Many of us have been there. You’re standing up from your desk after a long day, and you lift your arms above your head for a much-needed stretch. But as you do so, you feel a sharp pain radiating from one of your shoulders. Ouch.
When this happens, you may be dealing with shoulder impingement syndrome (SIS). This condition can appear seemingly out of the blue, bringing a painful “pinch” every time you lift your arm. Thankfully, a good massage can relieve your pain and get you moving freely again.
Below, learn everything you need to know about massage for shoulder impingement, plus a few self-massage tips to try today.
What Is Shoulder Impingement Syndrome?
When it comes to common aches and pains, shoulder pain nearly tops the list. However, it may surprise you to know that an estimated 44% to 65% of all shoulder pain complaints come from shoulder impingement.
So, what is shoulder impingement syndrome? Not to be confused with frozen shoulder, this condition occurs due to pain in the rotator cuff tendons. Many people describe this pain as a “pinch” that can lead to a limited range of motion (ROM), especially when reaching upward.
To understand how SIS happens, it can help to think about the anatomy of the shoulder. Your rotator cuff tendons sit between your humerus (your upper arm bone) and the outer edge of your shoulder blade, known as the acromion.
When you lift, reach, and rotate your arm above your head, the space between your acromion and humerus shrinks. This motion normally doesn’t hurt. But sometimes, the tendons in your rotator cuff can “catch” (or rub against) these bones, leading to shoulder impingement pain.
How Do I Know If I Have Shoulder Impingement Syndrome?
You can identify SIS by looking for a few telltale signs. Firstly, you may notice that overhead reaching feels stiff and painful. Beyond that, you may also feel specific pain points at the outer edge of your shoulder.
Shoulder impingement can also cause limited flexibility during certain activities. These include:
- Reaching up into cupboards or behind your back
- Swinging golf clubs, tennis rackets, or other equipment
- Any manual labor that requires lifting above your head, like painting or construction
Who Gets Shoulder Impingement Syndrome?
Shoulder impingement pain can happen to anyone, but a few factors may make you more prone to it.
For example, those who frequently use repetitive overhead motions might be more at risk. This group includes golfers, tennis players, and swimmers (which is why shoulder impingement is also known as “swimmer’s shoulder.”)
It can also happen after sleeping on your shoulder in a strange position or having a hard fall. And occasionally, poor posture or slouching can be the culprit behind it.
How Is Shoulder Impingement Syndrome Treated?
While shoulder impingement can be tricky to deal with, here’s some good news: Early treatment can often get you on track to feeling better quickly. When working with your doctor, they may recommend a treatment regimen of:
- Icing the shoulder for a few short sessions per day to keep inflammation down
- Ibuprofen or naproxen
- Physical therapy to loosen and strengthen the rotator cuff muscles and tendons
- Avoiding any activities that inflame or worsen the pain — including the one that may have caused it in the first place
How Long Does It Last?
In milder cases, you can expect to feel better in as little as a few weeks. But depending on your unique situation, it can take anywhere from three to six months before your shoulder fully recovers.
How Does Massage Help Shoulder Impingement?
There are plenty of steps you can take to start easing shoulder pain and improving your range of motion — and massage is one of them.
Here’s what you should know about the benefits of massage for shoulder impingement:
Brings You Short-Term Pain Relief
Massage therapy uses a combination of pressure, kneading, and friction to break up muscle tension and ease pain. Not only is it great for relaxation, but it can also help with some overuse injuries, like shoulder impingement syndrome.
On top of that, you can use massage to release trigger points (aka muscle knots) that may be worsening your discomfort.
Supports Range of Motion and Flexibility
If you’ve ever had an impinged shoulder, you know that limited ROM is one of its most bothersome symptoms. You might be able to lift your arm a little — but once you get past a certain point, acute pain and weakness can flare up.
Luckily, a good shoulder massage can support your flexibility while fending off discomfort. On top of that, cross friction massage can break up adhesions that may be causing you to feel achy and stiff.
4 Self-Massage Tips for Shoulder Impingement Relief
Ready to find some relief from shoulder impingement syndrome? Here are four of the best self-massage tips to ease tension, reduce pain, and boost your comfort while you heal.
Note: The tips below are informational and should not substitute for personal medical advice. Be sure to talk to your doctor for your best path forward in treating SIS.
1. Give Cross Friction Massage a Try
Cross friction massage is popular for working out tension in stiff, achy joints. It involves rubbing across tendon and muscle fibers to help break up adhesions and improve your movement.
Here’s how you can try cross friction massage for shoulder pain:
- Stand or sit somewhere comfortable, with relaxed yet straight posture.
- Take a deep breath in, and begin by kneading your sore shoulder. Broadly massage your upper arm and shoulder for 1 to 2 minutes as a light warm-up.
- Once your muscles are warmed up, it’s time to use the cross friction technique. To start, use two fingers to feel around your shoulder until you locate the area with the most discomfort.
- With moderate pressure, massage horizontally (or across the fibers.) For example, you’d want to use side-to-side motions on your upper outer shoulder muscles.
- Begin by massaging for 15 to 30 seconds. Because cross friction massage is so targeted, this is often all the time it takes for your pain to start melting away.
- If the massage seems to be helping, continue for a total of 3 to 5 minutes.
Note: If you still have significant pain after 20 to 30 seconds — or if your pain worsens — your shoulder may be too sore and inflamed to massage. If this happens, it’s best to focus on rest and recovery for a few days instead.
2. Use a Tennis Ball
If you’ve got a massage or tennis ball on hand, you’re in luck. These simple tools make for one of the easiest ways to massage at home — and they’re perfect for the rotator cuff muscles.
Here’s a simple exercise to try:
- Start by selecting your massage or tennis ball. Since you’ll be working on tender shoulder muscles, a softer ball is ideal.
- Lean back against a sturdy wall, and slowly rotate onto your sore shoulder.
- Place the ball between your shoulder muscles and the wall. Then, lean into it and roll back and forth to gently massage the muscles.
- When you find an especially tender spot, pause and allow the pressure to sink into the muscle for a few seconds.
- If it doesn’t cause too much discomfort, you can also opt for a stretch here. To do so, slowly reach up and rotate the arm for a few seconds.
- Lower your arm and continue to massage for five minutes with light pressure. (For a more in-depth demonstration, check out this video tutorial.)
3. Work Your Muscles with a Massage Gun
Massage guns use the power of percussion therapy, which makes them a valuable tool for deep shoulder self-massage.
Here’s how to get started:
- Attach a large, airy head to your massage gun, and set it to a low setting.
- Because massage guns are so powerful, it’s best to massage your shoulder muscles at an angle, rather than straight on.
- Run the device along your anterior deltoid for 10 to 20 seconds. This is the small muscle that sits at the front of your upper shoulder.
- Then, move to the medial deltoid, or the outer upper shoulder muscle. Gently glide the massage gun across this area for 10 to 20 seconds.
- Finally, spend 10 to 20 seconds on the rear deltoid, or the back shoulder muscle.
- To finish, glide the massage gun over the area of the most discomfort for 10 to 20 seconds more. This will be similar to the cross fiber technique — but instead of using your fingers, simply let the massage gun do the work.
4. Try Foam Rolling to Stretch and Relieve Discomfort
Foam rolling is a powerful way to decrease tension in the fascia, muscles, and other soft tissue. It works by using myofascial release — a type of massage that involves sustained stretching and pressure to bring physical benefits.
Here’s a quick foam rolling exercise you can use for shoulder pain:
- Find a comfortable place to lie on the ground, such as a yoga mat or soft rug.
- Lie on your side with your affected arm closest to the ground. Then, with your arm outstretched, place the foam roller perpendicularly under your armpit.
- Rotate your body forward and backward to gently massage the rotator cuff muscles.
- Repeat for 5 to 10 minutes or until you feel relief.
What’s the Best Type of Massage for Shoulder Impingement?
Aside from self-massage, you may consider visiting a massage therapist for your shoulder pain. Fortunately, many masseuses are experienced in helping clients find relief from overuse injuries like SIS. But what’s the best type of massage for shoulder impingement?
One 2017 meta-analysis found that, in general, sports massage appears to be the most helpful for boosting shoulder ROM. This type of massage uses techniques such as friction, petrissage, and effleurage to facilitate healing.
Sports massage is great for athletes, but a wide variety of people with SIS may benefit from it — whether you’re a weightlifter, hard laborer, or simply growing older.
Considerations Before Trying Massage
Massage is generally safe and relaxing, but you may want to avoid it or take precautions in certain situations. For example:
- If you have any medical conditions, check with your doctor first. Some conditions don’t pair well with massage. These include (but aren’t limited to) uncontrolled high blood pressure, skin conditions, blood clotting disorders, and more.
- Avoid using too much pressure on any acute injury. While massage can often soothe shoulder pain, it’s best to avoid it when you have an acute, inflamed injury. For example, you wouldn’t want to receive a deep tissue massage on a rotator cuff tear. Sometimes, it’s best to let your body heal before going in with pressure.
- Whether you’re at a spa or self-massaging, remember to listen to your body. Working on tight muscles or trigger points can feel uncomfortable at first. But if you’re feeling lots of pain during massage, it’s best to dial back and focus on other areas instead.
Try These Exercises for More Relief
Shoulder impingement massage is one of the simplest ways to find relief — but did you know specific exercises can also boost your healing process?
That’s why many healthcare providers will suggest simple, at-home exercises for patients with shoulder pain. The right routine can correct imbalances and strengthen weak areas, all while easing pain and stiffness.
Note: Be sure to check with your doctor before starting a new exercise routine. Movement should be done with care, especially if you have conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or are prone to shoulder dislocation.
Some popular exercises for shoulder impingement relief include:
External Rotation with Resistance Band
For those with SIS pain, this external rotation exercise can help to strengthen and restore the shoulder.
To do it, you’ll need a resistance band securely attached to a pole or wall at about waist height. If you’re trying this at home, a doorknob will also work well.
- Hold the unsecured end of the resistance band with your affected arm.
- Step a few feet back from where the resistance band is tied.
- Turn 90 degrees so that you’re standing sideways. Your affected arm should now be furthest away from the secured end of the resistance band.
- Tuck a towel between your upper arm and your body to keep your elbow close and shoulder aligned.
- With your elbow tucked at your side, pull out on the resistance band to externally rotate the shoulder.
- Repeat for 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps.
The shoulder squeeze (or scapular squeeze) is an excellent exercise to strengthen the upper back muscles, improve posture, and help you avoid rounding your shoulders in the future.
Here are the steps:
- Stand in an upright position with straight yet relaxed posture.
- Bring your shoulders back and squeeze the shoulder blades together towards your spine. Go as far as feels comfortable to you, and hold the squeeze for 5 to 10 seconds.
- Repeat for three sets of 10 reps.
Preventing Future Shoulder Impingement
Finally, here are some tips to improve your shoulder health and avoid impingement in the future:
- Practice good posture. Proper posture can help you prevent rounding your shoulders and putting unnecessary stress on the joints.
- Give your shoulder some TLC. Let it rest, and try not to sleep on your sore side for a while. In addition, it may help to avoid the activity that caused your pain until you get the all-clear from your doctor.
- Prioritize good form and proper recovery. If you like to weightlift, work out, or play sports, be mindful of your form and/or the amount of weight you’re lifting. This is especially important during upward arm motions, like throwing or overhead lifts.
- If you’re working with a physical therapist, remember that consistency is key. Do your best to stick to your exercise routine to strengthen your shoulder for the long haul.
The Takeaway on Shoulder Impingement Massage
Shoulder impingement pain can throw a wrench in your daily activities, but it doesn’t have to be that way. By using certain remedies — like exercises and self-massage for shoulder impingement — you can speed up your recovery and alleviate pain along the way.
While a simple massage can feel great, you can take your routine up a notch by trying:
- Cross friction massage
- A massage ball
- Foam rolling exercises
- Investing in a massage gun like the Accuvibe Mini or Accuvibe Micro