Shoulder Mobility FAQs – Answers to Help You Overcome Tight Shoulders

Contents: Symptoms of Tight Shoulders / Addressing Shoulder Tightness/ Stretching and Other Exercises / Shoulder Pain and Injuries / Resources to Fix Tight Shoulders

Tight, stiff, and achy shoulders are such a common complaint. Especially with all the time we spend at the computer and all the stresses and strains that are just part and parcel of living our lives. And a lot of times it just seems to creep up on us rather than being a specific incident or injury.

It’s also really distressing when it starts to get in the way of the activities you really enjoy. Maybe you’ve had to avoid certain things because you know your shoulders would have a hard time with it, or maybe they just bother you all day long.

This isn’t so much an article as it is a database of answers to the most common questions we’ve gotten over the years about shoulder mobility. You’ll see a bit of repetition in these answers, but that’s just because we’re trying to anticipate the questions you may have, and those may differ slightly from those of another person. We’ve tried to cover as many bases as possible so you walk away with the answers you need about all things shoulder mobility.

At the bottom of this page, you’ll find a list of resources that will help with overcoming shoulder tightness and pain. We’ve covered quite a bit over the years, so you’re sure to find what you need.

Let’s get into it!

Credentials: Who am I to be giving advice on health and injury?

The internet has made it easy for anyone to share their unqualified opinions on any topic, so you’d be right to be skeptical of any advice you find. Unfortunately, many people may be experts on the pain they feel, but they know very little about how to fix or prevent it.

That’s where I come in.

Since 1998, I’ve been helping people heal from pain and injury as a clinical physical therapist, as well as through our online programs. I’ve worked with countless thousands of people by now, and have seen the impact that safe and appropriate exercise can have on painful or disruptive conditions. Limited shoulder mobility is very common but it can be addressed and improved.

We’ve worked with many thousands of clients over the years. The combination of in-person, hands-on therapy alongside interaction with so many people online gives me a unique experience in finding patterns that work for the majority of cases.

I encourage you to seek qualified medical help if you’re experiencing chronic pain, and if any of the routines and exercises I share seem to make things worse or hurt, please stop! No advice is perfect for everyone, and it may be an indication that you need to see a doctor.

How do I know if I have tight shoulders? What are the symptoms?

Here are the most common questions we’ve gotten about the symptoms of shoulder tightness, and what causes your shoulders to feel stiff.

How do you know if you have tight shoulders?

Put simply, you know if you have tight shoulders if you feel restricted in motions you want and need to do in your daily life. If you dread having to reach up to the higher cupboards in your kitchen, or scratch behind your back, or reach behind to the back seat when you are driving, then you probably have tight shoulders.

It would be easy to just give a set of “standards” to meet that tell you if you have tight shoulders, such as: Are you able to reach overhead at at angle of 180 degrees? Can you touch your hands together behind your back? These can be good tests but they’re arbitrary.

A better, more individualized, answer to that question involves looking at how you feel and move during your day.

How do your shoulders feel when you reach up to put away dishes, or clean? Do you strain to reach back behind you and feel like it cramps up? What other chores and responsibilities aren’t as easy to do because of your shoulder tightness? Is there anything holding you back in your hobbies and physical activities you like to do?

Looking at it that way, you can find out if it is your shoulder mobility that is preventing you from enjoying how you use your body in your life. And with those specific activities in mind, it’s easier to know what exercises you may need to fix that.

What causes tight shoulders?

The old saying “use it or lose it” has a lot of truth to it when it comes to how our body works. We need to use our shoulders through their full range of motion, reaching up as high as you can, outstretched to the side and behind you, to keep our muscles and other body tissues moving freely. Also movement is necessary to to keep the fluid in our joints and blood to our muscles circulating and providing nutrients.

Tight feeling muscles can also be the result of our nervous system’s reaction to disuse. The “connections” don’t function as well, as if our body “forgets” how to move. This is why we can often feel looser after just a few minutes of exercise. There is a physical warming up for sure, but there isn’t any real lengthening of our muscles, we just begin to move them better as those connections improve.

Put simply, use it or lose it.

What causes knots in shoulders?

Our bodies can react to stress and strain as if they are “threats”. And this can cause certain muscles to tighten as a guarding mechanism. It’s very much like when a body part swells up after you are injured, it’s an natural splint that your body makes to protect itself from further harm.

Muscle “knots” or “trigger points” are bands of tension within a muscle where you can feel them being harder than the rest of the muscle, or as compared to other muscles. And they seem to occur more in certain areas like your shoulder and trapezius muscles, most likely because of our movement (and non-movement) habits throughout the day. Increasing our activity and decreasing our sedentary time can help.

What does shoulder mobility mean?

Shoulder mobility is physiologically defined as the shoulder joints’ ability to go through the various ranges of motion available at the joint (flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, external and internal rotation).

This can involve freedom and restriction of the joint itself, as well as the pliability of the muscles surrounding the shoulders

How do I loosen my tight shoulders? How should I stretch my shoulders?

We’ve got lots of resources for improving mobility in your tight shoulder, but if you’ve ever had questions about how to address shoulder tightness, these are the most common questions we’ve gotten about that.

How do I get rid of tension in my shoulders?

First, it’s really good to identify why you are feeling increased tension. Tension and tightness can be caused by a variety of things; stress, maintaining the same position for too long (think driving, sitting at a computer), or an old injury that’s beginning to act up again.

Knowing which (or maybe it’s all of them!) are the likely causes, then you can change things up. Such as taking preemptive breaks from sitting and working whenever possible, or adjusting your position so that it isn’t stressing that old shoulder injury you had.

But one thing that is in common with all tension is that movement, varying in intensities of effort, helps so much to relieve the sensations of tightness. Improved blood flow to your muscles, along with the natural body chemicals that are released with exercise dampens down tension and just overall makes you feel better.

It doesn’t have to be very much at all. Shoulder exercises and even simple things like jogging in place for a couple of minutes to get your blood pumping will do you a world of good.

How do I fix my uneven shoulders?

Uneven shoulders, when one shoulder appears higher/lower than the other, are very common. Our bodies aren’t perfectly symmetrical, asymmetries are actually the more natural occurrence.

But it could be that you notice your shoulders are less even than they were before. This could be due to a lot of different factors; injury, repetitive use of one shoulder more than the other, postural habits.

If it isn’t causing you discomfort or interfering with your daily activities, then there isn’t much to worry about. If it is, then there are several things to look at and try to address.

If this is the case then there are a variety of shoulder exercises that will help improve your range of motion and strength. This would be a very good start in helping you “even out” your shoulders.

How do I fix rounded shoulders?

Rounded shoulders could be the result/combination of many different things; your natural body structure, your postural and movement habits, a prior injury, etc. And it’s important to know that rounded shoulders don’t necessarily cause pain or interfere with function. Especially if you are able to move freely within the ranges of motion you need for your daily and recreational activities.

If it is interfering, or if you simply want to change your appearance (which is a perfectly valid reason!) then the fundamental strategies involve improving the flexibility and mobility of muscles and joints that allow you to pull your shoulders back and down; and to strengthen the muscles that place you into this position as well.

If this is the case then there are a variety of shoulder exercises that will help improve your range of motion and strength. This would be a very good start in helping you improve your shoulder positioning.

How do you stretch tight shoulders? Can stretching improve shoulder mobility?

We’re obviously big fans of (the right kinds of) stretching, but there are sorts of questions you may have about stretching. And what about other kinds of exercises? The following addresses all of those kinds of questions.

How do you work on your shoulder mobility?

First is identifying which particular shoulder movements need more work to reach your shoulder mobility goals. For example, reaching fully upward over your head, reaching behind you to scratch your back, sitting with your shoulders back; this then lets you be efficient in choosing shoulders exercises to help.

A combination of static (holding a stretched position) and dynamic (active movements) is best. This style of exercise combines learning how to relax in the stretched position, with controlling how to move into and out of these positions. Both are necessary to improve and retain your shoulder mobility.

How do you get a full range of motion in your shoulders?

A combination of static (holding a stretched position) and dynamic (active movements) is best. This style of exercise combines learning how to relax in the stretched position, with controlling how to move into and out of these positions.

For instance, one of our favorite shoulder stretches is the bent arm chest stretch. Rather than just getting into the stretch and holding it for an extended period, you’ll work on contracting the muscles, moving in and out of the stretched position with control. Then, you’ll hold the stretched position for a short period (15-30 seconds). Repeat 2-3 times.

How can I improve my mobility?

A combination of static (holding a stretched position) and dynamic (active movements) is best. This style of exercise combines learning how to relax in the stretched position, with controlling how to move into and out of these positions.

(Click here to learn more about different styles of stretching and why we recommend a combination of static and dynamic).

Does stretching increase mobility?

It certainly can, when you stretch consistently and follow it up with more active exercise.

Short term stretching, defined as seconds to a few minutes in one session, tends to immediately improve how far you can move the body area. This is due to an increase in your “stretch tolerance.” Basically how much your body can tolerate a stretched position.

This isn’t necessarily an increase in your mobility, however, mostly because it is temporary, lasting only a few minutes or so. But if you take advantage of this time where you can move the stretched area more, do repeated movement in this period, and do this consistently over weeks/months, you should see improvements in your mobility.

Does stretching help blood flow?

Stretching can help improve blood flow to the stretched area if it causes a sensation of decreased tension. This then allows you to move the area more. This increased movement and muscle contraction does facilitate increased blood flow, though stretching by itself likely does not significantly improve blood circulation.

What happens if you don’t stretch?

In general, our bodies tend to hew to the saying of “use it or lose it,” primarily because of the principle of conserving resources. It takes energy to maintain muscle and bone structure and one reason why bone and muscle growth happens is the body’s perceived need to adapt to the loads being placed upon it.

Range of motion in increased joint mobility and flexibility is much the same—there is energy required to maintain them. And if there is no challenge to these range of motions then there is no perceived need to maintain them.

These generally would happen over the course of a couple of weeks.

If you aren’t necessarily doing dedicated stretching but you do exercise and other activities that go through a decent range of motion a couple time of week, you probably wouldn’t notice anything, until you try to go into significantly challenging ranges.

Is yoga good for mobility?

Yoga can be good for a lot of people that want to improve their mobility. If you like doing yoga, then that’s great, but it’s not necessary to improve mobility. A lot depends upon the style/class/teacher. Some may be able to adjust to your individual needs and others will have you follow the class no matter what. There are also other things that accompany yoga (chanting, meditation, etc) that you may not necessarily want.

Shoulder Pain and Injuries

Where there’s tightness, there’s often pain. Sometimes the tightness and pain are caused by an injury, and sometimes you can have pain without a specific injury either way, they often go hand-in-hand. Here are some common questions about pain and injuries in the shoulder.

How do I get my shoulder to stop hurting?

The trick is to reduce the inputs that your body is perceiving as injurious to you. Pain can be a very complex topic, but the main thing is that it is an signal that your body feels like there is a threat and that it needs to take action to stop that threat. So the body’s reactions can include creating the sensation of pain when you move in certain directions or carry or lift a load.

If you have a very recent injury (within the past week or two) then resting it is important, but that doesn’t mean don’t do anything at all with your shoulder!

When people say things like “if it hurts when you do that, then do it!”, it can be facetious and feel unhelpful. But like most things there’s some truth and there’s some further explanations that are needed. Repeating a movement over and over when it hurts is not a good thing, but it’s also not good to not move at all.

This is especially true for shoulder pain that is more than a couple of months old, by that point the initial injury is likely fully healed. But you may still feel pain because your nervous system is essentially used to the pain being there. And we need to help convince it that the threat is gone. This means consistent and gradually increasing movement to the area, including gradually increasing loads (resistance training), that move into and out of the soreness in a way that you can tolerate.

At the bottom of this page are a variety of shoulder exercises that will help improve your range of motion and strength. This would be a very good start in helping you decrease your pain.

What can cause shoulder pain without injury?

Pain can be a very complex topic, but the main thing is that it is an signal that your body feels like there is a threat and that it needs to take action to stop that threat. How can this happen without a specific injury? It could be that you had a past injury that had healed but there was something that happened in your recent activities and environment that “reminded” your brain of the circumstances of that old injury. We have sensation receptors that can become more sensitive to sensations such as cold/heat, and pressure. And if there are those inputs that go above a certain threshold then our bodies can interpret that as a threat and then create a pain response to make you pay attention!

Stress can also activate these nerve receptors as well, by the hormones that accompany stress (adrenaline, cortisol) and that can create pain or add on to the other inputs to worsen pain.

Why does the front of my shoulder hurt?

The front of your shoulder includes the shoulder joints and their ligaments and tendons, shoulder/chest/arm muscles, and various nerves. Any of these structures could be irritated from trauma or movement and be the source of the pain. There could also be what is called “referred pain”, which is when the source of the pain comes from another area vs. where you feel it. For example, irritations at the neck and upper back can cause pain to perceived at the front of the shoulder.

A way to analyze this (aside from seeing a health care professional, which is recommended), is to think about what changes in your activities happened in the past few weeks. Did you fall? Did you get hit? Did you start a new exercise routine? Did you do more in your exercise routine? Etc.

How long does it take for a shoulder strain to heal?

It depends on the severity of the muscle strain. There are different classifications of muscle strain, graded by how much of the muscle fiber is affected.

Grade 1 strains are when only a small percentage of fibers are torn. There is pain and tenderness, but your range of motion and strength isn’t greatly affected. These usually heal within a few days to less than two weeks.Grade 2 strains have many more fibers torn, up to half of the muscle. There is significant pain immediately at the time of injury and it’s painful to move your hip. You may also feel swelling at the front of the hip. This injury can take several weeks or more to heal fully.Grade 3 strains are a full tear of the entire muscle and, as you can imagine, is very painful. This often requires surgical intervention to heal, and rehab will take several months.

Should you stretch a painful shoulder?

This is a pretty complex question, and the shortest answer is that it depends on how you are reacting to the stretching. The reasons we have pain can be very numerous, but the main thing is that it is an signal that your body feels like there is a threat and that it needs to take action to stop that threat. So the body’s reactions can include creating the sensation of pain when you move in certain directions or carry or lift a load.

If stretching simply “feels good” and allow you to move more than it is a great thing to do and may help you get out of the cycle of pain. But you shouldn’t force stretching with the idea that even if it is painful, that it will eventually help you. Unless you are under the care of a health care professional that can guide you with this, it’s probably best to avoid stretching that causes more pain.

How do I know if I have shoulder tendonitis?

Tendonitis, inflammation of the tendon, is used to describe pain at the tendons (the tissue where muscle attaches to the bone) and is often caused by repetitive motions that have irritated the tissue. If you are doing a new movement that you aren’t used to, for example reaching overhead with a heavier object over and over, then the forces on those tissues could cause problems. Or perhaps there are activities that aren’t new to you but you are doing much more it than usual. Tendonitis, and other conditions, usually arise from abrupt and extended exertions that are beyond our bodies ability to adapt.

A true case of tendonitis should resolve within a few weeks of rest (not total rest but activity that doesn’t irritate your shoulder). But if it doesn’t then that could indicate that you should consult a health care provider, or work on it with specific exercises and strategies.

How do I know if my shoulder pain is serious?

If you have a significant amount of pain that followed a trauma, such as falling onto your shoulder/arm or getting hit/car accident, then you should call your doctor or go to urgent care.
There are also symptoms called “red flags” that are strong indicators that your pain could be serious.

These are:

Unrelenting pain where nothing seems to ease itPain that wakes you up in the middle of the nightSignificant numbness in the shoulder and/or the armWeakness in your shoulder, arm, and handSymptoms that arose at the same time as the shoulder pain (headache, stomach pain, etc)

What are symptoms of frozen shoulder?

The diagnosis of frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis) includes certain symptoms such as progressive increase in pain with decreasing range of motion, particularly a significant loss of shoulder external rotation (the ability to rotate your arm outward) and overhead reaching.

There are three phases in the course of the condition:

Acute/Freezing Phase: The initial phase where decreased range of motion is first noticed, as well as pain at the end of those motionsAdhesive/Frozen Phase: There may be less pain here but the range of motion loss is at its greatestResolution/Thawing Phase: Without treatments, this phase can happen spontaneously at around 6 months to two years after the beginning of symptoms

What is a shoulder dislocation?

A shoulder dislocation is when the arm bone (humerus) is displaced from it’s normal position within the shoulder blade (scapula) This is usually prevented by the ligaments and other tissues that attach the bones. But when there is sufficient force, through a fall or a pull, the shoulder can become dislocated. The most common dislocation is when the bone is moved forward out of the joint.

What is a shoulder separation?

A shoulder separation refers to the displacement of the joint between your collarbone (clavicle) and shoulder blade (scapula). The most common cause is a fall directly onto those bones or the elbow, and the ligaments are either overstretched or torn depending on the force of the injury. If the injury is significant there is a “step deformity” where one bone seems to drop away from the other.

How do I know if I tore shoulder cartilage?

It’s difficult to tell just from pain or difficulty moving the arm. Diagnostic imaging is necessary to confirm, usually an MRI to assess the tissue damage. If x-rays are taken, and significant swelling in the joint is seen in the imaging could lead a doctor to infer that there is cartilage damage.

Do I have shoulder bursitis?

Bursitis symptoms are usually significant swelling and pain to the touch, as well as difficulty in moving the arm. Bursa can appear anywhere in the body but the common areas are in the shoulder, elbow, and knee. They are fluid filled sacs that are there to decrease friction between surfaces. Bursitis is most commonly caused by prolonged pressure on the area, such as leaning on it, or also from repetitive movements that irritate the bursa.

Do I have shoulder arthritis?

Arthritis technically means “inflammation of the joints” but when used it most commonly means a degeneration of the joint surfaces (osteoarthritis). Research shows that it is a natural consequence of aging, as well as arising from past trauma to the joint. So depending on your age and history, you may be a likely candidate. This doesn’t necessarily mean you will have pain, or that the pain won’t improve even though your arthritis doesn’t change. There are lots of people that have significant arthritis as shown in medical imaging and don’t have any pain.

What is shoulder impingement?

There is space between your the “ball” of you arm bones (humerus) and the “socket” of the shoulder blade (scapula), and in that space are various tendons and other tissues. An impingement happens when those tissues in that space are irritated from raising the arm. The space may be decreased due to tissue swelling and other factors, and/or from the structure of the bones themselves. This can lead to irritation as the arm bone abuts those tissues.

What is a rotator cuff?

The shoulder rotator cuff is comprised of four muscles:

SupraspinatusTeres MinorInfraspinatusSubscapularis

These muscles individually either rotate the arm inward or outward. When used all together they work to keep the shoulder moving appropriately within the joint when reaching your hand around in various motions. They can be damaged from high forces in throwing, carrying and lifting. But they also tend to weaken as we age and have poor blood supply.

How do you know if you tore your rotator cuff?

It’s difficult to tell just from pain or difficulty moving the arm. Diagnostic imaging is necessary to confirm, usually an MRI to assess the tissue damage. If x-rays are taken, and significant swelling in the joint is seen in the imaging could lead a doctor to infer that there is cartilage damage.

If you’ve got tight shoulders, it’s your lucky day. Since so many people come to us with shoulder mobility restrictions, we’ve put together quite a few helpful resources over the years, to address different aspects of this complex and disruptive problem:

Daily Shoulder Mobility Routine—This shoulder routine teaches you more about the shoulder and gives you stretches you can practice every day. Understanding Your Shoulders—This podcast will give you a better understanding of what’s causing your shoulder issues, and what you can do about it.Exercises for Shoulder Pain—If you’re in active pain, this post will help you find the best movements to help you.

And if you want to improve your shoulder mobility even more, our GMB Mobility program will help you do that in conjunction with improving your mobility, strength, and control throughout your body.

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