Avoiding Shoulder Pain at Work

Avoid Shoulder Pain at Work


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

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

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

Learn how to lower your risk of developing RSIs and shoulder pain at work.

Causes of chronic shoulder pain

Shoulder pain often develops gradually rather than all at once. It may be hard to pinpoint the exact cause of your pain. Potential sources of work-related shoulder pain include:

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

Physically intensive jobs aren’t the only ones that can cause shoulder pain and injuries. Office workers also have a high risk of developing them. A large number of RSIs are computer related. “Sedentary work environments and work habits can weaken your muscles and set the stage for pain,” explains Micke Brown, a long-time nurse specializing in pain management.

Preventing chronic shoulder pain

To minimize neck and shoulder pain, it may help to:

  • develop better posture
  • optimize your workspace or work environment
  • reduce the stress that your daily routines put on your body

Ergonomics is the process of designing equipment, systems, and processes that function well with human bodies. Ergonomically friendly work environments and habits are key to reducing your risk of workplace injuries and pain. If you work at a desk, try these tips to improve your workspace and avoid shoulder pain.

Sit correctly

Be aware of how you sit all day. When you’re sitting at your desk, your:

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

“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 taking up yoga or tai chi. These types of exercises may help you develop better core strength and overall posture.

Rearrange your workspace

Your desk should be level with your elbows while you’re seated. If it’s too high, it can cause shoulder fatigue. If it’s not adjustable, consider installing an adjustable keyboard and mouse tray.

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

It’s also important to keep tools and supplies that you use regularly within easy reach. Twisting or stretching to reach them can increase your risk of pain and injury.

Invest in a headset

If your job entails a lot of talking on the phone, consider using a headset. If you don’t want to use a headset, try to avoid cradling your phone between your ear and your shoulder. And keep it within easy reach of your nondominant hand. That way, you can continue to type or use the mouse while you’re talking.

Change things up

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

It may also help to build variety 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’re using but will still be productive. “

Take regular breaks and walks

Chris suggests taking a 30-second “microbreak” every 30 minutes. During each break, shake out your hands and arms. Also, relax your eyes, head, and neck by refocusing your vision on a point about 20 feet away from you.

Every once in a while, leave your desk and take a walk. Sorrells suggests a 10-minute break every two to three hours. Taking a longer walk on your lunch break is also a good idea.

Ask for help

Don’t push yourself to the point of injury. You should never try to perform a physical action you feel uncomfortable with. For example, ask for help lifting or carrying heavy loads.

It’s also important to seek medical help when you need it. If you develop pain, make an appointment with your doctor. If you leave the underlying issue untreated, it may get worse and lead to other problems.

The takeaway

Many people experience shoulder pain related to their work. To help lower your risk of pain and injury, adjust your workspace and habits to be more ergonomically friendly. If you don’t feel comfortable completing a physically demanding task by yourself, ask for help. And make an appointment with your doctor if you develop pain or other symptoms of a workplace-related injury. Getting treatment can help ease your symptoms and lower your risk of complications. 

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