The shoulder is not just one bone or even one joint, but actually several joints that connect to various tendons and muscles. The complexity of the shoulder is what enables you do so much with your arms. But the complex mobility of the shoulder is also the reason so many people suffer from shoulder pain.
Chronic shoulder pain that stems from prolonged repetitive or awkward movements is a type of condition sometimes referred to as repetitive strain injury (RSI) or cumulative trauma disorder. RSI is often developed in the work environment. Small, repetitive activities—such as using industrial machinery, using a computer mouse, or swiping items at a supermarket checkout stand—can strain the muscles and tendons of your upper body, including the shoulder.
Causes of Chronic Shoulder Pain
Shoulder pain is often cumulative rather than sudden, so it may be hard to pinpoint the exact problem. Here are a few potential causes of work-related shoulder pain:
- static loading (when muscles have to hold the body in one single position for a long time)
- awkward postures
- mechanical contact stress (i.e., resting your wrists on a hard desk edge while typing)
- force (even small amounts, like the force used to “drag and drop” with a mouse)
- hand-arm vibration (such as when using a power tool)
- full body vibration (such as that felt when driving a car over rough roads)
- extreme temperature exposure
- wearing loose-fitting gloves when working with tools
If you work all day on a computer or at a desk, it’s likely that you’ll eventually start feeling some pain in your shoulder or neck. In fact, about a third of RSIs reported 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 key to minimizing neck and shoulder pain is to perfect the workspace or work environment, develop better posture, and to reduce the stress your daily routine puts on your body. The streamlining of equipment and devices so that they function well with the human body is called “ergonomics.” Here are a few suggestions to adjust the ergonomics of your workplace and to reduce shoulder pain at work.
Consider these full-body posture tips when sitting at your desk:
- 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 lay 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 avoiding and relieving shoulder pain. If you can’t seem to sit straight, Micke suggests yoga or tai chi as a long-term solution to help develop better overall posture.
Arrange Your Workspace
Your workspace should be even with your elbows while you are in the sitting position. A desk that is too high can cause you to develop shoulder fatigue. If your desk doesn’t adjust, get a keyboard and mouse tray installed that does. Keep everything you use regularly within easy reach.
Adjust Your Monitor
Your computer monitor should set about arm’s length away from you, and 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 that’s set askew can cause neck and shoulder pain over time. “Neck problems such as pinched nerves often refer pain into the shoulder region,” Chris says.
Change It Up
Try switching your mouse to the left side of your desk (or right if you usually keep it on the left). This will ease the workload of your normal mouse-hand. This can be a particularly effective move if you tend to have shoulder pain on only one side of your body.
Also, build change into your schedule. “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 to shake out your hands and arms and to 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. Micke suggests a 10 minute break every two to three hours.
If your job entails a lot of talking on the phone, get a headset. Never cradle your phone between your ear and your shoulder by bending your neck. Also, keep your phone within easy reach of your non-dominant hand; that way, you can continue to type or use the mouse while on the phone with minimal stress to your body.
This tip has a dual meaning: First, don’t ever try to perform a physical action you feel uncomfortable with. Get help with heavy loads and ask assistance if there is a physical activity you’re not sure about. Second, if you ever feel in pain, talk to a professional. Unaddressed problems only get worse.