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How do I Treat a Stiff Shoulder?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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There are a number of things which can be used to treat a stiff shoulder. While many of these treatments can be used at home, it is important to have a stiff or painful shoulder evaluated by a doctor if the condition persists for more than a few days. A doctor can determine the cause and determine which treatments would be most effective. Many conditions can cause people to develop stiffness and pain in the shoulder, and all treatments are not necessarily alike. In some cases, if someone opts to treat a stiff shoulder with the wrong treatment, it can actually do further damage.

Sometimes shoulder stiffness is simply the result of strain, in which case rest may be the best treatment. It can also be caused by a condition known as adhesive capsulitis or frozen shoulder, by tendinitis, by tears in the tendons and muscles in the shoulder, by sprains, by breaks, by bursitis, and by shoulder impingement, in which something in the anatomy of the shoulder is inhibiting movement. Someone with a stiff shoulder may have difficulty moving the shoulder and can experience pain and soreness.

While rest can be used to treat a stiff shoulder and may be effective in many cases, gentle physical exercise is also important. The shoulder should stretched so that it will retain freedom of movement, and with the goal of improving freedom of movement over time. In addition, massage can help to free up a stiff shoulder. A physical therapist can develop a specific treatment plan for a stiff shoulder and make recommendations for exercises to do both under supervision and at home.

It may also be necessary to take anti-inflammatory drugs to treat a stiff shoulder, and sometimes steroids will be recommended to bring down pain and swelling. This is designed to reduce the risk of additional damage and to increase comfort. Moist heat can also sometimes help to free up the shoulder joint, and activities like saunas can sometimes be beneficial for this reason.

If shoulder stiffness and pain persists, a medical imaging study of the shoulder may be ordered to get a look at the inside. Such studies can be used to determine the cause for the stiffness, and also for the purpose of monitoring the course of treatment. If someone cannot treat a stiff shoulder with these basic treatments, it may be necessary to perform surgery to address the problem.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By ListMeister — On Jul 17, 2011

@BanjoBill - Sorry to hear about your shoulder. I have a similar injury from tennis a few weeks ago. I tried the hot and cold packs and that helped to relieve the pain, temporarily, but it wasn't lasting long enough.

I ended up going to the doctor because it was still sore after a couple of weeks, and I'm very glad I did.

I don't like to take medication for pain if I can avoid it, but sometimes it's worth it. They gave me some anti-inflammatory drugs that really helped me through the day. Now I can really stretch it out and it's starting to feel a lot better.

Good luck!

By burtabulous — On Jul 16, 2011

@BanjoBill - When I was in college I used to sleep on a small couch and would often have a stiff neck and shoulder when I woke up. When that happened I would use a hot pack for 20 minutes, wait 10 minutes and then use a cold pack for another 20 minutes.

Hope that helps!

By BanjoBill — On Jul 15, 2011

I recently hurt my shoulder playing softball and can't seem to get the pain to stop. I try to stretch it out and it still hurts just as bad.

I don't have medical insurance and would prefer not to pay out of pocket for a doctor if I don't absolutely have to.

Does anyone have any suggestions?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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