How To Move Without Pain

Shoulder Pain after shoveling snow. What's irritated and What to do about it

by Meghan Griech, PT, DPT, cert MDT, CKTP

This article takes 6 minutes to read

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Are you a summer person or a winter person? Many people who prefer summer really only dislike winter because they hate snow and shoveling snow. It’s heavy, it’s hard to drive in and it causes a lot of work to remove from your driveway or sidewalk. Even those with snowblowers agree that you can’t completely avoid shoveling. 

Dealing with snow means it’s cold, it’s usually early in the morning and then the plow comes through and pushes all the heavy icy chunks back into your driveway. Shoveling is a repetitive activity that can quickly turn painful thanks to repetitive pressure onto shoulder connective tissues and underlying muscle weaknesses. 

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In 2015, a study found an average of 11,500 people are treated in emergency departments across the United States each year due to injuries from shoveling snow. Falls, heart attacks, back injuries and shoulder injuries topped the list.

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And it’s no wonder… nothing fatigues muscle and irritates tendinous tissues more than repetitive movements ie; shoveling snow, painting, raking leaves.

Heavy or light snowflakes, the repetitive nature of shoveling can lead to pain in the shoulder, upper back and arm often revealing an underlying weakness or issue, such as tendonitis, that has been keeping itself under the radar.

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Common Complaints About Shoulder Pain

People frequently describe the pain in the front of the shoulder or front and slightly to the side.

They often have a poor ability to sleep and find a comfortable position and stay comfortable throughout the night. And if you roll on the shoulder or lift your arm over your head during the night – BAM you are awake from a sharp stabbing pain, it might be fleeting but it will wake you right up. 

Often the shoulder feels stiff and has limited range of motion, basic movements are painful; like reaching behind your back or into a cabinet to grab a cup. OTC medications tend to help, but don’t always take the pain away; which perpetuates the stiffness because if you can’t get the pain to go away with medication – you don’t want to move it.

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So what is this pain? 

A pain in the front of the shoulder can come from many different tissues in the shoulder, biceps tendon, biceps bursae, inflammation of the tendons of the rotator cuff.

It could be called tendonitis, but your physical therapist may call this tendinopathy.  This is a generic term used in the diagnosis of shoulder pain to describe pathology of a tendon.  But sometimes a diagnosis is more of a description of the symptoms rather than revealing what is the true cause of the pain. 

Shoulder pains that begin gradually after repetitive activity or repeated pressure on the same tissues cause the tissues to become irritated and inflamed.

The pain is usually because of issues with posture and shoulder weakness that lead to irritation, pinching and eventual inflammation (pain). In the case of shoveling snow, repeated lifting and upward movement with rotation causes pressure over and over, the pain often comes on gradually with the activity or even later in the day. 

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What can you do if you develop shoulder pain after shoveling? 

  1. Take the weight of your arm off your shoulder, either support it at your side or rest your elbow on the arm rest of the couch or table. 
  2. Ice the painful spot, doesn’t matter if you use an ice cube until it melts or a frozen bag of corn. Just keep an eye on your skin to make sure it isn’t getting irritated, limit this to no more than 15 minutes at a time. 
  3. Avoid sleeping on your shoulder
  4. Avoid any movement that provokes the pain, generally let your shoulder rest for a couple days so the pain calms down

After a couple days, pain should be reducing, that’s when it is appropriate to start gently stretching your shoulder.

Move your shoulder into movements that make it stretch and but don’t provoke the pain. It’s better to move it and not feel a stretch than push into the pain and continue to inflame it. 

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*Disclaimer: All information in this article is intended for instruction and informational purposes. The author(s) are not responsible for any harm or injury that may result.  This information is used to supplement not replace any advice you were provided from your doctor or another medical health professional.  No guarantees of specific results are expressly made or implied with this article.

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