My shoulder hurts! Can physical therapy help me?

January 21, 2014 —

Physical therapists lead a patient through shoulder exercises

Physical therapists at Des Moines University Clinic lead a patient through shoulder exercises.

The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body, but that mobility comes at a price — increased risk of injury. There are many types of shoulder pain and injuries. Two of the most common causes of pain are overuse and poor posture — both of which are worsened or caused by muscle and joint problems like tightness, weakness or poor muscle tone.

People experiencing shoulder pain describe achy, burning pain between the shoulder and the neck, sharp pain at the tip of the shoulder when reaching overhead or behind and even upper arm pain. Daily activities like getting something from a high shelf, washing your hair, tucking in your paints or putting on a coat may make the pain worse. Symptoms can also worsen after spending a lot of time at a desk or computer. These symptoms may be accompanied by neck pain, headaches and numbness or tingling in the arm or hand.

Physical therapists are experts in movement problems. We evaluate your posture and watch how you move, sit and stand. We use our hands to feel for joint mobility, muscle quality and range of motion. Usually, if you are seen for shoulder pain, a physical therapist will also evaluate your neck and upper back to check for issues in those areas. We use a variety of tests to determine if your pain or injury is more serious and should be evaluated by a physician or if simple exercise combined with manual therapy is the best treatment.

One of the most common shoulder injuries is the rotator cuff tear. The rotator cuff is actually a group of four muscles that help keep your shoulder joint stable. Rotator cuff injuries occur more frequently later in life, but also affect heavy laborers and athletes, especially pitchers. Visit, a customer information site maintained by the American Physical Therapy Association, to learn more about how a physical therapist can help you overcome a rotator cuff injury. Or watch this video to learn an exercise we often prescribe for shoulder pain or rotator cuff weakness.