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The shoulder may be the body’s most mobile joint, but it’s also that very flexibility that makes it so easy to injure. This happens when stress is placed on the muscles, tendons and ligaments that stabilize the shoulder and all of its many ranges of motion.


November 30, 2021

If you work any type of job that involves repetitive motions, you are at risk for a shoulder injury. Read on to learn about the most common injuries, how they impact the workforce and what you can do about either reducing their impact on your workforce or healing from them yourself.

The Most Common Shoulder Injuries: Sprains, Strains and Tears

Sprains most often happen when there’s an accident, such as a fall, that injures the ligaments that help stabilize your shoulder joints and connect your bones together.1 They occur when the shoulder remains in one position for too long or does a repetition motion throughout the day. Tears may also occur, which may sever the muscle, tendons or tissue, or the shoulder could become dislocated, which may pull muscles and tendons out of place. Additionally, bone spurs may form which can cause friction that leads to a tear.

A shoulder strain is a pulled or torn muscle or ligament. While they are often caused by an acute injury, they often are the result of overuse, such as the shoulder remaining in one position for too long or making repetitive motion. These overuse injuries tend to develop more slowly without an obvious cause.1

Meet the Rotator Cuff

man holding his should in painOne of the most common problem areas for the shoulder is the rotator cuff. This group of four muscles and four tendons rotate the ball (the humeral head) to the socket of the shoulder (the glenoid or glenohumeral joint). The rotator cuff helps to elevate your arm while providing the stability the joint needs to move in a variety of directions.

While injuries to this area are often the result of falls, injuries often also come from any movement that comes from working over the head, as well as carrying heavy weights. Those that work in carpentry and painting often suffer from this injury, while age and repetitive motion also are a factor.2

Shoulder Injuries: A Pain for Workers

Shoulder problems and recovering from them are a major issue for workers and their employers. In 2019, OSHA reported more than 67,000 shoulder injuries with around 40,000 of them causing approximately 22 days away from work for each incident.3

When shoulder problems occur, they present a major problem not only for injured workers but also for their employers and the workers’ compensation system. The main reason why is because there is an extensive level of rehabilitation needed for post-operative shoulder recovery. However, not all shoulder injuries require surgery.

What Are Some Shoulder Injury Warning Signs?

While an injury can never be predicted, your body may be giving you an early warning that your shoulder may be having issues. If you are experiencing any of the following issues, you should consult your health care provider immediately, as early detection is one of the best ways to treat a shoulder injury.

  • Does your shoulder feel stiff?
  • Does it feel like it could pop out of the socket or slide out of it?
  • Do you find it difficult to easily move your arm to normal positions?
  • Are you feeling a lack of strength in your shoulder?
  • Do you feel any pain in the shoulder, neck or arm when working and when at rest?

Don’t “Play” Through the Pain

You may feel pressure to keep performing at work or a tendency to shrug off the pain. This may aggravate your injury and potentially lead to worse issues. Often, people grow used to the pain after several months of it, allowing any weakness, limitation of movement or steady pain to just become a part of their life.

You Hurt Your Shoulder -- What Next?

Unfortunately, if you are working a manual labor job that has repetitive motions involved, there’s a good chance that you may injure your shoulder at some point in your career. Obviously, the direction and care of your health care provider or physical therapist should guide your recovery. Above all else, limit any activity and arm motions that may aggravate your injury and cause any pain. These tips can help (and even offer great advice for those uninjured, as they may help prevent shoulder injuries):

  • Warm-up before any activity. Shoulder stretches and a short cardio-based warmup may get your heart rate up and increase the fluids that help lubricate your joints. You may also consider applying heat to the injured area before any future activity.
  • Take care when lifting any items in the future, follow your health care provider and physical therapist’s guidelines for weight limits. Lifting items close to the body and avoiding lifting objects above your shoulders will also help prevent reinjury.
  • Work with your health care provider or physical therapist to start a strengthening program to build the muscles around your injury and potentially prevent future problems.
  • Adjust your posture when using your arms. Work to avoid leaning and slumping during any shoulder motion-related activity.
  • Get some rest. Just like the rest of your body, your shoulder needs time to recuperate. Beyond not rushing back to work, speak with your health care provider or physical therapist about adjusting your exercise routine to protect your injury. You may also consider light stretches to keep your shoulder from becoming stiff.
  • Flip the way you sleep. If you sleep on your back, you may be irritating your injury. Propping your arm with a pillow can help. If you choose to rest on your side, avoid sleeping on the side that is injured.

Creating a Safer Workplace for Everyone

women sitting up straight working on computerWhile it’s impossible to create a truly injury-free workplace, the goal is to get as close as possible. Yet while this piece has mostly covered the injuries that come from manual work, shoulder injuries can happen even for those sitting behind a desk. Here are some ways that people in those positions can avoid strains, sprains and tears:

  • Set up your desk for success. Your monitor should be placed directly in front of you within the reach of your fingertips and be able to be viewed straight on.
  • Sit up straight. Sure, it sounds like something your parents would say to you, but proper posture can really protect your body.
  • Improve your reach. There are some very simple ways to protect your shoulders, including keeping the tools you use most often within reach, using headphones instead of cradling a phone between your ear and shoulder, keeping your mouse in a position where your elbows remain at a 90-degree angle and resting your arms on your desk while you work.
  • Get some support. Your chair should allow you to sit as far back as possible and your thighs should be fully supported. If you need further stabilizing, consider a footstool. • Take a break. A posture break and a quick moment of exercise – even if it’s walking to another room and back – can help you to avoid injury.
  • Lift with care. If you do have to lift anything, always face the object that you will be lifting and keep your back as straight as possible. Always rely on your legs for the majority of your lifting.
  • Consider a standing desk. While this is a major adjustment for some, if your company offers a standing desk, your body may reap the benefits, which may include taking the strain off many parts of your body and burning calories as you work. If you do choose to stand up and change it up, ease yourself into this new way of working with short intervals of standing work before you become fully used to this new position.

Our bodies are incredibly important because they’re the only ones that we’ll ever get. While our jobs require so much of them, it’s important to know how to rest and when to listen to the messages that your body is telling you when it’s hurting. Most importantly, if you feel like you’re experiencing shoulder pain, contact your health care provider immediately.

MedExpress offers best-in-class workers’ compensation and injury care benefits for employers and their employees. By balancing both patient care and employer expectations, we create a proactive return-to-work plan, getting injured employees back to work as soon as it safely possible. For more information, visit our Employer Health Services page.


1 University of Rochester Medical Center: Sprains, Strains, Breaks: What’s the Difference? Accessed October 26, 2021.

2 Mayo Clinic. Rotator cuff injury. Accessed September 3, 2021.

3 US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Injuries, Illnesses, and Fatalities. Accessed September 3, 2021.


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