Our shoulder joint is the most mobile joint in our body. Comprised of four separate joints surrounded by tendons, ligaments, and major muscle groups in our neck, upper, and middle back, the potential for injury exists with every bag of groceries we lift or tennis racket we swing. If you do find yourself nursing an injury, yoga for shoulder pain can give you relief and help restore strength and mobility throughout your entire shoulder girdle. Here are 11 healing yoga poses for shoulder pain.
What causes shoulder pain?
Causes of shoulder pain are linked back to the anatomy of the shoulder itself. Knowing the complicated anatomy of the shoulder is crucial to diagnosing and understanding shoulder pain.
To start, the major bones of the shoulder include the clavicle (collarbone), the scapula (the shoulder blades), and the humerus (upper arm bone). The shoulder joint connects these (and the sternum) in four separate joints.
The most well-known joint is this ball-and-socket joint where the humerus nestles into the glenoid fossa of the scapula. The head of the humerus and the socket that receives it (the labrum) are both coated with cartilage that allows the bone to move smoothly in the socket.
This joint attaches the clavicle to the acromion, a bone that is related to scapula. This stability joint has minimal mobility.
The other end of the clavicle attaches to the sternum at the sternoclavicular joint. This connection is important for throwing and thrusting motions.
The muscles that surround it (the trapezius and serratus anterior) control this joint completely. These muscles also connect the scapula to the wall of the chest.
Major muscle groups in this area of the back include:
- Trapezius and rhomboids: V-shaped cape of muscle that originates across the tops of the shoulders and attaches to the thoracic spine
- Teres major and teres minor: Bands of muscle that starts underneath the armpit and tucks under the rhomboids
- Latissimus dorsi: Wide bands of muscle that support the mid-back, tucking underneath the teres minor and rhomboids below the shoulder blade
- Serratus anterior: This muscle originates in the thoracic spine and wraps underneath the shoulder blades to attach at the ribs
Causes of shoulder pain
Shoulder pain has many different causes, but not all of them would benefit from the immediate practice of yoga. Always talk to your doctor before attempting an exercise program. For example, yoga may only hurt shoulder pain due to fractures, dislocation, and some tendon and ligament damage. Instead, these may benefit from a brief period of rest during the acute injury phase.
In rare cases where shoulder pain is a sign of heart attack, the issue may resolve itself when the underlying causes of heart attack are addressed.
That being said, yoga poses for shoulder pain can be very effective for the following causes of shoulder pain:
- Tendon sheath inflammation: Improper lubrication in the tendon sheath can lead to friction, pain, and inflammation
- Rotator cuff injuries and tears: Tendons, ligaments, or muscles are strained, torn, or otherwise injured
- Adhesive capsulitis, or frozen shoulder syndrome: Scar tissue develops as a result of injury or disuse, limiting mobility and range of motion
- Fibromyalgia: This widespread pain condition has four pain points in the body located in the area of the shoulders
- Lupus: An autoimmune disorder where the body attacks healthy tissues, lupus causes widespread inflammation and pain
- Neck pain: Created by a culture of head forward movement, neck pain can quickly lead to shoulder pain
- Mouse shoulder: A repetitive motion injury whereby the small muscles are fatigued by the common motion of the mouse, forcing larger muscles to take over and become strained
Of course, before beginning any healing yoga for neck or shoulder pain, it is important to see your doctor to determine the cause of your pain. If pain is sharp or stabbing, completely immobilizing, or accompanied by heart attack symptoms, an urgent or emergency visit to the doctor is important.
How does yoga for shoulder pain help?
Once the cause of your shoulder pain is determined and your doctor gives you the all clear, yoga can be remarkably helpful in the healing process. Not only does yoga offer tremendous benefits for chronic pain, it also offer measurable physical benefits. Here’s how.
Inflammation in the body can be measured by inflammatory markers that rise and fall in the presence (or absence) of inflammation in the body.
A 2015 study divided 218 study participants into two groups and found that yoga practitioners had fewer markers of inflammation than the group that did not practice.
Improves flexibility and balance
If the goal of yoga poses for shoulder pain is to increase flexibility, there is research to support this benefit.
A small study of 66 elderly patients in 2013 found that those who practiced yoga increased their flexibility significantly after a year of regular practice. The balance benefits of yoga are significant for this group as well.
If the goal of yoga for shoulder pain is to regain mobility in the joint while building strength and stability, yoga is beneficial for this as well.
In a study, 79 adults significantly improved strength with 24 sun salutations performed six days a week for 24 weeks. In another, just 12 weeks of practice improved strength, flexibility, and endurance.
11 yoga poses for shoulder pain
You don’t need to commit to 24 sun salutations a day to experience the benefits of yoga for shoulder pain. Here are 11 stretching and strengthening moves to gradually heal your shoulder pain.
Please note that exercises should be done on both sides to maintain balance in the body. If you’re unsure of how to do these poses, attend a class for more hands-on guidance.
1. Shoulder rolls
The simplest way to begin to restore mobility and flexibility is a series of simple shoulder rolls. Stand or sit in such a way that your arms can hang freely by your sides. Inhale, rolling your shoulders forward and up. As you exhale, continue rolling them back and down.
Complete this action five times, following your breath, then reverse the motion (inhale back and up, then forward and down). Finish up with five more rolls forward and up, then back and down.
2. Neck rolls
Sit or stand comfortably. Exhale and lower your chin to your chest. On an inhale, slowly roll your left ear to your left shoulder and pause for a breath. Exhale and bring your chin back to the center before repeating on the other side.
Complete five neck rolls on each side.
3. Wall stretch
Stand with your right arm and hip touching a wall. Raise your arm as high as you can and rotate from the shoulder joint so that your palm is facing the wall. Rest your palm on the wall. Begin to slowly walk your right hand back and down behind you to feel a strong stretch across your shoulder joint and pectoral muscles.
If you have frozen shoulder or a tear, this movement may be small, so proceed slowly. Repeat on the left side.
4. Downward-facing dog at the wall
Downward-facing dog at the wall allows all the benefits of traditional downward-facing dog but without the pressure on the wrists. Place your palms on the wall and begin to walk your feet back (and hands down the wall) until your body forms an L-shape.
Hug your forearms together so that the eyes of your elbows begin to rotate towards the sky. Relax your shoulder blades on the back and extend the crown of your head towards the wall. Bend your knees if your hamstrings are tight, and pull your navel to your spine to support your lower back and prevent sagging there.
Take ten full breaths here, then simply walk towards the wall to come out of it.
5. Hand to elbow
Sitting with a tall spine, raise your right arm over your head. Bend your elbow and reach the palm of your hand to the center of your shoulder blades. Relax the tops of your shoulders. Place your left hand on your right hand and take ten full breaths.
Modify this by placing your hand on top of your head, or even further by placing it on your shoulder. Repeat on the left side.
6. Hands behind the back
Stand comfortably with a tall spine. Inhale, and on an exhale, bring your hands behind your back to clasp together. You can bend your elbows if this is too much, or you can separate your hands and place them on the small of your back.
If you would like a deeper stretch, inhale deeply, reaching clasped hands to the ground, and on an exhale fold forward with an extended spine. Clasped hands can reach to the sky; keep your neck long and shoulder blades on the back. Whichever option you choose, take five to ten deep breaths before coming out of the pose.
7. Thread the needle
Start on hands and knees with wrists directly beneath shoulders and knees directly beneath hips. Inhale and reach your right arm to the sky. Exhale and thread your right arm behind your left hand (hips stay high with knees on the ground). Head and shoulder rests on the ground.
If this is too deep to start, you can rest on your right forearm or a block instead. Left arm can stay planted or can extend in front of you. Take ten full breaths. Press into your left hand to come up, and repeat on the other side.
8. Eagle arms
You can sit or stand for this exercise. Bring your right arm out in front of you with your elbow bent at a 90-degree angle. Loop your left arm underneath the right, wrapping your left forearm around your right. Your palms may touch, but don’t push for that.
Inhale and lift your elbows, relaxing the tops of your shoulders. Exhale and gently move your hands away from you. Stay here for ten full breaths, making sure the tops of your shoulders stay relaxed. Release and repeat on the other side.
9. Heart-melting pose
Start on hands and knees (pad your knees if they are sensitive). Keeping your hips directly above your knees, walk your hands forward as you relax your chest towards the ground. Shoulder blades will come together and relax down the back towards your hips.
If this is painful or impossible, there are several modifications. Widening your arms takes pressure off your shoulders, as does extending one arm forward at a time (bending your other arm and resting your forehead on your forearm. You can also lower down to forearms instead, or use blocks or a bolster under your chest for more support. Whichever you choose, breathe deeply for ten breaths. To come out, walk hands back slowly.
10. Arm across the chest
In a comfortable seat, bring your straight right arm to shoulder height, palm facing forward. Sitting tall, bring your right arm across your chest, using your left arm looped under it for support.
If it feels good, look to the right as you take five full breaths. Release, and repeat with the left arm.
11. Supported fish pose
Supported fish pose uses two blocks, one at the highest setting to support your head and the other at the middle height right at the level of your shoulder blades. Place the blocks on the ground and slowly lower yourself so that you are lying on the blocks (this may take some adjusting). If your back feels sore, you can keep your knees bent, or you can straighten your legs long on the mat. Stay here for at least two minutes and breathe. Allow your body to relax fully. To come out, either roll carefully to one side or engage your core and walk yourself slowly back up.
This pose can be used as part of a yin yoga practice. Yin yoga focuses on connective tissues including tendons and ligaments. Poses do not require muscular engagement but are held for long periods. This type of yoga uses gentle stress to lengthen and strengthen connective tissues. It can be a great option for frozen shoulder or any type of shoulder pain caused by limited mobility.
Are there any yoga poses I should avoid?
Ultimately, your body will tell you if the yoga pose is not for you. Sharp and stabbing pain, tingling, and numbness are all signs that you may want to avoid that pose or not practice it as deeply. Move back out of the pose, use the modifications here, or avoid it entirely.
Working closely with a doctor who understands how yoga for shoulder pain can help is important. You can find a pain doctor in your area by clicking the button below or looking for one in your area by using the tips here: https://paindoctor.com/pain-management-doctors/.