Someone holding their shoulder in pain.

Feel a sharp twinge in your shoulder as you reach for a container on a kitchen shelf? A dull ache while sliding your arm into a shirtsleeve?

More on Pain Relief

It’s not surprising that shoulder pain sends millions of Americans to the doctor each year. Shoulders are a complicated combination of joints, tendons, and muscles, responsible for a wide range of arm motions­.

But when can at-home pain relief strategies suffice, and when do you need more help? Here, some important information to help you make that decision.

Causes of Shoulder Pain

Sometimes the reason is obvious, such as a fall that causes a fracture, dislocation, or a tendon tear. But often shoulder pain comes on gradually and becomes chronic.

In older adults, that’s usually due to osteoarthritis (OA)—when the protective cartilage between bones wears away—or, says Anand Murthi, M.D., chief of shoulder and elbow surgery at MedStar Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore, due to chronic rotator cuff problems. (This group of muscles and tendons keeps your upper arm in the shoulder socket.)

Handling Moderate Shoulder Pain

If you have tolerable pain, stiffness, or soreness, take a break from lifting heavy items or doing activities that require a lot of shoulder rotation, like reaching overhead. Use an over-the-counter (OTC) drug, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic) or ibuprofen (Advil and generic), if needed. Stretching can help. (See the examples here.)

2 Stretches for Shoulder Pain: Three to 5 minutes of gentle stretching each day can help ease moderate pain, says a New York physiatrist, Michael Mizhiritsky, M.D. He recommends the following:

Wall Walk: Stand facing a wall so that your fingers can just touch it, and slowly walk your fingers up it until you feel a gentle stretch in the back of your shoulders. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds; repeat two to four times. (See illustration below, left.)

Elbow Pull: While standing or seated, grab your left arm at the elbow with your opposite hand. Gently pull your left arm up and across your body. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Switch arms. Repeat two to four times with each arm. (See illustration below, right.)

The Wall Walk and Elbow Pull stretches.
Photo: Brown Bird Design

When to See a Doctor

Seek emergency care for a possible heart attack if you have sudden shoulder pain with lightheadedness; nausea, chest, jaw, or back pain; or weakness or numbness in an arm.

Severe pain from a fall or other accident also warrants medical attention.

Consider seeing your doctor if self-­treatment brings no improvement in two to four weeks. A description of symptoms and their effect (such as waking you at night) and a physical exam can help your doctor determine the source.

A popping or crunching sound when you rotate your shoulder may signify arthritis. The inability to resist even gentle pressure with your outstretched arm could mean a rotator cuff tear.

Your doctor may recommend continuing at-home treatments, steroid injections, or physical therapy (PT). Steroid shots may reduce inflammation and pain short-term, but it’s unclear whether they’re more effective than some OTC pain relievers.

PT, a supervised exercise program, can be effective but may take a month or more before you see substantial improvements, says Mizhiritsky, who works at Lennox Hill Hospital in New York City.

What About Surgery?

Though some people with severe OA may benefit from shoulder replacement surgery, rotator cuff injuries can generally be treated nonsurgically, Murthi says.

“Surgery should be treated as a last resort for shoulder pain,” Mizhiritsky says.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the August 2018 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.