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Best Exercises for Shoulders with Arthritis

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on October 08, 2020

There are many causes of arthritis, and most of them occur in the shoulders. In general, a condition is called arthritis when it causes one of your joints to become chronically swollen, uncomfortable, and stiff.

Arthritis can be caused by the breakdown of joint cartilage or by your immune system attacking your joint lining. Because arthritis causes stiffness, gentle exercise can help improve your range of motion and could prevent arthritis from getting worse.

With any type of exercise, it’s best to start slowly and increase your activity as you feel comfortable. This is especially true with conditions like arthritis.

Exercises to Help Shoulders with Arthritis

The goal of exercises for arthritis is to improve your strength and range of motion. Arthritis can make many motions uncomfortable or painful if done quickly. These exercises focus on slow, deliberate motions and stretches to improve your shoulders and relieve pain and tension.

Door Lean Stretches

This is one of the easiest stretches to help reduce tension in your shoulders.

Step 1: In front of a doorway, place both hands on the doorframe just above your head.

Step 2: Lean forward, using your shoulders to maintain your balance.

Step 3: When you feel a gentle stretch in your shoulders, stop and hold your position for a count of twenty.

You can repeat this three times to get the full benefits.

Door Press

Another simple exercise that can be done anywhere, door presses can help you build shoulder strength without pain.

Step 1: In front of an open doorway, bend one elbow at a 90-degree angle. Your elbow should be at about waist height and your hand should be between the door frames, with your thumb facing the ceiling.

Step 2: Press the back of your wrist against the doorframe and hold for a count of ten.

Step 3: Do the same thing with the palm of the same hand, on the other side of the doorframe.

You can repeat this ten times for both arms, three times a day.

Pendulum Swings

The goal of pendulum swings is to help relax your shoulder muscles and relieve pain. Do the following motions gently, so they feel relaxing instead of out of control.

Step 1: Bend forward to a 90-degree angle, or relatively close. You can use your less sore arm to support yourself on a counter or chair.

Step 2: Let your other arm hang loose, pointing toward the ground.

Step 3: Gently use the movement of your torso to swing your hand in a small circle, up to 30 times.

Repeat this in the opposite direction as well. If both your shoulders are equally uncomfortable, do fewer rotations so you don’t have to support yourself with either arm for too long.

Crossover Arm Stretches

This stretch helps improve your shoulders’ range of motion from left to right if done carefully and consistently over time.

Step 1: Standing upright, lift one arm and cross it in front of your body at about shoulder height, so it is parallel to the ground.

Step 2: With your other hand, gently hold your upper arm and pull it closer to your torso.

Step 3: When you feel a comfortable stretch in your shoulder, stop and hold your position for a count of thirty.

You can repeat this up to four times on both sides.

Shoulder Elevation Stretches

This is a great exercise for improving your shoulders’ range of upward motion if done consistently. It does require a light broom or yardstick, however.

Step 1: Lying on the ground, grip your yardstick with both hands and let it rest naturally on your legs with your arms fully extended down.

Step 2: Slowly, keeping your elbows straight, start lifting the yardstick upwards until your arms are perpendicular to the ground.

Step 3: Then, continue to raise your arms so they extend above your head until you feel a comfortable stretch. If possible, continue until your arms are almost touching the ground above your head.

Step 4: Slowly lower the yardstick back to your legs, again keeping your arms as straight as possible.

You can repeat this up to ten times, for three sets a day.

Safety Considerations

Remember that these exercises are intended to relieve pain, not cause it. You should feel a gentle stretch or comfortable tension, but not discomfort. If any of these exercises cause pain, reduce the number of repetitions you do or try a less extreme range of motion.

If you notice pain gets worse after trying any of these exercises — and an ice pack or a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) is not effective at relieving the pain — you should reach out to your physician.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons: “Rotator Cuff and Shoulder Conditioning Program.”

Arthritis Research UK: “Keeping active with shoulder pain.”

Hospital for Special Surgery: “Best Bet Exercises for Osteoarthritis of the Shoulder.”

Journal of Aging Research: “Benefits of Exercise in Rheumatoid Arthritis.”

Mayo Clinic: “Arthritis.”

Mayo Clinic: “Exercise helps ease arthritis pain and stiffness.”

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