Shoulder Exercises for Stroke Patients from an Expert Occupational Therapist

physical therapy shoulder exercises for stroke patients

These shoulder exercises for stroke patients can help relieve pain and improve shoulder subluxation.

Be sure to do them carefully as improper form can worsen shoulder subluxation into frozen shoulder!

Before we dig into the stroke rehab exercises, we’ll explain what these shoulder conditions are.

Benefits of Shoulder Exercises for Stroke Patients

Physical therapy exercises are a great way to improve mobility after stroke by retraining the brain.

Retraining the brain (a process formally known as neuroplasticity) may also help reduce pain, especially when the pain is caused by mobility impairments like shoulder subluxation and frozen shoulder.

Shoulder exercises for stroke patients may help treat these conditions:

  • Shoulder subluxation is a painful condition that occurs when the upper arm bone has partially dislocated from the shoulder blade.
  • Frozen shoulder occurs when the shoulder joint becomes inflamed, stretched, or damaged by the gravitational pull on the partially dislocated arm.
  • Shoulder pain can also be caused by spasticity, which is tightness in the muscles caused by the stroke.

Luckily, all of these conditions can be treated with proper physical therapy shoulder exercises.

Just be VERY cautious and do NOT overexercise. Improper form or overexertion can worsen preexisting shoulder conditions.

Therapeutic Shoulder Exercises for Stroke Patients

Occupational therapist, Barbara, demonstrates her best shoulder exercises for stroke patients below:

1. Weight Bearing Shoulder Lean

You will need: A bed or bench.

physical therapist demonstrating shoulder exercises for stroke patients

From a seated position, prop yourself up on your affected arm by placing your affected arm about a foot away from your body. Then lean into it.

If it feels good, feel the stretch for 10 seconds or so. And if it doesn’t feel good, stop the stretch immediately.

After 10 seconds or so, place your other arm out beside you so that you’re supported by both arms. Then rock from side to side, shifting your weight from one arm to the next.

You can place a rolled up towel underneath your hand to increase comfort.

2. Shoulder Tabletop Punching Movement

You will need: A tabletop and water bottle.

occupational therapists demonstrating shoulder subluxation exercises after stroke

Place a water bottle arms distance in front of you.

Then, make a fist with your affected hand and glide your forearm across the table to “punch” (or tap) the water bottle. Keep your elbow and forearm on the table.

Try your best to avoid letting your affected shoulder lift.

If you can’t help but lift your affected shoulder, that’s okay. Putting in the effort to try is still helping your brain relearn how to use those muscles.

3. Shoulder Pushing Movement

You will need: A tabletop and water bottle.

ot demonstrating tabletop shoulder exercises for stroke patients

Place the water bottle at arms distance and then hook the outside of your affected wrist around the bottle and push it across the table as far as you can.

Once you’ve pushed the bottle as far as you can to one side, reverse. Hook the bottle from the inside of your affected wrist and push it across the table.

Again, try your best to keep your shoulder down and your forearm and elbow on the table.

4. Cane Slide Movement

You will need: A cane and a chair.

pt demonstrating shoulder subluxation stroke exercises

Hold your cane at both ends and raise it up in front of you so that your arms are parallel to the floor. With the cane out in front of your body, twist your torso to the left and right.

Slowly repeat this twist back and forth and follow your arms with your eyes. As you continue to stretch, you’ll feel yourself go deeper and deeper into this twist.

Repeat 10 times, or more if it feels beneficial.

5. Lateral and Circular Cane Stretches

You will need: A cane and a chair.

expert therapist demonstrating stroke exercises for shoulder

From a seated position, place the cane away from you at arm’s length and place your affected hand on the handle. If you need more stability, secure your unaffected hand on top.

Now, lean forward while keeping yourself seated. Then lean back. You should feel this stretch all the way up your torso and into your shoulder.

Next, try making big circular motions with your upper body while using the cane for support. You can use your unaffected hand to guide your affected side in this big circular motion.

Repeat each exercise 10 times.

Combining E-Stim with Shoulder Exercise to Reduce Pain

When you practice these stroke recovery exercises, aim for at least 10 repetitions each. Repetition is key to rewiring the brain.

If you suffer from shoulder pain due to shoulder subluxation, frozen shoulder, or spasticity, then talk to your PT about adding electrical stimulation to the mix.

Electrical stimulation (i.e. TENS therapy) helps the muscles contract and the upper arm to go back into the socket.

It won’t happen all at once, but combining electrical stimulation with physical therapy exercise is shown to produce better results.

And there you have it! We hope these shoulder exercises for stroke patients help improve your mobility and reduce your pain.