By Graham Gillies
One of the more confusing types of pains is when you start having shoulder pain for absolutely no reason! It is surprisingly common for people to one day just wake up with a sore shoulder without any recollection of an actual injury. Often the response to this pain is to ignore it for a few weeks or months with the hopes that the pain will just disappear as quickly as it came.
Many times the pain does not disappear and the person is left with a sore shoulder and a puzzled mind as to why this pain started. Often the shoulder hurts to lie on at night and gives occasional jabs of pain when the arm is moved in certain positions, particularly when reaching backwards or stretching up high. The pain is usually felt as an ache with the odd sharper sensation when moving into the ‘wrong’ position.
It seems logical that we should only have pain when we have an injury. However, it is much more common that people realize to have pain in an area of the body without any actually history of getting ‘hurt’. When we are talking about shoulder pain the most common cause of pain without injury is in fact not the shoulder at all but the neck.
In our necks we have nerves that exit the spine and supply the muscles of our shoulder and arm. If a nerve at one level in the spine gets irritated or pinched then the muscles supplied by that nerve become tight and sore. The problem is that oftentimes when a nerve gets compressed, irritated or ‘tight’ it can be months or even years before there is any pain or sign of nerve injury. What usually happens during this ‘quiet’ time of months to years is that the muscles of the shoulder become tight and full of taut, tender bands or trigger points. These trigger points can start to cause pain but also can begin to tighten the shoulder joint, forcing it forward. When the shoulder starts to gradually shift forward due to tight muscles (or poor posture!) it can start to cause pain often without any injury at all.
So what can be done to avoid this kind of pain in the shoulder? Many times lying on a tight shoulder while sleeping is enough to create pain, so changing sides while sleeping or lying on your back is a good idea. Also, because the initial cause is often compression to the nerves that supply the shoulder, it is important to minimize stress on the neck by sitting up tall with proper posture and not putting the neck in ‘crooked’ positions day after day. Keeping active and exercising regularly also helps to keep the neck and shoulder loose.
If you have had pain in your shoulder for a few weeks and it is not getting better, then it is a good idea to seek advice from a medical professional in order to find out where the pain is coming from and how to fix it. Remember that pain in the shoulder while exercising can be a sign of a serious heart condition so you should always consult your physician if this is the case.
Graham Gillies is a registered Physiotherapist at Sun City Physiotherapy Winfield and is a fellow of the Canadian Academy of Manipulative Therapy and a certified Gunn IMS practitioner. He can be contacted at the Winfield location (250-766-2544) or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.