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SCI Forum


Protecting Your Shoulders and Staying Active After Spinal Cord Injury


Presented by Kristin Kaupang, Physical Therapist, on April 10, 2012 at the University of Washington Medical Center, Seattle, WA.

[Check out the September 25, 2019 SCI Forum Revolutionay Shoulder Care for SCI.]


You can also watch this video on YouTube with or without closed-captioning.

Presentation time: 62 minutes. After watching, please complete our two-minute survey!

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Shoulder pain and SCI

As we all know, there are many changes in how muscles are used after spinal cord injury. Often a person has to rely completely on their upper extremities for what their legs used to do. In individuals with complete injuries, the upper body has to perform activities meant for the legs. For people with incomplete injuries, there may be altered strength or altered sensation, and they may use their muscles a little bit differently. Over time, these abnormal stresses can cause pain or discomfort. 

The shoulder is an extremely flexible joint.  The ball and socket arrangement and large number of tendons and ligaments allow an almost infinite number of directions the shoulder can move in (witness the astonishing contortions in a pitcher’s  arm when throwing a baseball). While this enormous range of motion is great for function, it makes the shoulder especially vulnerable to damage.

Around 75% of individuals with SCI have shoulder pain at some time during their lives, and the rate increases with the number of years since spinal cord injury. Shoulder pain can be very debilitating, decreasing a person’s independence and lowering quality of life.

How to protect your shoulders 

  1. REST / stop use of painful extremity

  2. Change the way you perform tasks

  3. Modify environment of task performance

  4. Strengthen and maintain flexibility

PLEASE NOTE: Consult with your physician or physical therapist before practicing the positions, exercises or stretches in this report to make sure you are doing them correctly for your specific condition, health and injury.

1. Rest or stop using your shoulder

Since everything you do involves your shoulders—getting out of bed, rolling, sitting, transferring—it's almost impossible to completely stop using your upper extremities unless you go on bed rest and have full caregiver support. This isn’t an option for most people.

Instead, you should strive to minimize shoulder activity (for partial rest). This involves paying close attention to your daily activities and figuring out what you can change, such as:


Positioning is important, even while resting. Try to keep your shoulders in an “open position,” rotated out, as when you sit upright and squeeze your shoulder blades together in back. This allows more space for all the tendons, nerves and blood vessels coming through the area. When you rotate your shoulders inward—the opposite of the open position—there is less space and more chance of pinching.

These guidelines and illustrations are for general information. Each person will need to adjust according to his or her own levels of pain and discomfort.

Positioning in bed

Remember: Try to keep changing your position throughout the night, about every three to four hours. This is good for your shoulders as well as providing pressure relief for your skin.


Avoid sitting with your arms crossed all the time or your shoulders hunched over. Instead, pull or squeeze your shoulder blades together in the back. If you're able to, and it's not impacting your function, try to keep your arms out to the side to prevent your shoulders from getting into a pinched state. 

You’ll notice that good posture while sitting gives you greater movement in your arms. Try slumping in your chair and lifting one arm; see how far you can reach. Then sit up as straight as possible, with your shoulder blades squeezed together, and raise the same arm. You get a lot more motion and reach. So a good base of support is essential for shoulder function.  If you're sitting slumped in your chair, if you don't have good trunk support, you can easily decrease the amount of shoulder movement you have and cause your shoulders to work harder. 

Make sure your seating and positioning has been evaluated by a therapist with expertise in spinal cord injury. 

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2. Change the way you perform tasks



Think of the number of transfers you do in a day, multiply that by the year and then by the life span— transfers are a huge part of your ability to stay independent.  The more you can protect your shoulders while doing this, the more you preserve your ability to maintain your independence and quality of life.

Pressure relief:  lean versus press-up

When I first started working in physical therapy, everybody was trained to do the full press-up for pressure relief: grasp their armrests, lift their buttocks clear of their seats, hold for 30 seconds, and do this every 15 to 20 minutes.  And while it's still a great technique to relieve pressure, it puts a lot of strain on your shoulders.

Today we recommend that you alternate your press-ups with leaning forward or to the side (see graphic).  Side leaning needs to be done on both sides. You can test these methods by having someone reach their hand under your buttocks to make sure there is space there so the pressure relief is effective. 


Carry objects close to the body

Holding something with outstretched arms puts torque on your shoulder.  If you bring the item closer to you, it’s going to be a lot less strain on your shoulder joint and a lot less painful. 

Don’t reach overhead or grab an overhead bar

Reaching overhead or pulling yourself up with a trapeze or a bar puts you into the internal rotation position, closes up the shoulder joint and can lead to pain. 

Manual wheelchair mobility

Power wheelchair  users
Try to keep your arms away from your body and stretch them out a little bit when you're in a power tilt. 

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3. Modify the environment of task performance

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4. Strengthen and maintain flexibility

Several important research studies have shown that certain exercises and routines can help reduce shoulder pain while strengthening and stretching the muscles used for shoulder function. (6, 21, 23, 24) In addition, the American College of Sport Medicine has come out with exercise guidelines for individuals with spinal cord injuries.(1) While there isn’t always complete agreement on how much, how often and  which kinds of exercises to do, there are some general guidelines that you can follow to develop strength and stay flexible, depending on your individual situation.


Muscles that need to be stretched to support the shoulder:

In general, hold each stretch for at least 20–30 seconds. 


The muscles that move the shoulder blade (scapula) side to side and up and down and stabilize it experience the greatest amount of force throughout the day and need to be strengthened. Bulking up isn’t recommended, as there is a danger of becoming imbalanced and developing more problems.

Muscles that need to be strengthened to support the shoulder:

Frequency and Duration of Exercises and Stretches



Preservation of Upper Limb Function: What You Should Know A Guide for People with Spinal Cord Injury Consortium for Spinal Cord Medicine and Paralyzed Veterans of America, by the Paralyzed Veterans of America Consortium for Spinal Cord Medicine. Washington, DC: Paralyzed Veterans of America; 2008. Free downloadable copy is available at www.pva.org (click on "Publications" from the "Get Support" drop-down menu).

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