How to Recover from Shoulder Bursitis

There is a huge amount of money spent every year treating chronic shoulder pain; it also has massive effects on the quality-of-life of affected individuals. Often, pain in the shoulder is not completely resolved: approximately half of all new instances are still present after 6 months, according to Mario Pribicevic in The Epidemiology of Shoulder Pain: A Narrative Review of the Literature. By 12 months, the proportion increases to 60%.


One of the most common forms of shoulder pain is shoulder bursitis. Let’s look at what a bursa is and how it relates to bursitis and shoulder anatomy. Then we will go through 8 steps for recovery, particularly important given Pribicevic’s findings that this condition is often challenging to resolve.


What is a bursa and what are the shoulder bursae?


The bursa is a fluid-filled sac that exists in between tissues such as skin, tendons, muscle, and bone. The fluid within the bursa allows it to work as a cushion to limit the extent to which physical movement creates friction and irritation. When the bursae are healthy and operating correctly, your joints are able to work in an integrated fashion that is both smooth and pain-free. Inflammation and swelling within the bursae, a chronic pain condition, is called bursitis. One of the most common places where it is experienced within the body is the shoulder.


Within the shoulder, there are 8 bursae. This number makes the shoulder the place where more bursae are than any other bodily region. The primary shoulder bursae are the subcoracoid bursa, subacromial bursa, subdeltoid bursa, and subscapular bursa. At the top extent of the bursae are the M. deltoid, acromion bone, and coraco-acromial ligament. At the bottom extent are the M. supraspinatus, shoulder joint, and humeral head.


5-step initial treatment of shoulder bursitis


Now that we understand the basic region of the body, what can you do if the bursae in your shoulders became inflamed? You need steps to take immediately as well as ones to implement long-term. In terms of the immediate response, here are five standard initial steps to treat instances of shoulder bursitis:


  1. Rest – The first step is to rest until your immediate pain and inflammation can recede.
  2. Ice – You want to apply packs of ice for 15-20 minutes at a time, three or four times each day for the first three days.
  3. Heat – Once you are through the first two or three days, you want to introduce moist heat. This treatment should help to alleviate the pain as well as helping to resolve some of the swelling.
  4. Medicate – Clearly pain medication can be abused, so that should not be a long-term solution. However, drugs such as acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen can help immediately to mitigate some inflammation and acute pain if you have a sudden flare-up of symptoms.
  5. Get help – You do want to get professional medical assistance if you are experiencing chronic bursitis. The symptoms should resolve within 7-14 days.


Exercises for shoulder bursitis recovery


Here are three sample exercises for shoulder bursitis recovery, as recommended by Canadian governmental site My Health Alberta:  


Posterior stretching exercise


Hold the elbow of the arm with the hurt shoulder in your opposite hand. Then pull the arm across the upper part of your chest. You should experience a calm stretch in the back of the hurt shoulder. Maintain this position for 15-30 seconds. Do 2-4 repetitions.


Overhead stretch


Get about arm's distance in front of a chair, and grab it for balance. Bend your knees just a bit and bend forward at the waist. Let your shoulders stretch out, with your whole upper body parallel to the ground; you may need to push the chair forward to complete the stretch. Maintain the position for 15-30 seconds, and do 2-4 repetitions.


Shoulder extensor and flexor exercises


With these isometric exercises, what you are going for is contraction without any other motion:



Getting professional help


Are you experiencing shoulder bursitis? Hopefully the above initial treatment and stretching recommendations are helpful for at-home care. However, you may also need professional assistance for your full recovery.


As a board-certified orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Dominique Nickson is experienced in the diagnosis and treatment of shoulder bursitis. Learn more.

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