Looking for spinal cord injury shoulder exercises?
If you have a C5 level of injury or higher, you’ll likely experience some weakness in your shoulders.
If you have a lower-level spinal cord injury that doesn’t affect your upper body (typically T2 or lower), you may experience shoulder pain due to overuse of these muscles (especially if pushing a manual wheelchair).
Performing shoulder exercises can help spinal cord injury patients lengthen stiff muscles, increase range of motion, and reduce pain.
15 Effective Spinal Cord Injury Shoulder Exercises
Every spinal cord injury is unique, so don’t worry if you can’t perform any of these shoulder exercises.
Feel free to adjust any of these exercises so that they work for you.
To make these shoulder exercises more challenging, consider wearing weighted cuffs or increasing the number of repetitions you perform.
Here are 15 simple shoulder exercises that can help spinal cord injury patients increase upper limb mobility.
1. Arm Circles
Spread your arms out to the sides so that your body makes a “T” shape.
Move your arms in circular motions forward and backward.
Alternate making small and large circles.
This exercise will help promote range of motion in your shoulder joints.
2. Arm Bows
Spread your arms out to the side and bend your elbows so that the forearms face forward. Your arms should be bent at a 90° angle.
Rotate your forearms forward and stop when they are level with your upper arm.
Rotate them back to your starting position and then bring them down again, this time stopping when the hands face down.
This exercise will help stretch your rotator cuff muscles.
3. Arm Against Wall
Hold one arm straightened out to the side and lean the inner part of that arm against a wall.
Slowly turn your body in the opposite direction.
For example, if your right arm is against the wall, your body should turn left.
Hold for 30 seconds and then switch sides.
This stretch will help relieve tightness in the chest and shoulders.
4. Head Tilts
Tilt your head to the side so that your ear approaches your shoulder blade.
Hold for 20 seconds and then repeat to the other side.
Then, tilt your head down toward the center of your body and hold.
5. Arm Across Chest
Wrap one arm across the chest and use your other arm to hold it there.
Hold for 20-30 seconds and then switch arms.
This stretch will help improve range of motion in the shoulder joint and flexibility in your deltoids.
6. Overhead Shoulder Stretch
Bend one arm behind your head and use your other arm to gently press the elbow back (as if you are trying to get your elbow in line with your head).
Hold for 30 seconds and then switch arms.
This will stretch your chest, shoulders, deltoids, and triceps.
7. Shoulder Blade Squeezes
Take a deep breath in, so that your chest expands and move your arms back so that your shoulder blades get closer together. Actively squeeze the shoulder blades together as you move your arms back.
You should feel a slight stretch in your upper back, as well as across your chest.
8. Ladder Climbs
Make ladder-climbing motions with your arms.
Practicing these up and down motions will help promote range of motion in the shoulder joints.
Repeat 15 times for each arm.
9. Shoulder Shrugs
Lift your shoulders as high as you can and then lower them 10 times.
To make this exercise more challenging, try holding the shrug a little longer.
Shoulder shrugs can help strengthen your trapezius (upper back) muscle, which is responsible for shoulder blade movements and stability.
10. Shoulder Rolls
Once you’ve got the shoulder shrug down, try rotating your shoulders in circles forward and backward.
Many spinal cord injury patients get a lot of practice rolling their shoulders forward because it’s the same motion they make when they push themselves in a wheelchair.
Therefore, it may be a good idea to focus more on backward shoulder rolls.
Perform 5 forward shoulder rolls followed by 10 backward shoulder rolls.
11. Seated Upper Back Stretch
First, make sure that the brakes on your wheelchair are set and that your feet are flat on the ground.
Place only your hands face down on the armrest (elbows should be bent, and forearms should not be touching the armrest).
Press down with your hands and move your elbows towards the center of your back.
Hold for 15 seconds.
12. Front Clap, Back Clap
Clap your hands in front of your body and then swing your arms back to clap your hands behind your body.
Repeat 20 times front and back.
13. Half Jumping Jacks
Swing your arms above your head and bring them back down to make jumping jack motions with your arms.
When you perform this exercise, you’re practicing shoulder abduction (when you lift your arms away from your body) and adduction (when you lower your arms back down towards your body).
Practicing punches can be a great way to work out your shoulders.
Try to position yourself in your wheelchair so that you’re turned diagonally. This should make it clear that one arm is forward and the other is behind.
Alternating your arms, throw 10 punches straight forward. When you punch with the behind arm, your torso should twist.
Next, change your target and throw 10 punches upwards, 10 punches downwards, and 10 punches diagonally.
Make broad, circular rowing motions with your arms: move them up and forward, down and back.
Repeat 15 times, then switch directions: down and forward, up and back.
Shoulder Exercises After Spinal Cord Injury
Depending on the severity of your injury and how limited your arm function is, performing shoulder exercises after your spinal cord injury may be very challenging.
Consider getting your caregiver or physical therapist to help you perform passive range of motion exercises. This is when someone else moves your body for you. Ideally, if you are able to, try to perform the first part of the motion actively (you moving the muscles yourself), then have your caregiver or therapist complete the remaining range of motion for you.
This helps stimulate the muscles, improve range of motion, and promote circulation.
Hopefully, you try these shoulder exercises for yourself! Focus on moving what you can and don’t worry about what you can’t. Good luck!