How to deal with back and shoulder pain


Do you suffer from back pain or shoulder aches? Find out how you can ease the pain and prevent injury with these expert insights.

Back pain

Musculoskeletal back and neck issues are among the most common symptoms overlooked by women, says head of the Royal Women’s Hospital GP Liaison Unit Dr Ines Rio. A locked neck or back usually means something’s out of place or pressing on a nerve; debilitating pain or impeded range of movement is not normal. Often it means your body has been worn down by compensating for something like a shortened trapezius (an effect of craning forward at a computer for years). Everyday triggers can seem to cause untold amounts of pain as they realise a tipping point.

“Activities such as repeated sit-up-based exercises, heavy lifting with poor form, a sudden increase in the intensity of our training as well as muscle weakness and fatigue all place a huge amount of force through our spinal discs and increase our risk of low back pain,” says Sam Bullock, physiotherapist and expert in sport injuries.

Because few back problems are rarely as sudden as their symptoms, without resolving underlying weaknesses such as those caused by sitting at a desk that’s too low or high, it’s likely that you’ll encounter the same injury again. “There is also a high risk of recurrence – up to 50 per cent of us will experience another episode of back pain within a year,” Bullock says.

Simple postural corrections such as reviewing and modifying workstations, hence reducing excessive strain on the neck and lower back, can halt damage, Bullock says. “Trying to avoid long periods sitting while increasing the frequency of standing all help to reduce the compressive forces going through your spine.”

Standing desks and activity trackers can offset the negative impact of sedentary work. Stability training can also help to fortify muscles.

“Incorporating core stability work into your training program is absolutely necessary no matter what your main sport is,” says Bullock. “The more stability you have in your middle, the more control you have over your movement.”

Planking-type exercises such as the hover, front plank, side plank ‘bird dog’, ‘curl up’, and Swiss ball-based ‘Stir the Pot’ are ideal.

“These exercises when performed correctly create a strong and stable bracing system for the spine without repetitive loading. At the same time, building more core strength will reduce your risk of low back pain in the future,” she says.

Shoulder aches

Similarly beleaguered by common misuse, shoulders demand special attention due to their instability.

“The shoulder inherently is an unstable joint, but this allows us the quantity of movement we have and this movement is great if we have the strength to control it,” says Bullock. The shoulder joint is weakest when away from the body (adduction) and in throwing position (external rotation). Tennis, swimming, lifting heavy weights can all compromise shoulder integrity.

“Ensuring you have equal mobility in the shoulder on both sides is important, particularly the hand-behind-back motion (internal rotation). If this is restricted it changes the shoulder blade position and increases the risk of impingements occurring,” Bullock says.

Performing stretches that increase the length of the structures at the back of the shoulder as well as the pectorals can help regain or maintain shoulder rotation. “Also ensuring you have adequate thoracic spine mobility, particularly extension, to be able to access more shoulder movement without pinching,” says Bullock.

Rotator cuff muscles are the forgotten muscles of the shoulder when training. “They aren’t big and explosive like pecs or deltoids, but their role is incredibly important in stabilising the shoulder joint,” Bullock says. To strengthen shoulders and reduce injury risk, she recommends the external rotation in side lying position and the subscap wall push. Further from the body, cable exercises such as woodchops make for good shoulder training.”

Excessive overhead movements and high repetitions involving upright row, lateral raises and bench press techniques should be avoided.