One of the most debilitating consequences of shoulder arthritis is loss of range of motion. Shoulder arthritis 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 hyaluronic 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 you do about this shoulder pain? Are you 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, surgery is given as the only option for relief. But as it turns out, there are natural ways to manage osteoarthritis pain, and shoulder arthritis exercises can be really powerful.
Do keep in mind, if you’re reading this, you may be at a different stage of your arthritis journey than someone else. That being said, not all of these exercises will be perfect for you. The best approach is to find at least 2-3 of these to do daily to reduce your pain.
Table of Contents
11 greatest shoulder arthritis 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 for most joints, particularly the shoulders.
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 shoulders like 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.
This can also be a great warm-up for other more advanced shoulder arthritis exercises. If you sit at a desk quite a bit during the day, this one can also help you too.
Try for 5-7 repetitions and hold for 3-10 seconds each.
3. Isometric rotation
One of the most difficult movements with shoulder arthritis tends to be rotation (internal and/or external).
External rotation occurs when you bend your elbow at your side and try to move your hand away from your body without moving your elbow from your side.
Internal rotation occurs when you keep your elbow at your side and bring your hand in to try to touch your stomach.
This isometric rotational exercise 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. Wall Push Up
When looking at shoulder arthritis exercises, the wall push up can be a great way to work your shoulder in a more comfortable range.
What I like about this exercise is you can modify to both your fitness and pain levels. Moving your feet closer to the wall will be easier and moving your feet further away from the wall makes it more difficult.
The goal is to complete up to 10 reps as you’re able, following the directions below.
5. Banded Row
This is one of the staples for shoulder arthritis exercises. Like we had mentioned in the beginning of this article, extension is one of the movements your 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 you 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
Next up in the shoulder arthritis exercises 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. This is a more advanced shoulder arthritis exercise in terms of difficulty. 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 your neck also play a part in shoulder movement. Many times with shoulder osteoarthritis, bigger shoulder and neck muscles tend to be overused which leads to weakness in some of the 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 shoulder arthritis 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 shoulder arthritis 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.
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.
These are the 11 greatest shoulder arthritis exercises. As we discussed in the beginning, everyone has different experiences with 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. It is important to note that conservative management doesn’t work 100% of the time. But, with the limited side effects and amount of benefit you can gain, it is worth it to get exercise a try.
Contrary to popular belief, exercise is actually really good for osteoarthritis! Learn why here.
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 post, video or site. Complete all exercises at your own risk.