Exercises for Shoulder Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis (OA) is one of the most common conditions seen by Australians. It can be scary, it can be painful and it is unfortunately poor understood. There are many misconceptions around OA that lead to a far more rapid decline in people’s function than what OA should cause. 

Osteoarthritis is, by definition, is a lifelong joint disease that can start without any obvious reason. By many, it is described as a “wear and tear” disease, however this can feed into the misconception that it is a highly debilitating condition.

OA can affect any joint within the body, however it is commonly seen in the spine (either lumbar, thoracic or cervical spine), hips, knees and shoulders. What do all of these joints have in common? They are either weight bearing joints, or require a significant amount of movement or load to go through them on a regular basis. 

Previously, we would diagnose grades, or severity, of OA by x-ray or MRI. Under modern medicine, we require only clinical testing via one of our physiotherapists here at Instinct Health.

We use functional measures, plus often a questionnaire to establish how significant your level of impact of OA is for you individually. OA of the shoulder in particular can be seen at any age, from 30 or above. It is most commonly seen in people over the age of 50, but like many diseases, OA does not discriminate based on age. 

The treatment for OA is remarkably positive and people will get excellent results, provided that they are adherent to their program! A thorough and supervised program is the gold standard for treatment, with the close attention of a physiotherapist to ensure technique and appropriate progressions can be made.

To treat OA, we want to work on the mobility of the affected joint, plus improving the strength of the muscles that cross those joints. In the shoulder, we want to improve the strength of the rotator cuff muscles and these are: 

  1. Supraspinatus 
  2. Infraspinatus 
  3. Subscapularis 
  4. Teres Mino

As well as the rotator cuff, in the shoulder we want to improve the strength of the pectoral muscles (at the front of the shoulder) plus the upper trapezius muscles.

All of these muscles attach onto the shoulder bones, and therefore play a role in acting on those joints. So of the exercises listed below, these will target these muscles and therefore assist in improving range of movement, strength and importantly, functionality. 

So, if you are yet to see one of our physios here at Instinct Health, give these four exercises a try and see how much your shoulder health improves! 

  1. Forward press with bandan exercise to work the external rotators of the shoulder (teres minor, infraspinatus) 
    1. Begin in a standing position with your elbows tucked in by your sides and holding onto a red or yellow theraband 
    2. Set the band up so it is pulling across your body, parallel to the chest
    3. Keeping the forearm at 90° relative to the body, slowly extend the elbow and shoulder forwards and away from the body 
    4. Keep the arm below shoulder height
    5. Pause with the elbow extended, then slowly return back to the start and repeat 
    6. Complete 4 sets of 10 repetitions, once per day 
  2. Banded flexionan exercise to use the infraspinatus and teres minor muscles as stabilisers of the shoulder 
    1. Using the same band as exercise 1, tie it into a loop around 30cm long 
    2. Place both bands into the band, palms facing towards one another and push the hands slightly out until you can feel tension in the band 
    3. Start with the hands by your hips and maintaining the tension on the theraband, slowly begin to raise the hands up overhead or until you feel a restriction in your range of movement 
    4. Keeping the tension in the theraband, slowly lower the hands back down towards the hips and repeat 
    5. Complete 4 sets of 10 repetitions, once per day 
  3. Lateral raisesa great exercise for the supraspinatus and upper trapezius muscles
    1. Stand in an upright position, with both arms down by your sides and elbows straight
    2. Hold onto some light dumbbells, anywhere from 1-2kg or above 
    3. With the palms facing forwards, take the arms away from the body and as high as you comfortably can overhead or until the elbows brush the ears  
    4. Slowly return the arms back down by your sides and repeat 
    5. Complete 3 sets of 15 repetitions, once per day
  4. Bench pushupswe can’t neglect the muscles at the front of the shoulder, and this will work the pectoral muscles
    1. Starting with the feet hip width apart facing a low bench (around 45cm off the floor) 
    2. Place both hands just outside shoulder distance apart on the bench and extend the feet out until the shoulders, hips and heels are in a straight line (think about a flat back) 
    3. Making sure you don’t sink the shoulder blades together, slowly bend the elbows and lower your chest down towards the bench
    4. Get as low as you comfortably can with the movement of your shoulder and pause at the bottom for 1 second 
    5. Straighten the elbows and return back to the top of the pushup and repeat 
    6. Complete 3 sets of as many repetitions as you can, or until you get to 20
    7. If this is too easy, use a lower bench or go to the floor 
    8. If this is too difficult, use a higher bench (like the kitchen bench) or complete against a wall 

Completing these exercises regularly will help to strengthen the shoulder muscles and improve against the limitations of OA. They should be completed every day, once per day, to ensure adequate rest and recovery. These can be coupled with regular massage or dry needling from one of our physios to ensure you are not overworking muscles that are too tight.

Other things that can be great for shoulder strength can include swimming, walking with hand weights or simply taking the shoulder through your maximum range of movement several times per day.

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