What Is A Shoulder Sprain or Strain?

Shoulder sprains and strains are very common upper body injuries that affect the muscles and ligaments around the shoulder. The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the human body, capable of moving through an extensive range of motion in virtually any direction. Its high mobility is what puts it at an increased risk of injury, as it has a loose joint capsule that relies on muscles to stabilise it and lacks the strong ligaments found in the knee, ankle, and other joints. The complex collection of muscles and tendons in the rotator cuff, and the biceps, are the main stabilising muscles. 

Sprains and strains are different though they present similarly, and understanding what is causing your pain can help you treat it appropriately. Most shoulder sprains and strains will heal over time with self-care, but very severe instances may take several months to fully recover. 

What Is A Shoulder Sprain?

A shoulder sprain occurs when a ligament in the shoulder is damaged through overstretching, impact, or some other force. Sprains can be relatively mild and recovery can happen with just a couple of weeks of rest, or so severe that the ligament is badly torn and requires medical attention. 

In its most severe form a shoulder sprain can lead to separation of the shoulder joint. This is referred to as an acromioclavicular (AC) joint injury. Common causes of this type of shoulder sprain include falling onto an outstretched arm, or direct impact to the shoulder such tackling, or being tackled, in rugby. 

This type of sprain is categorised into four grades:

  • Grade 1 - The ligaments are stretched or suffer partial tears. Pain is usually mild with some swelling. Typically you’ll be able to carry on with your daily activities but will find that movement of the shoulder is restricted and painful.
  • Grade 2 - The ligaments suffer fuller tearing and pain and swelling is more noticeable.
  • Grade 3 - The ligament tears are so bad that the AC joint separates, dislocating the collarbone which then appears like a large bump on the shoulder area. Pain, swelling, and bruising will be apparent and the shoulder will become unstable stopping you from carrying out activities like lifting.
  • Grade 4-6 - These are less common and involve not only separation of the AC joint but also tearing and separation of muscles from the collarbone - these require immediate medical attention.  

What Is A Shoulder Strain? 

Strains have similar symptoms to a strain but affect the muscles and tendons of the shoulder. Strains can be as simple as overstretching the muscle, or as serious as a full muscle tear. They can be caused by sudden, acute injuries when playing sport, or from repeated motions over time; even simple daily tasks like grabbing something from an overhead shelf can lead to a shoulder strain. 

Symptoms Of A Shoulder Sprain Or Strain

Most symptoms of shoulder strains and sprains are the same, and they include: 

  • Sudden pain
  • Weakness and instability in the shoulder
  • Limited range of motion
  • Swelling
  • Bruising

Sprains and strains respond well to self-care, but it’s important to understand that the types of injuries that cause a shoulder sprain or strain can also cause fractures and other more serious injuries. If you have the following symptoms you should get your injury assessed by a doctor immediately:

  • Numbness anywhere on the injured area
  • Pain directly on the bones surrounding your shoulder
  • You cannot move your arm 

Treatment For Shoulder Sprains And Strains

For treatment of any sprain or strain the NHS recommends the standard RICE treatment method which you can carry out at home. 

RICE therapy consists of four treatments which will help you to manage the pain and swelling that accompany a shoulder strain or sprain. 

  • Rest - It’s important to rest your shoulder initially, as further movement will aggravate the injury and make recovery longer, you also risk worsening the sprain/strain. So stop any exercise or activity that uses your shoulder, and avoid any weight or load bearing through the joint. 
  • Ice - Cooling your shoulder helps to manage pain and also reduce inflammation. As the temperature of the tissues around the shoulder reduces it also promotes blood flow to the area and speeds up healing. Physicool cooling bandages work faster than ice, and can also be applied to the joint for hours at a time without any risk of ice burn. Also our bandages wrap around the injury giving 360-degree cooling through the joint. 
  • Compression - Supporting the injury with a compression bandage helps to stabilise the injury and works in conjunction with cooling to speed up recovery. Our bandages function exactly like a compression bandage, allowing you to adjust the level of compression for your needs. 
  • Elevation - Keep the injury elevated above your heart, especially at night to allow gravity to act and reduce the swelling. 

Once you can move your shoulder without pain completely stopping you (this may take a couple of days) then it’s important to keep the shoulder moving and begin to carry out normal activities with it, but building up any load bearing or lifting slowly. This ensures that the joint doesn’t seize up and weaken due to lack of use. 

Remember that recovery from a shoulder sprain or strain can take anywhere from a few days to several months, depending on the severity of the injury. Don’t rush your recovery because you’ll only run the risk of further injury. 

Shoulder Rehab

If your sprain was bad it may be that you’ll need to undergo some rehabilitation therapy with a physio. You’ll undertake a series of exercises to help build up muscle strength and endurance, and also to return your shoulder to normal range of motion. 

While you can find exercises for strengthening your shoulders online through the NHS it is always best to seek advice from your GP. They will be able to refer you on to a physiotherapist, or you can seek private treatment. 

While recovering from a shoulder sprain or strain you’ll want to continue using cooling therapy to manage pain and swelling, and our shoulder injury recovery bandages, provide hours of rapid cooling relief. You’ll be back to your best fast.


Please Note

Some injuries can be self-treated whilst others require prompt medical attention. You should seek advice from a health professional if: the injury causes severe pain, swelling, or numbness; you can't tolerate weight on the area; the pain or dull ache of an old injury is accompanied by increased swelling or joint abnormality or instability.