Avoid Shoulder Pain at Work

Written by the Healthline Editorial Team | Published on July 10, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Kenneth R. Hirsch, MD on July 10, 2014

Avoid Shoulder Pain at Work

The shoulder consists of several joints that connect to various tendons and muscles. The complexity of the shoulder is what enables you do so much with your arms. It is also the reason so many people suffer from shoulder pain.

Chronic shoulder pain often stems from prolonged, repetitive, or awkward movements. This type of pain is sometimes referred to as repetitive strain injury (RSI) or cumulative trauma disorder. 

RSIs frequently develop at work. Small, repetitive activities can strain the muscles and tendons of your upper body, including the shoulder. Activities that can cause RSI include:

  • use of industrial machinery
  • use of a computer mouse
  • swiping items at a supermarket checkout stand
  • carrying or lifting heavy loads

Causes of Chronic Shoulder Pain

Shoulder pain is often cumulative rather than sudden. It may be hard to pinpoint the exact cause.  Potential sources of work-related shoulder pain include:

  • static loading—when muscles have to hold the body in one position for a long time
  • awkward postures
  • mechanical contact stress, such as  resting your wrists on a hard desk edge while typing
  • force or pressure, even in small amounts
  • hand-arm vibration, such as from a power tool
  • full body vibration, such as from driving  over rough roads
  • extreme temperature exposure
  • working with arms above shoulder level

It’s not only physically intensive jobs that cause shoulder injury. Computer workers also have a high risk of developing neck and shoulder pain. A large number of reported RSIs are computer-related. “Sedentary work environments and work habits can weaken your muscles and set the stage for pain,” says Micke Brown, a long-time nurse specializing in pain management.

Preventing Shoulder Pain

For most people, the keys to minimizing neck and shoulder pain are to:

  • optimize the workspace or work environment
  • develop better posture
  • reduce the stress your daily routine puts on your body

The streamlining of equipment and devices to function well with the human body is called “ergonomics.” Here are a few suggestions to help desk workers adjust the ergonomics of their workspaces. These techniques can help reduce shoulder pain at work.

Sit Correctly

When sitting at your desk, your:

  • feet should be firmly planted and flat on the floor or on a stable footrest
  • thighs should be parallel to the ground
  • elbows should be supported and close to your body
  • wrists and hands should be in line with your forearms
  • lower back (the lumbar region) should be supported
  • shoulders should be relaxed

Be aware of how you sit all day long.

“As fatigue sets in through the day, we tend to slouch worsening the posture and strain on the body,” says Chris Sorrells, an occupational therapist and ergonomics specialist. Ongoing good posture is key to avoid and relieve shoulder pain.

If you can’t seem to sit straight, Micke suggests yoga or tai chi as a long-term solution. These types of exercise can help develop better overall posture.

Arrange Your Workspace

Your workspace should be even with your elbows while you are seated. A desk that is too high can cause shoulder fatigue. If your desk doesn’t adjust, install an adjustable keyboard and mouse tray. Keep everything you use regularly within easy reach.

Adjust Your Monitor

Your computer monitor should sit about an arm’s length away from you. The top of your screen should be just below eye level. Keep your monitor and keyboard centered in front of you. Constantly twisting your neck to look at a monitor can cause neck and shoulder pain. “Neck problems such as pinched nerves often refer pain into the shoulder region,” says Sorrells.

Change It Up

Try switching your mouse to the other side of your desk. This will ease the workload of your normal mouse-hand. This can be particularly effective if you tend to have shoulder pain on only one side.

Also, build change into your schedule. Try not to do the same activity for hours at a time. “Spread out returning phone calls, using the copier, or speaking with coworkers through the day,” says Chris. “That way you’ll switch which muscle groups you are using but will still be productive. “

Take a Walk

Chris suggests taking a 30-second “microbreak” every 30 minutes. You should shake out your hands and arms.  Also, relax your eyes, head, and neck by refocusing your eyes to a point about 20 feet away.

Every once in a while, leave your desk and actually take a walk. Sorrells suggests a 10-minute break every two to three hours.

Phone Use

If your job entails a lot of talking on the phone, get a headset. Never cradle your phone between your ear and your shoulder. If you do not use a headset, keep your phone within easy reach of your nondominant hand. That way, you can continue to type or use the mouse while on the phone.  

Get Help

This tip has a dual meaning. The first is that you shouldn’t ever try to perform a physical action you feel uncomfortable with. Get help with heavy loads. Ask for assistance if there is a physical activity you’re not sure about. Second, if you ever feel pain, talk to a professional. Unaddressed problems only get worse.

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