Arthritis, repetitive movements, and injury are three common causes of shoulder pain.
But can bad posture cause shoulder pain?
Several leading healthcare organizations, such as the Mayo Clinic and ACE Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine Institute, as well as many orthopedic surgeons, agree that posture certainly plays a role in shoulder pain and discomfort.
The anatomical makeup of the shoulder includes tendons, muscles, and other structures stemming from the upper back that impact the function of the shoulder joint. Slouching when standing or sitting, for example, directly affects the shoulder, upper back, and neck.
Fixing posture, such as through core and other exercises, physical therapy, proper ergonomics, and devices such as back braces, is the most important thing you can do to help stop shoulder pain caused by sitting and standing incorrectly.
We’ll explore components of the shoulder, how poor posture leads to shoulder impingement and other shoulder issues, and the things you can do to stand and sit up taller to avoid or address shoulder and other pain.
The Structure of the Shoulder
As stated by the National Library of Medicine, the shoulder is “structurally and functionally complex”; perhaps the most complex joint in the human body. There’s no small wonder that the main structure is called the shoulder complex!
The shoulder complex comprises the clavicle (collarbone), the scapula (shoulder blade), and the humerus (the bone of the upper arm, joining the shoulder and elbow joints). According to the textbook Joint Structure and Function: A Comprehensive Analysis, 5th edition, the shoulder “has greater mobility than any other joint in the body.”
All of the joints coming together in the shoulder are connected by ligaments, tendons, muscles, and cartilage. For example, the acromioclavicular and the coracoclavicular ligaments connect the clavicle to the shoulder blade. The costoclavicular ligament holds the clavicle to the sternum in the chest.
Commonly injured structures of the shoulder include the rotator cuff and the labrum. You might have heard these terms used in connection to shoulder pain and injuries, such as in either of these being strained or torn.
The rotator cuff is made of muscles and tendons that hold the upper arm, or humerus, in the shoulder socket. The rotator cuff is engaged when you raise and rotate your arm. The labrum is a piece of cup-shaped fibrocartilage found along the rim of the shoulder joint that also keeps the ball of the humerus seated in the socket.
If your shoulder pain is not caused by damage to either the rotator cuff or the labrum, your shoulder is in place, and there are no breaks or fractures within any of the bony parts of the shoulder, then your pain can be a direct result of poor posture.
Ways that Bad Posture Leads to Shoulder Pain
Can bad posture cause shoulder pain? The short answer is, absolutely.
Since one of the major parts of the shoulder is the shoulder blade or scapula located in the upper back, it’s not a surprise that poor posture causes limited mobility and pain in this joint. You can even do a simple, two-second test to prove the connection between poor posture and shoulder pain.
Sit and slouch in a chair. Then, raise your arm directly in front of you. You will feel tightness along with a limited range of motion and possibly some pain. Now, sit up straight and perform the same motion. There should be no pain and you should be able to raise your arm higher with no restriction.
Slouching when sitting or standing leads to undue pressure on muscles and bones. The shoulder blade, for instance, is not positioned correctly when we slouch. Since the shoulder blade is such a major component of the shoulder, this incorrect positioning can lead to a dysfunction of the structure and thus shoulder movement limitations and pain.
As a result of slouching, an impingement develops due to the shoulder blade not resting in the proper position. This impingement occurs in what is called the subacromial space, the space between the collarbone and humeral head containing the tendons of the rotator cuff, the long head of the biceps, and other ligaments. As the space becomes confined, pressure is put on these parts of the shoulder and the result is as you would expect: pain.
The Main Culprits of Bad Posture
Think about it: the human body can squat, run, walk, stand, and bend as needed. It is a perfectly designed machine meant to hunt, climb, lift, and move in many different ways. While sitting is also an ability of the human body, this is not an ideal position in which to remain for hours on end.
The social and economic impacts of the personal computer are undeniable. However, article after article and study after study strongly support the idea that prolonged sitting, such as that required by those who spend time at computers, has and continues to have adverse effects on the body.
The idea that sitting for long periods can have the same harmful effects as smoking should cause concern for those whose jobs or hobbies lead them to sit for extended periods.
Far too many people slouch when sitting at computers; this position misaligns the shoulder blades and causes the aforementioned impingement that causes shoulder pain.
Following personal computers, technological evolution took us to the introduction of smartphones. These phones are also considered one of the top inventions of the 21st century. They allow us to do everything from accessing our email to taking pictures.
And oh, yes. Texting. This leads us to “text neck syndrome”: another poor posture position that leads to shoulder pain. Looking down at our phones naturally puts our heads in a forward position and rounds the shoulders, causing imbalances in the neck and shoulder blades that encourage muscle weakness and tightness and limit mobility. Proper posture for the neck is having the ears over the shoulders.
There are other reasons for bad posture, though the two mentioned above could be the most common. Other factors affecting posture include:
- Muscle weakness: weak abdominal and upper back muscles enhance poor posture.
- Injury: a pulled back or neck muscle could cause spasms that create imbalances affecting posture.
- Being overweight: additional weight around the waist can pull the lower back out of whack, leading to poor posture.
- Improper footwear: poor-fitting shoes can impact one’s gait, which causes strain on ankles, hips, and knees; when these areas are weakened, the lower back tries to compensate and this, too, leads to the overall weakness that causes poor posture.
How to Correct Bad Posture
Since the answer to “can bad posture cause shoulder pain?” is yes, hopefully, the answer to “can bad posture be corrected to remedy shoulder pain?” will be the same. The good news: the answer IS the same!
From the simple to the more complex, there are several ways in which you can work to correct bad posture to strengthen weak areas that support the shoulder. You can do something as quick and easy as rolling your shoulders up, then relaxing them back down while sitting at your desk.
You can do these throughout the day to help ease tension and work muscles around the scapula. Standing against a wall and ensuring contact with the wall at the hips, head, and upper back can help improve posture while standing. When doing this, be sure to pull your shoulder blades back and down until it feels as if you are pinching them together.
More involved exercises such as yoga-like movements designed to improve posture include:
- Child’s pose (for lower back and hips): start on hands and knees, lean all the way forward until your arms are outstretched and your forehead is touching the floor. Your butt should be resting on your heels. Remain in this position for 30-60 seconds.
- Plank (for shoulders and back): again, start on hands and knees, with hands directly under your shoulders. Raise yourself onto the balls of your feet with your legs outstretched. You should be in as straight a line as possible. Hold for 30-60 seconds.
- Bridge (for glutes and abdominal muscles): lie flat on your back on the floor, knees raised and feet flat. Use your core and butt muscles to lift your hips off the floor. Hold, then lower back to the starting position.
- Hip flexor stretch: Kneel with one knee on the ground and the other out in front of you, with your leg bent at a 90-degree angle. Keep your upper body upright. Place both hands on the thigh in front of you and slowly press your hips forward and hold for 30-60 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
- Standing: with shoulders feet-width apart, pull abdominal muscles up and in as if trying to get your belly button to touch your spine. Lower shoulder blades back and down. Let arms hang by your side. Keep your head straight and avoid allowing movement forward, backward, or to either side.
Having proper posture does more than improve your body. It improves your physical appearance and mental health as well. Having improper posture can cause or exacerbate your shoulder pain.
You can also wear Posture correctors if you struggle with shoulder pain. These are generally adjustable strap systems that in many cases can be worn under clothing. These keep shoulders, neck, and upper back aligned to avoid slouching, rounded shoulders, and forward head position that all contribute to the bad posture that leads to, among other ailments, shoulder pain.
Take time to practice some of the exercises in this article to improve your posture and overall health.