Shoulder arthritis exercises: Stretching, rehab, and aerobics

shoulder-arthritis-exercisesShoulder arthritis exercises are crucial for those who have any type of arthritis impacting the shoulder area. Whether it’s rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis, not exercising can lead to muscle atrophy, further joint deterioration, and joint instability. Shoulder arthritis can also lead to a frozen shoulder.

Shoulder arthritis exercises should be carried out under the supervision of a healthcare professional. He or she will determine what exercises to avoid and what specific exercises you should include in your daily routine. You might be advised to do stretching exercises, or even water routines.


Each shoulder has joints that are supported by muscles, ligaments, and tendons. When a person has arthritis, it causes inflammation in the joints and can breakdown the cartilage that cushions the bones. This is what leads to stiffness and pain. Many people in this situation avoid exercise because they are afraid the pain will get worse; however, there are exercises for shoulder arthritis pain that can relieve some of the symptoms.

Benefits of shoulder arthritis exercises

It can be hard to imagine that stretching and strengthening exercises, along with aerobic workouts, can make you feel better when you have shoulder pain—however, there is enough evidence indicating that it does work. Here are a few of the common benefits:

  • Pain reduction—exercising can strengthen muscles, which in turn can help to support the joints. The added stability can prevent bone dislocation and protect bones from friction, thus reducing pain.
  • Healthy cartilage—joint cartilage needs motion to remain healthy. When joints are used, they excrete something called synovial fluid, which lubricates the joints. It can also help reduce inflammation.
  • Weight loss—exercise can help a person lose weight. Some people find losing weight lessens the strain on their joints. In the case of shoulder pain, shedding pounds can make it easier to bear the pain of arthritis.

Remaining active is important no matter what is causing the chronic pain. People tend to shy away from sports and recreational activities when they are uncomfortable. Some even become depressed, which can lead to sedentary behavior and weight gain that doesn’t help. It is a vicious cycle that people with shoulder arthritis pain should try not to fall into.

Preparation for shoulder arthritis exercises

Exercises for shoulder arthritis can be challenging for some people. It is important to always work with a professional health care provider when designing your exercise routine. It is also crucial that you remember to warm up. Any exercise program should begin with a 10-minute warm-up. This will increase blood flow and make the muscles more flexible.

In cases where arthritis is severe, gentle activities and a warm compress might be the best bet. After the exercise routine, post-workout care should be done. This could mean icing the shoulder or gently massaging it.

If you experience pain during shoulder exercises, you should stop and discuss the pain with your doctor before resuming any activities.

Exercises for arthritis in the shoulders: Stretching and rehab exercises

There are several different rehab exercises for shoulder arthritis. Here’s a sampling of shoulder stretches for arthritis that will give you an idea of what might be required to keep your condition from getting worse.

  • Cycling – when riding your bike outdoors or using a stationary bike inside, adjust the handlebars to an appropriate level. If they are too low, they will put more pressure on the shoulder joints. Some people find a recumbent bike without handlebars better for indoor cycling. Hybrid bikes are good for outdoors because they have higher handlebar placement.
  • The gym – if you have a gym membership, you should take advantage of it. Cardio machines can be helpful to those with shoulder arthritis, but be careful of hand and arm placement so as not to strain the shoulder joints. Using the treadmill, stair stepper, and elliptical can promote good posture and take pressure off the shoulder joints.
  • Pushups – you can still do pushups with shoulder arthritis, but instead of pushing away from the floor, consider wall pushups. This will make for better alignment and less shoulder pain.
  • Pilates and yoga – both Pilates and yoga can help strengthen the upper and lower body. Yoga positions can easily be modified for your shoulder pain.
  • Walking – this can be effective when you stand tall with your shoulders back.
  • Lifting weights – some people with arthritis shoulder pain can still lift weights. The key is to do exercises that don’t require raising weights above the shoulders or that cause more pain.

Shoulder stretches for arthritis can make a huge difference for a lot of people. Your healthcare provider will likely guide you through specific stretching routines, but here are some that are common for those who suffer shoulder pain related to arthritis.

  • Overhead shoulder stretch – this involves standing tall, interlocking your fingers, and raising your arms up over the head. The stretch should be held for 20 seconds.
  • Crossover shoulder stretch – standing with legs shoulder-width apart, raise the right arm parallel to the floor and move it across the front of the body, with the upper arm coming in towards the chest. You place the left hand on the right elbow and pull the right arm further across the body. Hold for 20 seconds, switch arms, and repeat.
  • Towel shoulder stretch – this requires you to hold a towel in the right hand. Raise the right arm straight up and slightly behind the head so that the towel extends down the back. Reaching back with the left arm, grab the bottom of the towel. Gently pull the towel upward with the right hand thus stretching the left shoulder. Repeat using opposite arms.
  • Lateral raises – sitting in a straight back chair, take a three-pound weight in each hand and lower arms down on each side of the chair. Rotate arms so the thumbs face outward. Gently exhale and raise arms out to the sides, pause, and then inhale while slowly lowering arms down. If it is too difficult then lessen the weights and try again.
  • Shoulder press – with this exercise, you sit in a straight-back chair with three-pound weights in each hand, and arms hanging at each side. Raise out upper arms so they are parallel to the ground, with elbows bent 90 degrees and weights up like you are showing off your biceps; gently exhale while slowly raising the arms and straightening elbows. You then bring the weights together overhead, pause briefly, and return to the starting position, which is the showing off your bicep pose.

Aerobic and water exercises for shoulder arthritis

Some people report that they do much better with aerobic or water exercises for shoulder
arthritis. In most cases, doctors will suggest a low-impact aerobics routine. Aerobic exercises could include walking, jogging, and the use of a treadmill. Many people also find water exercises for shoulder arthritis very soothing.

Water therapy provides buoyancy and reduces pressure on the joints. It also creates resistance, which requires the muscles to work harder in order to move. For instance, it is a lot harder to walk in waist-deep water than it is to walk on land. Many local community centers and health clubs have pools. Some of them offer exercise classes for people interested in low-impact workouts.

Exercises to avoid with shoulder arthritis

While exercise is good for joints, it is important to avoid painful activities. Some people do have to restrict lifting or overhead reaching during the early recovery period. If only one shoulder is affected, you can train yourself to put that shoulder in your shirt or coat pocket to remind yourself not to overdo it. Other suggestions include only lifting objects close to the body, only lifting light weights, and limiting weightlifting to below shoulder level.

When it comes to water activity, many people with shoulder arthritis find that it is best to do a sidestroke or breaststroke, but avoid the backstroke. Serving overhand in tennis or volleyball can be painful, so that should be avoided, and maintaining good posture while writing or doing other tasks can help you lessen the discomfort.


Exercises can be a big help when they are done properly. There is no denying that there are situations where a combination of shoulder exercises and medication are needed. Your doctor might suggest a non-prescription medication. There are also natural remedies, such as taking an Epsom salt bath or lubricating the joints with olive oil.

Whether it’s exercise alone, or a combination of exercise and medication, it is important that those who suffer from shoulder arthritis understand that they have these treatment options. There is hope for reducing pain and minimizing further deterioration of the joints.

Related: Living with arthritis? Simple lifestyle and exercise tips to improve your joint health


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