Woman putting pressure on her shoulder due to pain

If you spend a lot of time at the computer or on your phone, there’s a good chance that you’re no stranger to shoulder tightness, which can happen when the arms are held out in front of the body for a prolonged time. That’s why it can feel so good (or, for some, hurt so good) when you lock your arms behind your back and flex the chest outward.

Shoulder pain is so common that there’s a video going viral on TikTok promising to be a way to cure it. In the post, the person in the video kneels on one knee in front of a wall. With one arm extended, she uses a ball to write the alphabet. This movement, the post says, strengthens the rotator cuff, which alleviates shoulder pain.

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Is it legit? We asked a physical therapist and a massage therapist to both weigh in, giving their thoughts. Here’s what they want everyone to know before trying it at home.

Related: What is Shneck Pain?

What the TikTok Video Gets Right—and What It Gets Wrong

The video targets the rotator cuff, which is a group of muscles and tendons surrounding the shoulder joint. The rotator cuff keeps the head of the upper arm bone firmly in the shoulder socket. Flexibility and strength exercises that target the rotator cuff can help support it and help protect against injury.

Dr. Andy Overstreet, DPT, MS, CSCS, EP, a physical therapist at Teton Therapy’s Cheyenne clinic in Wyoming, explains that there are many different reasons why someone may have shoulder pain and it’s best to work with a physical therapist who can recommend exercises targeted to their individual body. That said, he says the exercise in the TikTok video is okay to try if your goal is to improve shoulder endurance and mobility, which is how long a muscle can perform. Shoulder endurance helps support all the everyday activities we do that use the shoulders.

Related: Hunched Over and Dealing With Back Pain? Try These 12 Exercises for Better Posture

While the exercise in the video may help with rotator cuff endurance, Dr. Overstreet says that it is not a strengthening exercise, as the caption suggests. “This is not a strength exercise by definition, it is a motor control and endurance exercise. Strength training requires high-intensity effort, which does not allow for more than a few repetitions prior to failure. Writing 26 letters on the wall is not high intensity, it is low intensity and endurance-based,” he says.

Dr. Overstreet says the exercise may help with shoulder pain—or it may not. Again, it depends on the individual person and why they are experiencing pain.

Related: This Is the Best Sleep Position to Avoid Neck and Back Pain

How To Try the Exercise Safely at Home

If you do want to try the shoulder exercise, Marie Watkinson, LMT, a licensed massage therapist and the owner and spa event director at Spa Chicks On The Go, offers up some tips on how to do it safely. First, she says it should only be done by people who are not currently experiencing shoulder pain or being treated for a shoulder or arm condition. If you are in pain, it’s best to work with a physical therapist who can recommend specific exercises for you.

“Begin by breaking the alphabet up into thirds, resting every nine letters or so,” Watkinson says. “As long as you are pain-free and don’t have any numbness or increased symptoms, you could work up to doing three full alphabet sets.”

Dr. Overstreet says that, fortunately, it’s pretty hard to screw up this exercise. “As long as you are performing this drill with a straight arm and keeping the ball on the wall, you will be doing just fine with it. It is a low-stress exercise that should not have as much concern with technique considerations,” he says.

However, he adds that if you are experiencing pain, the exercise should be modified with different positions to help reduce the pain and still accomplish the goal of the exercise.

An Alternate Shoulder Exercise That Could Add Years to Your Mobility

While you shouldn’t totally rule out the TikTok shoulder exercise, Dr. Overstreet recommends a different exercise for improving your shoulder mobility in a more drastic way: the thoracic spine extension, which can help relieve tightness in the upper- and mid-back, also improving mobility.

There are several ways to do a thoracic spine extension, but here is one way that doesn’t involve any equipment: Sit up straight in a chair or against a wall. Make “goal posts” with your arms by bringing them out at your sides and bending at the elbow. Slowly, straighten your elbows, reaching each arm up until your arms are straight. Hold at the top for several seconds, then bring back down. Repeat 10 to 20 times.

And if you have shoulder pain, it’s best to get advice on how to treat it from a professional, not social media. After all, it’s their job to help!

Next up, here’s how to tell if a physical therapist is legit.


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