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Preventing Shoulder Pain and Injury

Your shoulder has the widest range of motion of any joint in your body. This flexibility allows you to do everything from throwing a baseball and swinging a tennis racket to lifting and moving equipment or materials at work or at home.

But, the joint's structure makes your shoulder vulnerable to injury.

"The shoulder is inherently unstable due to its bony structure," says Christopher DiPasquale, M.S., P.T., a physical therapist. "It's like a golf ball on a tee, with the rounded end of the upper-arm bone moving within the end of the collarbone. This allows a great deal of motion at the expense of structural robustness, since a number of muscles that go across the shoulder joint -- including the rotator cuff -- are subject to pinching or tearing over time."

Age, strain or overuse (in the case of rotator-cuff tears) can combine with the shoulder's unstable structure to cause injuries, necessitating physical therapy or surgery.

The following tips will help you prevent shoulder pain or injury and maintain a full range of arm motion.

Adjust your posture

According to Mr. DiPasquale, irregular posture is the root of most shoulder problems.

"We live and work in a society in which we spend a large amount of time sitting at a desk or driving a car," he says. "These activities make our muscles tight and shoulders rounded, restricting arm motion."

With the shoulder's vulnerable muscles misaligned, lifting something or throwing a ball can cause injury. To avoid this, Mr. DiPasquale suggests practicing "postural awareness," which involves strengthening your shoulder-blade muscles with exercise and standing and sitting up straight.

Stretch and strengthen

Stretching and strengthening exercises are the keys to preventing shoulder pain and injury.

"Strengthen your shoulder muscles by stretching your arms in front of you, behind you and over your head in a jumping-jack formation," says Mr. DiPasquale. "You can do a few repetitions of each a few times a day to loosen tight muscles, always staying aware of your posture."

If you plan to begin a sport that involves intense shoulder motion, such as tennis or baseball, Mr. DiPasquale recommends doing an exercise program that begins with shoulder stretches and shoulder-blade pinches, which involve repetition of shoulder-blade squeezes. Later, add weight lifting to increase intensity.

When to see a doctor

See a physician if you experience shoulder pain. Mr. DiPasquale recommends seeking help sooner rather than later. "A physician will consider your medical history and perform a thorough evaluation to identify the shoulder problem and design a treatment plan for you," he says. The physician may refer you to a physical therapist for continued treatment.