Shoulder pain is an all-too-common problem. In fact, the shoulder joint is one of the most mobile joints in the human body; however, this makes it much more susceptible to injury. So, let’s dive into this topic a little further. What are some common causes of shoulder pain when lifting your arm? How can you relieve your shoulder pain?

Causes of Shoulder Pain When Lifting Your Arm

Pain is your body’s way of letting you know when something is wrong. However, knowing what is wrong is a whole other story. Below, we examine common causes of shoulder pain when lifting your arm in more detail.

Bursitis

The shoulder joint is home to six different bursae. A bursa is a fluid-filled sac that helps prevent friction between different body structures, such as bones and tendons. Bursitis refers to the inflammation of this structure.

When bursitis occurs, the first tell-tale signs include pain, achiness, stiffness and inflammation. You may also experience decreased range of motion due to pain when lifting your arm. Generally, a bursa might become inflamed due to repetitive movements, such as throwing a ball repeatedly and typically, it hurts more when you move your shoulder joint.

Rotator Cuff Strain/Tear/Injury

The rotator cuff muscles keep the head of your upper arm bone (the humerus) in the shoulder socket and aid in various movements, such as rotating the shoulder and raising your arm out to your side.

Usually, a rotator cuff injury begins as a dull ache. However, if not treated properly, this can worsen. Due to the pain, you might also struggle to sleep through the night, perform any activities that require you to reach behind your back, and experience shoulder or arm weakness.

Some of the most common forms of rotator cuff injuries include muscle, tendon strains or tears. These injuries happen due to repetitive overhead movements or heavy lifting. When a strain occurs, the muscle or tendon is pulled past its usual limits. In the most severe circumstances, this might mean a torn rotator cuff muscle or tendon.

Older individuals and individuals working in physical roles may have an increased risk of a rotator cuff injury.

Rotator Cuff Tendinopathy

On the other hand, rotator cuff tendinopathy is a little different from a muscle tear or strain. In this circumstance, tendons of the rotator cuff degenerate, leading to pain. Yet, similar to other rotator cuff injuries, tendinopathy often happens due to repetitive overhead activities or recurring shoulder injuries.

Rotator cuff tendinopathy usually involves tenderness on the anterior part of the shoulder, reduced strength, decreased range of motion, stiffness, and occasionally a clicking when you lift your arm.

This type of injury is frequently associated with shoulder impingement. Shoulder impingement is when a tendon gets caught in the subacromial space (the space between the ball and top of socket) within the shoulder, becoming irritated and inflamed.

Frozen Shoulder (Adhesive Capsulitis)

Frozen shoulder, also called adhesive capsulitis, is a condition where the shoulder capsule thickens and becomes inflamed, literally freezing your shoulder in place. In most individuals, this starts gradually and typically worsens over time. The most noticeable symptoms include decreased range of motion, shoulder stiffness and pain.

Cervical Spine Nerve Compression

Cervical spine nerve compression, also known as cervical radiculopathy or a pinched nerve, happens when a nerve becomes compressed in the cervical spine.

The cervical spine makes up the posterior portion of your neck, supporting the head. However, as you age, these bones naturally become worn down. This means that they move closer together, which may lead to the production of bone spurs. Bone spurs cause your spine to become stiffer with age, as well as narrow the inner part of the spine. In turn, this can pinch the nerves that run through the spine, leading to pins and needles in the hand or fingers, muscle weakness in the arm, shoulder or hand and shoulder pain.

Pain Relief

If you are experiencing persistent or severe shoulder pain, booking an appointment with your local physio is essential. If your shoulder injury produces immediate and severe pain, seek out emergency medical help.

If you have moderate pain, you may want to consider resting your shoulder and icing it. Ice helps reduce pain and decrease inflammation. When using an ice pack, make sure you secure a cloth between your skin and the ice to prevent skin damage. At the same time, it’s also crucial to move your shoulder as much as you can without aggravating the pain since immobilisation of the shoulder for long durations may lead to a frozen shoulder.

Alternatively, for tense or stiff shoulders, you may want to use heat since it can help relax these muscles, reducing pain.

NSAIDs, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen or naproxen, can also help decrease pain and inflammation. However, it’s essential to speak with your health care practitioner to gain insight into the dosage and duration to take them. There are also some reasons you may not be able to take these medications, so it’s a good idea to consult your physiotherapist or GP first before taking them.

For most shoulder pain cases, you will also want to focus on any posture changes and exercises, such as stretches and strengthening movements, to accelerate your recovery and prevent future injury from happening.

Make Some Postural Changes

In today’s modern society, many of us spend hours upon hours sitting at our desks. Often, this results in rounded shoulders and craned necks. So, what can you do about it?

Inevitably, there are various exercises you can practice to improve your posture. Yet, getting to the root cause means paying attention to your spinal alignment throughout your daily life.

This may mean incorporating postural supports or a more ergonomic set-up into your office space. Or it may mean setting alarms every hour to adjust your posture.

Yet, what does a “proper posture” actually look like? Whilst there are some common correction tips, seeing your physiotherapist to get advice specific to your situation is a great idea.

Treatment

The treatment for your shoulder pain often depends on the cause. For instance, a frozen shoulder will have a much different approach when compared to a rotator cuff strain.

Generally, you should engage in non-aggravating exercises, including strengthening movements that support proper posture. Various rowing exercises are also often encouraged with shoulder pain to help regain strength and function. An excellent starter exercise before this includes standing tall and gently pinching your shoulder blades down and back. Hold here for 5-10 seconds each time and do about 10-15 repetitions and 2-3 sets.

Using heat or cold compresses may also help ease the pain and reduce inflammation, helping you regain function sooner.

Again, if your pain is persistent, it’s likely a good idea to visit your physio, who can provide more treatment options suited to you and your specific situation.

In rare cases, such as severe frozen shoulder conditions, surgery may be necessary to help facilitate proper recovery.

Prevention

Preventing shoulder pain when lifting your arm involves strengthening your rotator cuff and postural muscles, as well as maintaining or increasing flexibility. Other preventative methods you should consider may include:

  • Starting with lighter exercises and using progressive overload to increase your weight, intensity, or frequency gradually.
  • Listening to your body. If pain occurs, ease off or stop.
  • Ensuring you are sitting and standing with proper posture, especially when using electronic devices.
  • Making sure if you’re lifting or performing any exercise that you’re using the proper technique.
  • Taking frequent breaks, especially if you work at a desk or are performing repetitive shoulder movements.
  • Setting up your desk as ergonomically as possible.
  • Avoiding straining yourself to reach for things. Instead, use a stool when needed or ask for help.

Conclusion

While different causes of shoulder pain when lifting your arms above your head require different treatments, the preventative strategies are very similar. In many cases, consulting with a physio can help ensure a smooth and full recovery.

Paying attention to your posture, correcting it, and performing shoulder strengthening exercises can also count for a lot when it comes to your recovery and preventing future pain. While prevention is always best, sometimes, pain is unavoidable. When this occurs, seeking out the help of a professional is crucial so you can get back to the activities you love as soon and as safely as possible.

Faith So

Faith So

Physiotherapist

Faith completed her Bachelor of Physiotherapy (Honours) at Monash University, and is fluent in both Mandarin and Cantonese. She has experience providing physiotherapy for children and adults with a variety of conditions, and in a in number of clinical settings. Faith has a comprehensive set of skills and sound knowledge base she uses this to assist her patients in achieving their health and recovery goals.