Shoulder pain when lifting arm can be both annoying and debilitating. Whether you’re an athlete, manual laborer, or a stay-at-home mom, anyone can experience this symptom. An American Physical Therapy Association study shows that 14-18% of people experience shoulder pain due to a job requiring frequent lifting.
In most cases, pain in the shoulder could signify a rotator cuff injury. It can also mean a frozen shoulder, which occurs when the muscles around your shoulder become weak and stiff.
Thankfully, there are many ways to treat this pain. This article discusses 12 common causes of shoulder pain when lifting the arm and some helpful tips for healing from it.
Symptoms of Shoulder Pain When Lifting the Arm
Common symptoms of shoulder pain when lifting the arm include:
Inability to rotate your arm at the shoulder joint – Rotator cuff problems can hinder your ability to entirely turn your arm, which may inhibit your ability to put on a shirt or button your pants.
Sudden popping or clicking sounds when moving your arm – If you hear these sounds, it could be a rotator cuff injury or impingement that needs to be addressed.
Numbness or weakness in your hand – Numbness or weakness in your hand is a common symptom. It can be caused by irritation, damage, or compression of the nerves in your arm and wrist.
Pain that gets worse after working – If your shoulder pain when lifting your arm gets worse after you’ve worked, it could be caused by overuse or repetitive stress injuries.
Swelling or stiffness in your shoulder joint – You may experience swelling or stiffness if you have a rotator cuff tear or adhesive capsulitis.
Pain that radiates down your arm – This could be a sign of a rotator cuff tear.
12 Common Causes of Shoulder Pain When Lifting Arm
1. Overuse Injury
Overuse Injury is perhaps the most common reason for shoulder pain when lifting arms. If your body does not have enough time to recover from the activities, you’ll be setting yourself up for an overuse injury. Overuse injuries occur when your body is required to do more than it can handle, often due to repetitive motions like lifting.
2. Bad Posture
Bad posture can pressure your shoulder joint, leading to shoulder pain. If you have a terrible posture and experience shoulder pain when lifting your arms, addressing your posture and learning correct lifting techniques can help treat the pain.
When lifting an object, keep your arm close to your body. Bend at the knees instead of lifting with your back when possible. Hold heavy objects close to your body to reduce stress on your rotator cuff muscles.
3. Stretching Rotator Cuff Muscles Too Much
The rotator cuff muscles are responsible for assisting with rotating your arm. When you stretch these muscles beyond their normal range of motion, you can irritate them and cause them to spasm.
This can lead to a rotator cuff impingement or rotator cuff tear. To prevent these issues, only stretch your rotator cuff muscles when necessary.
4. Shoulder Impingement Syndrome
Shoulder impingement is the abnormal thickening of your rotator cuff tendons. If your rotator cuff tendons become abnormally thick due to repetitive use, they may rub against the rotator cuff friction groove, causing shoulder impingement.
This friction can cause shoulder pain and other symptoms. If you’re experiencing shoulder pain when lifting your arm or lifting heavy objects regularly, it’s a good idea to get checked out for impingement.
Although this condition may not seem serious, it can lead to rotator cuff tears and other more severe issues.
5. Rotator Cuff Tears
A rotator cuff tear is a severe condition that can be difficult to treat. Rotator cuff tears are sometimes caused by a condition called “shoulder impingement syndrome,” when the rotator cuff muscles become abnormally thick due to repetitive use.
Other times, rotator cuff tears are caused by an injury that damages the muscles within the rotator cuff. If you have frequent shoulder pain when lifting your arm, you should get checked out for a rotator cuff tear.
6. Frozen Shoulder
Shoulder impingement can lead to a condition called “frozen shoulder.” Frozen shoulder is a condition that causes your shoulder joint to become inflamed and stiff. This can lead to shoulder pain when lifting your arm.
If a frozen shoulder is left untreated, it can become a chronic condition. Fortunately, frozen shoulder is relatively easy to treat when caught early. To prevent frozen shoulders, stretch the rotator cuff muscles, use the proper lifting technique, and wear the appropriate work attire.
7. Rotator cuff tendinosis
Tendinosis is a degenerative condition that may cause tissue death. It most commonly affects the rotator cuff muscles. Rotator cuff tendinosis is caused by overuse and lifting heavy objects too frequently.
If you’re experiencing frequent shoulder pain when lifting your arm, it may be caused by rotator cuff tendinosis. Luckily, rotator cuff tendinosis is both preventable and treatable. To prevent rotator cuff tendinosis, use the proper technique and wear the appropriate attire when lifting heavy objects.
Calcific tendonitis is when calcium deposits build up in your tendons, muscles, and joints. It commonly affects the rotator cuff muscles, though it may also affect other joints in the body.
Calcific tendonitis is caused by repetitive use or overuse. If you’re experiencing frequent pain in your shoulder when lifting your arm, it may be caused by calcific tendonitis.
9. Adhesive capsulitis
Adhesive capsulitis is a condition that can cause your shoulder joint to become inflamed and stiff. If you have adhesive capsulitis, your shoulder joint will feel stiff, painful, and with limited movement.
If you have frequent shoulder pain when lifting your arm, it may be caused by adhesive capsulitis. Unfortunately, there is no known cure for adhesive capsulitis. However, it can be treated with anti-inflammatory medications and physical therapy.
10. Brachial neuritis
Brachial neuritis is a rare condition that affects your nerves. If you have this condition, your nerves become inflamed and may even become swollen. This condition can lead to pain and other symptoms in your arms and hands.
An infection or injury most commonly causes brachial neuritis. If you have frequent shoulder pain accompanied by tingling or numbness in your hands, brachial neuritis may be the culprit.
11. Shoulder Fractures
A shoulder fracture, also known as a broken shoulder, occurs when a significant amount of force is placed on the shoulder, breaking one or more of the bones that make up the shoulder. This will cause shoulder pain when raising arms.
There are many types of shoulder fractures, and each has its symptoms and treatment options. Shoulder fractures can happen at the tip, top, or front of the shoulder and the back of the shoulder.
Shoulder osteoarthritis is a common form of arthritis affecting joints and bone, causing stiffness and pain. It mainly affects people above the age of 40. Symptoms of shoulder osteoarthritis include pain that worsens when lifting your arms above your head. It also causes stiffness, especially when you wake up in the morning, and discomfort when sleeping on your shoulder.
Best Treatment and Exercises For Shoulder Pain When Lifting Arms
If you’re experiencing shoulder pain when lifting your arm, you should take steps to treat it as soon as possible. Here are some ways to treat shoulder pain when lifting your arm:
1. Strengthening Exercises
One of the best ways to prevent an overuse injury is to strengthen the muscles around your shoulder joint through specific exercises. Strengthening exercises are also one of the best ways to treat an overuse injury, but there are other benefits.
Below are some best practices you can do to strengthen the muscles around your shoulder joint, which can help to prevent and treat shoulder pain when lifting your arms.
Wall Presses are designed to strengthen the muscles around your shoulder joint, specifically the rotator cuff, which are commonly weak in individuals with shoulder pain.
To perform wall presses, stand in front of a sturdy, bare wall with your back pressed against it. Bend your knees, and keep your spine in a neutral position throughout the exercise.
Lift your arms above your head and place your hands against the wall, with your palms facing outward. Slowly press your hands against the wall and lower your arms back to their original position. Repeat this exercise 10-15 times.
Shoulder Blade Squeeze
The shoulder blade squeeze is an effective exercise for strengthening the muscles around your upper back and shoulders, which can help prevent and treat shoulder pain when lifting your arms.
To do this exercise, sit on a bench with your back straight, shoulders back, and feet planted on the floor. Place a small pillow or a towel between your knees.
Slowly squeeze your shoulder blades together as if you are trying to touch your shoulders together. Hold this squeeze for five seconds, and then release. Repeat this exercise 10-15 times.
Wall push-offs are another excellent strengthening exercise that can help prevent and treat shoulder pain when lifting your arms.
First, stand two feet away from a wall with your feet hip-width apart. Bend your knees slightly, keep your spine in a neutral position, and place your hands against the wall.
Then slowly push your hands against the wall, hold for a few seconds, and slowly release your hands back to their original position. Repeat this exercise 10-15 times.
Upper Back Stretches
Along with strengthening the muscles around your shoulder joint, it’s also important to stretch the muscles around your upper back. Tight muscles around your upper back can cause shoulder pain when lifting your arms, so trying these muscles is vital. Below are a few upper back stretches that can help prevent and treat shoulder pain when lifting your arms.
The overhead stretch is a simple upper back stretch that can help prevent and treat shoulder pain when lifting your arms. To do this stretch, stand with your spine in a neutral position.
Bend your knees slightly, and then raise your arms above your head. Bring your palms together so that they are touching, and slowly bend your upper body towards your hands. Hold this stretch for about 40 seconds, and then release. Repeat this stretch three times per day.
The chest stretch is another simple upper back stretch that can help prevent and treat shoulder pain when lifting your arm or sleeping. To do this stretch, stand with your spine in a neutral position.
Bring your arms behind your back, and then move your hands towards each other so that your palms are touching. Hold this stretch for about 40 seconds, and then release. Repeat this stretch three times per day.
2. Physical Therapy
If strengthening exercises and upper back stretches are not enough to prevent and treat shoulder pain when lifting your arms, it might be time to seek a physical therapist.
Physical therapists may be the best way to treat pain in the shoulder area. They will design an individualized program to help you prevent and treat shoulder pain when lifting your arms.
A physical therapist may also help find the root cause of your shoulder pain if strengthening exercises and upper back stretches do not provide relief.
If strengthening exercises, upper back stretches, and physical therapy are not enough to prevent and treat shoulder pain when lifting your arms or sleeping, it may be time to talk with your doctor about pain medication.
Depending on the severity, your doctor may prescribe an over-the-counter painkiller, or they might recommend a prescription painkiller.
Painkillers are an effective way to treat acute pain, but they are not meant to be used on an ongoing basis. It’s important to use pain medication as prescribed and to find other ways to heal when the pain subsides.
If you are prescribed a painkiller, follow the instructions on how to take it. Also, remember that painkillers are not a cure for the pain you’re experiencing; they are a way to treat the pain until your body heals. This can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.
Surgery is the last option for treating shoulder pain when lifting your arm. However, note that surgery does not heal the root cause of your pain. After surgery, you should follow a specific recovery program to ensure that your shoulder heals properly.
When searching for a doctor for your surgery, be sure to find a doctor who specializes in treating shoulder pain when lifting your arm.
When is surgery needed for shoulder pain?
Suppose you have tried non-surgical treatments for at least six months with no improvement in your pain level. You may need surgery if you have significant problems doing your daily activities or worsening pain despite treatment.
The timing of surgery for shoulder pain depends on the cause, the person’s age, and the person’s overall health. Surgery can significantly improve shoulder pain and quality of life for many people with shoulder problems.