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The Stiff Shoulder Epidemic: How Long Work Hours Are Ruining Our Health

It’s no secret that many Americans are working longer hours than ever before. The 40 hour work week is becoming increasingly rare, with many salaried professionals putting in 50, 60, even 80+ hours per week at the office. While our modern work culture often glorifies being constantly “on” and prizes long hours spent at the desk, the truth is this non-stop grind is taking a major toll on our physical health – especially our shoulders.

If you’ve ever experienced a sore, stiff, throbbing shoulder after a marathon work session hunched over the computer, you’re not alone. “Tech neck” and mouse shoulder are becoming increasingly commonplace afflictions in our modern office culture. Yet many workers simply grit their teeth through the pain, pop an Advil, and get back to it the next day. But ignoring these symptoms can have consequences, potentially impacting our posture, range of motion, and eventually requiring serious medical intervention down the road.

How exactly do long work hours lead to increased shoulder issues? Let’s break it down:

Poor Posture
When we’re stationed at our desks for 8+ hours a day, we naturally begin to slouch into poor posture positions. Slumping forward compresses the chest and rounds the shoulders, placing strain and tension on the upper back and neck. Maintaining this posture for prolonged periods over months and years can lead to muscle stiffness and loss of mobility in the shoulders.

Too Much Mouse Work
Using a computer mouse forces our shoulders into internal rotation as our arm reaches outward. Do this for hours on end and the soft tissues surrounding the shoulder joint become aggravated. Ligaments get overstretched, tendons get inflamed, and rotator cuff muscles become fatigued. Over time, this repetitive strain can even lead to tissue damage or tears.

Lack of Movement
We humans aren’t built for staying stationary in one position all day long. But with meetings to attend, calls to jump on, emails to answer, many desk workers find they barely have time to get up, stretch, and move around. This lack of mobility allows stiffness to set in. Tight muscles lose their range of motion if they aren’t moved through their full contraction/extension cycle regularly.

Poor Ergonomics
Even small adjustments such as placing your monitor too high or low, sitting in a chair with inadequate lumbar support, or working with your keyboard at the wrong angle forces the shoulders into misalignment. Do this daily for months on end and the body naturally adapts – but in unhealthy, strain-inducing ways.

Ignoring the Warning Signs
That initial minor shoulder stiffness or “crick” can be easy to overlook in our overworked lives. But allowing acute symptoms to become chronic issues by never fully giving the body time to rest and recover can take its toll.

While an occasional sore shoulder may seem like just a passing nuisance, extended periods of shoulder pain and mobility issues should not be taken lightly. Here are some of the more serious risks:

  • Adhesive capsulitis (frozen shoulder): The shoulder capsule becomes thickened and scarred, resulting in significant loss of motion. This painful condition can take months – sometimes years – of physical therapy to regain full mobility.
  • Rotator cuff injury: The tendons around the shoulder become inflamed and can eventually tear after years of overuse and strain. This may require surgical repair followed by extensive rehab.
  • Bursitis: Inflammation of the fluid-filled sacs (bursae) that protect the shoulder joint. Chronic bursitis causes localized pain and tenderness.
  • Tendinitis: Inflammation of the shoulder tendons due to consistent repetitive motion. Leads to stiffness, weakness, and nagging pain.
  • Thoracic Outlet Syndrome: This nerve condition results from compression in the neck/shoulder region. Causes numbness, tingling, and pain from the shoulder down the arm and hand.
  • Disc herniation: Work-related postural strain can contribute to vertebral discs in the neck bulging or rupturing, pressing painfully on spinal nerves.

And these are just a few of the common shoulder/neck issues that crop up from sustained poor posture and repetitive strain day after day. Allowing these symptoms to become severe can potentially lead to permanent mobility limitations that interfere with normal daily activities.

Protecting Your Shoulders

The good news is there are ways we can modify our daily work habits to avoid doing damage to our shoulders:

Take Breaks
Make sure to take 5-10 minute breaks every hour to stand up, stretch, roll your neck and shoulders, maybe take a quick walk around the office. This gives muscles and joints a chance to decompress.

Adjust Your Workstation
Explore ergonomic options like raising/lowering your monitor, chair, keyboardtray and armrests so you can sit and move in optimal alignment. Reduce slouching and strain.

Be Mindful of Posture
Consciously try to avoid hunching your shoulders up toward your ears for extended periods. Open up the chest to keep shoulders back to maintain good mobility.

Do Some Light Resistance Training
2-3x a week, incorporate some simple shoulder exercises using resistance bands/light dumbbells. This strengthens the muscles and prevents imbalances.

Try Counter-Stretching
After long periods typing/mousing, stretch your shoulder in the opposite direction. For example, if you’ve been internally rotating, stretch the shoulder into external rotation.

Know When To Seek Help
If you start experiencing recurring stiffness, constant soreness, numbness/tingling, see a physical therapist. Getting ahead of any major issues before they progress is key.

While our work culture may make long hours hunched over a computer the norm, it doesn’t mean we have to just accept the physical toll as an inevitable result. By making a few adjustments and being proactive with shoulder health, we can avoid major problems and keep our bodies moving freely – even when the work day never seems to end.