Shoulder Muscle Strain

Shoulder Muscle Strain

Muscle pain and stiffness is common in the neck and shoulders and/or between the shoulder blades.

Causes of Shoulder Muscle Strain

Poor Posture

When sitting or standing, the shoulders should be kept down, back and relaxed. Poor posture and awkward positions cause the muscles to work harder and lead to muscle strain.

Prolonged Raised Position of Shoulders

Holding any muscle in one position too long can cause muscle strain. For example, if a typist’s keyboard is too high, the shoulders must be kept in a raised position. The muscles over the shoulder (that shrug the shoulder) become fatigued and strained. The keyboard should be low enough to allow the shoulders to be down and to be relaxed while typing.

While driving, if the steering wheel is too high or far away, the shoulders may be placed in an awkward position. This can cause muscle strain, especially when driving for long periods of time.

When carrying a backpack (or purse) over one shoulder, the shoulder is often raised to keep the backpack from falling off. Just keeping the shoulder in a raised position for a long period of time can strain the muscles involved in lifting the shoulder. If the backpack is heavy, the risk of muscle strain is much greater.


Muscles in the upper back (between the shoulder blades) may become strained as a result of slouching for long periods of time. Slouching also causes the head to be placed forward and the neck muscles must work harder to support the weight of the head. This can cause neck pain and may even trigger headaches.  Slouching also narrows the space that the rotator cuff tendons pass through in the shoulder joint and may cause injury over time.


Stress raises stress hormones, which cause muscles to contract, especially muscles in the shoulders and the back of the neck. Neck and shoulder stiffness may occur from stress or muscle strain or may be a combination of both.

Treatment of Shoulder Muscle Strain

Maintain proper posture to avoid overtaxing the muscles. Keep shoulders down and back and relaxed.

Take frequent breaks while driving or working.

The application of heat or cold

Cold numbs pain and reduces inflammation. Applying ice is especially effective after an activity that has triggered pain. Apply an ice pack for 20 minutes at a time. Do not apply ice for over 20 minutes at a time to avoid frostbite. Do not apply ice directly to skin (cover with cloth).

Heat increases blood flow to the muscles and relaxes tense muscles. Do not apply heat for over 20 minutes at a time to avoid overheating the tissue. Wait at least an hour between heat applications. Heat may be in the form of a heating pad or hot water bottle or warm bath or shower. A warm bath or shower before stretching exercises makes them easier to do. Do not apply heat to an inflamed area.

Do not apply heat or cold if you have a circulatory problem or nerve damage unless recommended by your physician.

Medications to relieve pain and inflammation and/or muscle relaxants may be prescribed by your physician for short-term use.

Massage therapy has many benefits. Deep tissue massage stretches muscles, improves range of motion, relieves pain, helps increases blood flow to the area, and promotes healing. Massage therapy also reduces production of stress hormones.

Stretching the affected muscles increases blood flow and relieves pain and stiffness. The shoulder roll exercise (roll shoulders forward, upward, backward, downward. Repeat 5-10 times) is particularly effective in relieving muscle tension.

Strengthening the neck and shoulders and upper back (between the shoulder blades) can help prevent recurring or chronic shoulder strain. If you have acute shoulder pain, wait until you have recovered before beginning strengthening exercises unless recommended by a physician or physical therapist.