man working at a desk holding his shoulder in pain

Do You Have Tight Shoulders? Here’s How To Tell

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When it comes to shoulder pain, discomfort and tightness can happen gradually, and early signs are easy to miss. 

Before you know it, your shoulder pain is affecting everything from putting on your shirt to getting a good night’s sleep.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could catch symptoms early and prevent a rotator cuff injury from limiting your life?

Not sure if you have tight shoulders? Keep reading to learn how to check shoulder mobility with this quick and easy screen.

Disclaimer: This content is for educational purposes and is not medical advice. Read the full disclaimer.

Why it’s important to check-in with your range of motion

The shoulder joint is one of the most mobile joints in the body and thus prone to injury. 

Let’s face it; we’re all busy. 

A little discomfort here and there probably won’t stop you in your tracks. We’re all pretty good at ignoring things and just going through the motions. 

But ignoring small signs is exactly how minor problems turn into big problems. The body will always compensate to accomplish tasks. Taking a few minutes each week to check in with your movement can go a long way to catch a potential shoulder injury. 

For any injury, getting symptoms addressed early can help you avoid a long and painful (and potentially expensive) rehab process. 

Signs of a rotator cuff injury

Rotator cuff injuries can be acute or chronic. An acute injury is something that happens at one time, such as with a fall. A chronic injury occurs gradually over time. 

Chronic rotator cuff injuries can range from tendonitis to frozen shoulder to a rotator cuff tear.

Signs of a potential shoulder injury are:

  • Shoulder and upper arm pain that may also extend to the neck and upper back
  • Stiffness or loss of ROM (range of motion)
  • Decreased strength 
  • Decreased function and movement avoidance
image source:

Risk factors for rotator cuff injuries

  • Repetitive, overuse, and overhead motions
  • Poor posture habits
  • Poor movement patterns
  • Muscle weakness/muscle imbalance
  • Sports (throwing, swimming, tennis, etc.)
  • History of other health conditions such as diabetes 
  • Age 
  • Inactivity

Shoulder mobility screen for tight shoulders

This DIY shoulder screen is quick and easy.

These four basic motions cover the major functional movements of the shoulder. Pain, discomfort, or tightness with any of these movements could signal a potential rotator cuff problem.

Everyone’s range of motion is different so it’s important to get to know what’s normal for you.

With each motion, try to only move the shoulder to avoid cheating the test and compensating with other areas of the body.

*Friendly PSA – This information is not intended to diagnose or treat any conditions but rather make you aware of potential issues to discuss with your physical therapist and get your symptoms addressed early.*

Shoulder flexion

Shoulder flexion occurs with reaching forward or overhead. 

This test can also be done standing with your back to a wall to avoid cheating the test with compensatory movements. Excessive arching in the back or bending the knees will give the illusion of the arm moving higher, but the movement is not coming from the shoulder. 

woman demonstrating shoulder flexion test how to check shoulder mobility at home for tight shoulders
Copyright Maura Blackstone

How to perform

  • With the thumb pointing up, see how high you can raise your arm overhead.
  • Repeat on the other side, then both sides at the same time. 
  • Note any pain, discomfort, tightness, or differences between sides. 

Shoulder abduction

Abduction is lifting the arm away from the midline of the body. You do this in everyday life when you reach to the side.

Your arm should end up in the same place as the flexion test; it just took a different route to get there. 

shoulder abduction range of motion
Copyright Maura Blackstone

How to perform

  • In standing, turn your palms to face forward and raise the arm overhead as if you were making a snow angel motion. 
  • Repeat with the other arm, then both arms. 
  • Note any pain, discomfort, tightness, or differences from side to side. 

Shoulder external rotation

Your shoulder requires external rotation to reach behind the head to the upper back. This motion mimics combing your hair and some dressing activities. 

Functional range of motion is to be able to reach the upper back.

demonstration of shoulder external rotation range of motion
Copyright Maura Blackstone

How to perform

  • Raise your arm and reach behind your head to the upper back as far as you can go comfortably.
  • Repeat on the other side and compare. 
  • Note any pain, discomfort, tightness, or differences between sides. 

Shoulder internal rotation

When shoulder ROM starts to decrease, internal rotation is often the most noticeable. 

This motion helps tuck in the back of your shirt, reaching into a back pocket, reaching to the back seat of the car, etc. Functional range of motion is to be able to reach the mid-back.

woman demonstrating shoulder internal rotation motion how to check shoulder mobility
Copyright Maura Blackstone

How to perform

  • Place the back of your hand at the small of your back. 
  • See how high you can slide your hand up your back (without twisting your hand or wrist)
  • Compare both sides and look for tightness, discomfort, pain, or significant differences from side to side. 

When to see a physical therapist

If you notice pain, discomfort, or tightness in any of these movements, it’s a good idea to get evaluated by a physical therapist

These signs could put you at risk for developing a rotator cuff injury or other shoulder pathology. Getting your symptoms addressed early can save a lot of pain and frustration. 

Also, if your symptoms were not reproduced by any of these tests, see a physical therapist, as that can signal a different type of injury or injury to another area that’s referring pain to the shoulder.

Related read: Shoulder Impingement Pain – Tips & Tools To Get Better Fast

Exercises for tight shoulders

The best way to keep your shoulders healthy is to maintain a good balance of range of motion and strength in both the shoulders and upper back (thoracic spine). 

There are many combinations of exercises to accomplish this goal. The best combination for you will depend on your activities and strength level. 

Here are some examples of exercises for tight shoulders.

Foam roller up the wall

Nothing fancy here, but rolling a foam roller up and down the wall is an easy way to work your shoulder movement into flexion as well as strengthen many of the shoulder stabilizing muscles. It’s actually much more fatiguing than it looks!

The physical therapist in the video below (Jonathan Gayed) is a friend of mine and a fabulous PT so definitely check out his practice (Rise Rehabilitation) if you’re in the Bergen County, NJ area.

Shoulder internal rotation stretch

Internal rotation is one of the easiest motions to lose, so it’s a good idea to check on your ROM periodically and maintain this movement. 

I recommend the original stretch-out strap because there are multiple loops to hold. A yoga strap with a buckle also works well. 

shoulder internal rotation stretch
Copyright Maura Blackstone

How to perform

  • Hold a strap in your hand at the lower back and bring the other end over your shoulder.
  • With the opposite hand, gently pull on the strap to pull your arm into IR. 
  • There might be a feeling of tension, pressure, or slight discomfort, but there shouldn’t be pain. 
  • Keep your posture upright and avoid rounding your back to compensate. 
  • Hold 5-10 seconds and release.
  • Repeat 10-20 times on each side. 

Shoulder external rotation stretch

This exercise helps mobilize the shoulder joint (glenohumeral joint) as well as the scapula. It can be done without the foam roller for less challenge.

woman demonstrating shoulder mobility on a foam roller
Copyright Maura Blackstone

How to perform

  • Lie on the foam roller so that it’s along your spine, with both your head and sacrum supported.
  • Clasp your hands behind your head, rest the head in the hands, do not strain to keep your head up.
  • Bring the elbows toward each other as far as is comfortable for you.
  • Slowly allow the elbows to fall toward the ground and let gravity sink the shoulders down. 
  • Repeat 20-30 repetitions.

Thoracic extension

Thoracic spine mobility contributes significantly to healthy, pain-free shoulder motion. A foam roller or Theraband mini ball can be used.

thoracic extension exercise with a foam roller
Copyright Maura Blackstone

How to perform

  • Sit on the floor and place the foam roller perpendicular to your spine at the shoulder blade level. 
  • Cradle your head and neck with your hands. You’ll want to keep your neck neutral while performing this stretch.
  • Gently roll back, extending over the foam roller only as far as you feel comfortable.
  • Slowly lift back up and repeat ten times.
  • Keep your bottom on the floor the whole time, and keep your gaze on the top of your knees to protect your neck alignment.
  • Repeat 10 times

Yoga for shoulder flexibility

Flexibility and mobility should be weaved into your healthy fitness routine. Check out my 20 minute Yoga For Shoulder Flexibility Class on YouTube.

Wrapping up

The shoulder joint is especially vulnerable to injury and many ignore the early signs. Checking in with your range of motion regularly can help alert you to shoulder problems before they significantly limit your life. 

Don’t forget to check out 8 Exercises To Avoid When You Have A Rotator Cuff Injury.

Leave a comment or connect with me on your favorite social media and let me know how this screen went for you!

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2 thoughts on “Do You Have Tight Shoulders? Here’s How To Tell”

  1. Thank you for sharing this health info. Having shoulder pain is no joke. There’s a significant difference on my right side. I will be trying out your yoga for shoulder flexibility.

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