How can I improve my shoulder pain in the next few days?
June 11, 2012 8:33 PM   Subscribe

I can't believe I'm wasting a question on this; but I think I have injured myself from studying. Help?

My MCAT is in 10 days, and I have been spending the better part of my summer studying for it. I spend most of the day staring at the large review books open on my desk, or my laptop. Lately my left back shoulder (possibly trapezius) either constantly dully aches or has a searing pain if I lift my arm a certain way or sleep on my side. I'm used to spending time studying, but maybe not this much concentrated sitting and looking at a downward angle. I use the pomodoro technique and I typically stand up and stretch during the breaks.

What can I do to get rid of this pain? Analgesics don't seem to do much, and a sock filled with warm beans just takes the edge off. Should I be elevating my laptop so it is at straight eye level? Should I be propping my giant books up instead keeping them on the desk? Would any gentle strength training make a difference in my posture in just a few days? I would use this as a good excuse for my husband to give me back rubs, but it hurts too much when the general area is touched.
posted by lizjohn to Health & Fitness (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Laptops are remarkably terrible for your posture, because your keyboard should be at elbow-level but the screen should be at eye level. Do you have access either to a cheap USB keyboard or a spare monitor such that you can split those two up to where they should be? That would help a ton.

Stretching, heat, ice, movement will all help, too, but if you're just replicating the bad situation every day it won't get much better.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:41 PM on June 11, 2012

I was recently diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. My ulnar nerve is affected (it's the near your funny bone). Not only did experience numbness in my fingers, I lost a lot of muscle mass from my left hand and forearm. Luckily it's reversible, if I make some changes.

Anyway, one thing that was not addressed during my diagnosis is apparent problems with my rotator cuff. Last fall I would experience searing pain in my shoulders at night, and I am still unable to skip stones at the beach or throw a baseball.

To deal with my carpal tunnel syndrome, I've adopted a standing desk. The treatment for the condition is to make sure to don't bend my arms during the day. Sitting at a desk all day staring at a laptop is pretty bad for your arms and your shoulder.

So far, it seems to be working - gradually the feeling is coming back in my left hand. I can handle a fork again and button my shirt cuffs.

Sometimes, though, when I'm tired I go back to sitting at a desk. After a day of that I usually have terrible pain in my shoulders.

Anyway, you should probably try to set something up where the monitor is at eye level, and you can extend your arms to your keyboard. It took me some fiddling, but I got a setup that works.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:49 PM on June 11, 2012

Ouch! What kind of stretches are you doing? For me, the best ones for my traps/shoulders/neck are numbers 4, 5, and 6 here. (Weirdly, stretching/strengthening the pecs help also. A couple of RMTs have told me that strengthening pecs = less hunching/rounding of the shoulders, though this would take more than a few days.)

I do find that looking down at screens/books tends to exacerbate the problem. Elevating things should help, along with having a good, supportive chair.

Maybe a hot bath and some Tiger Balm on the sore areas would help. I like to roll around on those foam roller yoga things --they're like a hardish styrofoam column. I align the column vertically along my spine, lie on top of it, and drop my shoulders towards the floor. The stretch the link shows looks like it would be helpful too, if it's not too painful. Or, if you have a tennis ball handy and can bear it, lie down on your back with the tennis ball under the shoulder/trapezius, and roll around on that a bit.

Good luck, both with reducing the pain and on the MCAT!
posted by miss_kitty_fantastico at 8:52 PM on June 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

You might want to look into getting a Shiatsu massage pillow. The photo there shows it on the lower back of a sitting person, but you can put it under your shoulders while you lie in bed (move around to get the right position). Be careful and gentle with it at first until you find a way to gently massage the achy part without causing a lot of pain.

I'm lucky enough that there's a Healthy Back store near me, which is where I found this thing. I also got one of these TheraCanes, which might be an even better item for you to start with. Apparently they're very popular, and it can feel _wonderful_. You control it, so you can fine tune the amount of pressure you use.

Be careful not to overdo it with either device, especially at first, but it might help you feel better.

The book Treat Your Own Neck has some really good stretches. I've managed to help myself feel better in a couple of days (not completely, but some) with carefully-selected stretches. Again, you're in control, so start gently.

Also - go to a doctor and ask about a decent pain reliever. If you have a regular primary care doctor, you'll have better luck with this. The doctor may also be able to refer you to a physical therapy practice, which could help significantly and maybe even quickly.
posted by amtho at 9:13 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

You are describing the shoulder pain that I get from stress. Unfortunately, I can't offer any advice, other than ibuprofen (or vicodin, if you have any lying around). It gets better instantly, as soon as the stressful event is over.
posted by unknowncommand at 9:59 PM on June 11, 2012

I had something pretty similar-sounding, and the single-most helpful exercise/stretch I was given by my physical therapist was No. 1 of miss_kitty_fantastico's first link. What I had been in the habit of doing, which caused all the trouble, was to bend my head forward, and then tilt it up slightly, so my chin was pointed forward and the back of my neck was "scrunched up". Now I've gotten in the habit of keeping the back of my neck as long as it can be, my head as directly over my shoulders as it can get, and my chin tucked in, and I haven't had any pain since. The drawing in that link is actually a little deceptive - it's more like, if you put the back of your head against the wall, you try to slide the spot on your head that's against the wall up higher on the wall, thus lengthening the back of your neck. Might give it a try. And I'd bet any money that this is related to your reading posture, and that it would help to put the screen up higher, in line with your eyes.
posted by facetious at 10:00 PM on June 11, 2012

This sounds exactly like the pain I experience when I go through long periods of working on my laptop. I'd second the suggestion for using either an external keyboard (and mouse) or monitor. The keyboard and mouse are a cheaper solution and probably more immediately effective.

Good luck!
posted by bardophile at 2:06 AM on June 12, 2012

This could be a short-term stress response, or it could be something more chronic like the painful (though relatively harmless) frozen shoulder. Basically, that happens when you have a small sprain that you then protect by not stretching your muscles; over a period of weeks you can actually reduce your range of motion signfiicantly as it becomes painful to extend your arm.

I would use essentially this formula from my own PT: warm compresses to loosen up the muscles; 20 minutes of stretching the shoulder in various directions short of pain but beyond comfort; cold packs for any ensuing ache. If this doesn't make progress in a few days, see a specialist and you may get a referral for PT yourself, or possibly an MRI to check for a (rather more rare) rotator cuff injury.
posted by dhartung at 11:27 AM on June 12, 2012

The stretches that miss_kitty_fantastico linked to are awesome. I have been doing them during my pomodoro breaks and the pain is much much better. Additionally, I have started using my laptop on *top* of my ridiculously thick books so I do not have to look down. Thanks all!
posted by lizjohn at 10:22 AM on June 15, 2012

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