Ask Well: Exercises for Shoulder Pain

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What are some exercises and tips for those of us with shoulder (rotator cuff) injuries and pain? It seems to be very common.

You are certainly right that sore shoulders are common, especially as a person ages. About half of all middle-aged tennis players suffer from shoulder pain, according to a 2012 study in The British Journal of Sports Medicine, and youngsters aren’t immune either. The same study reported that about a quarter of competitive tennis players under 20 hurt their shoulders every year.

Many of these injuries involve the rotator cuff, the group of muscles and tendons at the back of the shoulder that stabilize the joint. Studies show that forces equivalent to at least 120 percent of a person’s body weight slam through the rotator cuff during a typical tennis serve or baseball pitch. To withstand that pounding, the rotator cuff needs to be strong.

But many of us, including tennis players, have relatively weak rotator cuff muscles. “Playing tennis builds up the muscles in the front of the shoulder, but it doesn’t build up those in the back very much,” says Todd Ellenbecker, the clinic director at Physiotherapy Associates Scottsdale Sports Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., and senior director of medical services for the ATP World Tour, the men’s professional tennis circuit.

To isolate and strengthen the rotator cuff, Mr. Ellenbecker recommends simple exercises that you can do at home and that require only a stretchy exercise band or length of elastic tubing and a rolled-up towel. You can find step-by-step instructions for a number of these exercises, which Mr. Ellenbecker prescribes for professional tennis players, at “How to Fix a Bad Tennis Shoulder.” more…