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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 and range of motion.

Be sure to do them carefully as improper form can worsen shoulder subluxation, and potentially lead to 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 and occupational 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 its socket in the scapula.
  • Frozen shoulder occurs when the shoulder joint becomes inflamed, stretched, or damaged, resulting in the shoulder becoming stiff or “frozen” in place. This may be caused by prolonged immobilization or 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 and/or occupational therapy shoulder exercises.

These shoulder exercises may also help if you are experiencing paralysis of the arm, affecting your shoulder range of motion.

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, stay there and feel the stretch for 10 seconds or so. And if it hurts, 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 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 up toward your ear.

Placing a hand on your affected shoulder or using a mirror to watch your form may help you to keep your shoulder from hiking up. 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.

If your hand seems to get stuck to the table, you can try placing a towel underneath it to help it slide more easily.

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.

stroke exercises small

Bonus: Download a free 25-page Stroke Rehab Exercise ebook

You’ll get a 25-page PDF with exercises and pictures. Click here to download the PDF (link will open a pop-up that will not interrupt your reading)

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.

If you have difficulties with your seated balance, be sure to complete this in a chair with arms or with someone else nearby.

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.

Again, if you are having trouble with your balance while sitting, consider having someone nearby to assist you as needed.

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 OT or PT about adding electrical stimulation to the mix.

Electrical stimulation 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 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.

Keep it Going: Get a Free Rehab Exercise Ebook (25 page PDF)

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Get our free ebook filled with 25 pages of rehab exercises featuring photos of licensed therapists. Sign up below to get your copy!

When you sign up, you’ll also receive our popular Monday newsletter that contains 5 articles on stroke recovery.

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Get Inspired with This Stroke Survivor Story

Mom gets better every day!

When my 84-year-old Mom had a stoke on May 2, the right side of her body was rendered useless. In the past six months, she has been blessed with a supportive medical team, therapy team, and family team that has worked together to gain remarkable results.

While she still struggles with her right side, she can walk (with assistance) and is beginning to get her right arm and hand more functional. We invested in the FitMi + MusicGlove + Tablet bundle for her at the beginning of August.

She lights up when we bring it out and enjoys using it for about 20 to 30 minutes at a time. While she still doesn’t have enough strength to perform some of the exercises, she rocks the ones she can do!

Thanks for creating such powerful tools to help those of us caring for stroke patients. What you do really matters!

David M. Holt’s review of FitMi home therapy, 11/09/2020

5 stars

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