Show of hands if you have ever experienced shoulder pain when reaching to fasten your seatbelt, grabbing something from overhead, washing your hair, or throwing a ball. Shoulder pain is an extremely common complaint for many people.

You already know that regular massage therapy can help with pain, headaches, and anxiety. But is massage therapy good for shoulder pain too? Read on to learn about the types of shoulder pain, rotator cuff muscles, and appropriate treatment options.


Types of shoulder pain

Falls, car accidents, overuse/repetitive stress, and sports injuries are all reasons you may experience shoulder pain at some point in your life.

Common shoulder problems include frozen shoulder, dislocations, and tendinitis. But the most common source of shoulder pain is rotator cuff injury.


What is the rotator cuff?

Robert Fay, owner and clinical director at Armonk Physical Therapy and Sports Training in Armonk, New York, says that approximately 80% of shoulder patients at his practice are being treated specifically for rotator cuff injury. But what exactly is a rotator cuff?

The rotator cuff is not one single body part like the name would suggest. Rather, it’s made up of FOUR muscles that run from the shoulder blade (scapula) to the upper arm bone (humerus). It gets its name because when viewed in X-ray, the rotator cuff muscles look like a cuff around the shoulder joint.

The main functions of the rotator cuff muscles are to stabilize the “ball in the socket” and rotate and raise the arm. Rotator cuff muscles keep your shoulder from dislocating every time you raise your arm, throw a ball, or reach behind you.


Rotator cuff muscles

There are approximately 15 muscles that can be classified as shoulder muscles and can contribute to shoulder pain. But which belongs to the rotator cuff?

The following graphic shows the four rotator cuff muscles and some examples of movements that might cause shoulder pain when a rotator cuff injury is present.

Rotator cuff muscles and movements



Rotator cuff injury treatment

Depending on the severity or cause of your rotator cuff injury, treatment can involve anything from surgery to massage therapy, so it’s important to have an accurate diagnosis from an orthopedist before seeking treatment. Physical therapy and massage therapy will likely be recommended whether or not you have surgery.


Physical therapy for rotator cuff injury

The shoulder is the most mobile yet least stable joint in the body. Fay says, “Rotator cuff muscles shut down in response to a shoulder injury and need to be retrained or the bigger shoulder muscles (like the deltoids, pecs, biceps, and lats) will compensate.”

When one or more of the rotator cuff muscles are weak or overused, it can cause any number of problems in the shoulder. “These imbalances can lead to further shoulder deterioration as we age,” says Fay.

When it comes to the treatment of rotator cuff issues, one size definitely does not fit all. A physical therapist will often spend a lot of time determining which muscle is injured, which is weak, and which is overused so they can develop an appropriate recovery plan for you.


Massage therapy for shoulder pain

Massage can be enormously effective in helping to decrease pain, increase range of motion, and increase the flexibility of the affected tissue.

“Most people compensate for shoulder instability by using other muscles. Massage therapy is very helpful in releasing tone in the pec minor, biceps, latissimus dorsi, and deltoids. Massage treatment to these muscles improves our ability as physical therapists to strengthen the deeper rotator cuff muscles,” says Fay.

It’s important to tell your massage therapist if you have been diagnosed with a rotator cuff injury so they can tailor your massage therapy treatment. You don’t want to receive massage when the injury is acute or actively inflamed. Your massage therapist can even speak to your physical therapist to ensure the massage treatments are structured to decrease your pain and return you to activity as efficiently and effectively as possible.


Are you experiencing shoulder pain?

If you are experiencing shoulder pain due to a rotator cuff injury, I’d love to help you. Get yourself scheduled here.