11 of the Greatest Osteoarthritis Shoulder Exercises

osteoarthritis shoulder exercises

One of the most debilitating consequences of shoulder arthritis is loss of range of motion. Osteoarthritis shoulder exercises can be extremely effective in regaining motion and confidence in your shoulder again without surgery. 20% of the population over the age of 65 has osteoarthritis of the shoulder, also called glenohumeral osteoarthritis. There are many options for pain relief, one being cortisone and hyloronic injections but a 2015 report on the effects of these injections versus physiotherapy treatment concluded that physical therapy agents seemed to have greater effects than intra-articular viscosupplementation on disability and pain.” 

Shoulder osteoarthritis, or glenohumeral osteoarthritis occurs when you begin to notice stiffness, loss of motion, and pain with certain movements. It’s important to note that aside from pain, shoulder osteoarthritis can lead to depression, anxiety, inability to perform daily tasks, and stress. It is most common at age 60+. 

What’s amazing is that the definition of diagnosis from 1974 continues to hold up in our current medical system! Shoulder osteoarthritis is characterized as “a limitation in shoulder movement, loss of joint space, the presence of humeral head osteophytes, and the absence of rotator cuff tear”. 

You could potentially have rotator cuff involvement which can lead to shoulder pain that mimics osteoarthritis. 

So what can we do about this shoulder pain? Are we able to make any changes to this pain or is surgery inevitable?

These are very common questions, both of which I have received from a recent patient and I’m sharing these osteoarthritis shoulder exercises in response.

Too often with osteoarthritis, we view surgery as our only option for relief. From what we are told from various medical professionals as well as family or friends. But it turns out, there are natural ways to manage osteoarthritis pain, and shoulder osteoarthritis falls into this category! 

Everyone is at a different stage of their arthritis and may be at a different level of pain. Keep in mind, not all of these exercises will be perfect for you, but all you need are at least 2-3 to do daily to keep your shoulder limber and in less pain. 

Table of Contents

11 greatest osteoarthritis shoulder exercises

1. Shoulder pendulums

These pendulums are great for pain relief during a flare up or for more advanced shoulder osteoarthritis. This exercise may be easy if you have a mild to moderate stage of osteoarthritis (view all 5 stages here)

This can be a great warm up activity or can be helpful to restore range of motion if you have trouble lifting or raising your arm. 

Complete this exercise for up to 30 seconds, rest and repeat for at least 2-3 sets. It can be difficult to completely relax but try to take deep breaths as you are doing this exercise to help. 

2. Isometric shoulder extension

Isometrics are powerful for almost immediate pain relief. The idea is, you lightly contract your muscles then they are able to relax- making them less tight. Extension tends to be one of the positions our shoulder likes the best, especially when dealing with osteoarthritis. You control the pressure with this exercise. Watch the video to see step by step instructions on how to complete.

3. Isometric rotation

One of the most difficult movements with shoulder arthritis tends to be internal or external rotation. This means, bend your elbow at your side and try to move your hand away from your body without moving your elbow from your side. This is external rotation. Internal rotation occurs when you keep your elbow at your side and bring your hand in to try to touch your stomach. 

We have another isometric exercise here that can help you prevent loss of the range of motion. The first 0:20 of this video shows isometric internal rotation, hold for about 5 seconds then relax. Again, you control the pressure and it should not exacerbate pain. 

4. Isometric Tricep Extension

This exercise is important, especially if you are noticing pain in the back of your shoulder or upper arm. It is common to have some nerve involvement with shoulder osteoarthritis if your muscles become tight due to pain or decreased use. You may notice sharp, shooting pain down your arm, bouts of numbness, tingling, or weakness.

Your tricep muscle could be contributing to some of your nerve pain. If you see in this picture below from the Sports Injury Bulletin, the tricep muscle has 3 different heads. the radial nerve runs right through them. If those muscles become tight, the radial nerve can be irritated. 

Trying this exercise below can help those muscles relax and decrease irritation on the nerve. Hold this movement for up to 5 seconds and repeat 5-10 times. Do this exercise when you are experiencing a pain flare up or have increased symptoms.

tricep anatomy

5. Banded Row

This is one of the staples for osteoarthritis shoulder exercises. Like we had mentioned in the beginning of this article, extension is one of the movements our shoulder usually likes. This is why you see this exercise commonly used with people that are having shoulder pain. 

Banded rows are a crucial movement to master as we spend a lot of work in a forward position with our shoulders rounded. This position can stretch and weaken our upper back muscles if we spend a lot of time in this position. The idea of this exercise is to open up your shoulders and work the muscles in your upper back. 

If you don’t have any of these stretchy bands, you can get some here for under $20.

It is important to continue this exercise until your muscles begin to feel fatigued (12-25 reps). If you can do more than 25, increase the resistance of your band or try the next exercise.

6. Weighted Prone Row

For this next exercise, it is a row but at a different angle. This means the muscles are being worked differently and adds a challenge from the exercise above. You can use a light weight to start. If you don’t have any weights, finding a household object that is 2-3lbs will suffice. You can also fill a water bottle or use a soup can as well. 

It is important to have your chest in contact with an ottomon, bed, or couch. This one can be a little awkward to set up but is a very effective exercise. Complete on each side if you have symptoms on each side, or just focus on the side where you are having the most pain. Complete as many reps as you can without significant pain and with muscle fatigue.

7. Banded pull downs

Here is another stretchy band exercise that can really bring you some pain relief. This exercise is rarely pain provoking. If you do experience pain, it could be likely that your band has too much resistance or you are too far away. 

It is important that you relax your shoulders and keep your arms straight while doing this exercise. Focus on squeezing your shoulder blades back with each pull. To make it more challenging, you can hold the back position for 3-5 seconds before completing the next repetition. 

8. Laying down arm lifts

This exercise typically works best if you are in the beginning stages of shoulder osteoarthritis. You can lay on a bed or a couch to complete this exercise if you do not feel comfortable getting onto the floor. 

These laying down arm lifts can be challenging. First, you can start simply lifting both arms off of the ground and repeating that without the hold. If that is too much, you can also try lifting up one arm at a time. You can then progress to holding up to 10 seconds as able.

The idea is to isolate your upper back muscles as you lift your arms up. Commonly with shoulder pain, we compensate with other muscles to lift up our arms. If this exercise is difficult for you, work on the above exercises first before attempting this one. 

9. Neck isometrics

Neck pain can be closely related to shoulder pain. Some of the muscles from our neck also play a part in shoulder movement. Many times with shoulder osteoarthritis, we overuse some of our bigger shoulder and neck muscles which leads to weakness in some of our smaller muscles. 

You may notice neck stiffness, tightness, reduced range of motion, or pain along with your shoulder arthritis. This is why these neck isometrics made the list for osteoarthritis shoulder exercises. Everything is connected.

Here are some simple neck exercises you can do in the morning, sitting watching tv, or as a passenger in a car to find relief. Again, with all isometrics, you control the pressure so it doesn’t have to be a max contraction. 

10. TRX inverted row

This exercise requires a TRX band. These bands are one of our personal favorites to use with patients, especially when dealing with osteoarthritis of all kinds. We couldn’t make a list of osteoarthritis shoulder exercises without including it! 

You have the power to make this exercise as challenging as you want by easily adjusting your foot position which is why we love these.

There are so many other exercises you can do with these TRX bands if you are looking to strength train without flaring up joint pain. Check out this video here for the top 5 shoulder exercises you can do with a TRX band system.

Get your own TRX band here for the highest quality bands (roughly $150+) or here for under $100.

11. Plank

This is a classic exercise that you likely have seen before. The plank can be a great way to challenge your shoulders without flaring up pain. The beauty of this exercise is you can adjust the height of the surface to match your fitness level. 

Most of my clients start on a counter, on a bed, couch, or ottoman and progress to the floor as able. If your wrists bother you, doing this exercise on the floor may not feel so good. Planking on a raised surface should help. 

The key is to push through your shoulders the entire time, like you are trying to push away from the surface that you are on. Try to hold for 20-45 seconds. If you can hold for up to 60 seconds or longer, try progressing to a lower surface.

Conclusion

These are the 11 greatest osteoarthritis shoulder exercises. As we discussed in the beginning, everyone is different and responds differently to osteoarthritis.

If you have mild to moderate shoulder osteoarthritis, start at the beginning and continue to progress as able. You may notice you are able to progress pretty quickly. The idea is to master the basics first before attempting more advanced exercises.

If you have severe osteoarthritis, the first few exercises likely will help you to regain or maintain range of motion while keeping pain in tolerable ranges. 

You have options when it comes to pain relief. We do admit though, conservative management doesn’t work 100% of the time. But, with the limited side effects and amount of benefit you can gain, it is so worth it to get exercise a try. Contrary to popular belief, exercise is actually really good for osteoarthritis! Learn why here.

If you would like to know the Top 5 Secrets to Overcoming Joint Pain once and for all, check out this FREE Ultimate Arthritis guide. 

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Dr. Alyssa Kuhn is a physical therapist and arthritis specialist with Keep the Adventure Alive in Sandy, UT. An adventure is anything that makes you happy on the inside and her main mission is to help you keep yours alive! She has helped arthritis sufferers all over the country finally break free from their pain without surgery or more pills. She has found lots of adventures of her own including hiking, road biking, and skiing while in Utah which has inspired her to create this journey. She wants to show the world that arthritis pain doesn’t have to take our adventures away. Learn more tips and tricks on how to adventure with osteoarthritis here.

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Disclaimer: This post is for general informational purposes only. It should not be used to self-diagnose and it is not a substitute for a medical exam, cure, treatment, diagnosis, and prescription or recommendation. It does not create a doctor-patient relationship between Dr. Kuhn and you. You should not make any change in your health regimen or diet before first consulting a physician and obtaining a medical exam, diagnosis, and recommendation. Move Well Age Well, LLC and Dr. Alyssa Kuhn, PT, DPT are not liable or responsible for any advice, course of treatment, diagnosis or any conclusions drawn, services or product you obtain through this video or site.