you have read this far into the article, I will not wish you your best summer -- as that was likely a few decades ago.  I like to think that there are, however, some potential “top ten” summers still out there. Take care of that shoulder and go have yourself one! 



About Dr. Michael Carroll
Michael Carroll, M.D., is the founder and president of Jointsmart, LLC, and in 2005 co-founded Creekside Clinic in Traverse City. After putting together a makeshift traction device for his own chronic shoulder pain, Dr. Carroll developed Rotatoreliever, which subsequently eliminated his pain. Dr. Carroll has a special interest in sports medicine. Born in Michigan, Dr. Carroll earned a BS degree from the University of Notre Dame and his M.D. from Wayne State University in Detroit.