Why Does My Shoulder Hurt When I Lift My Arm?

Why Does My Shoulder Hurt When I Lift My Arm?

According to primary care experts, shoulder pain affects 14.7 per 1,000 patients every year. They also estimate shoulder pain to have a lifetime prevalence of up to 70%. Now that you have shoulder pain yourself, you may be wondering, "Why does my shoulder hurt when I lift my arm?"

An injured or irritated rotator cuff is the most likely reason for your pain. An impinged or torn rotator cuff can make it painful to move your shoulder, much less lift your arm. Calcific tendinitis, adhesive capsulitis, or osteoarthritis may also be behind your shoulder pain.

Why Does My Shoulder Hurt When I Lift My Arm?

Swollen or torn rotator cuffs are some of the primary causes of shoulder pain. These two alone are behind over 4.5 million doctor visits in the U.S. each year. They both cause pain when the arm of the affected shoulder gets lifted above the head.

How Does a Rotator Cuff Inflammation Occur?

Each shoulder has a rotator cuff consisting of four muscle tendons. Together, they support and tether the bone of the upper arm into the shoulder socket. It's thanks to these tendons that you can move your arm from the shoulder.

A shoulder injury can irritate, compress, or inflame any of these four tendons. This can lead to a condition known as "rotator cuff impingement."

An impinged rotator cuff can also occur due to an irritated, pinched, or swollen bursa. Bursae are tiny sacs filled with fluid, and they help minimize friction within the joints. If a shoulder gets impinged, it can cause pain, which feels worse when you lift your arm.

Aside from shoulder injuries, wear and tear can also cause rotator cuff inflammation. Thus, swollen shoulder pain is common in the elderly, affecting 21% to 27% of older people.

However, shoulder impingement can also affect younger, working people. This is especially true for those whose jobs entail lifting heavy items. The same goes for workers who carry out tasks that require raising their arms above their heads.

As such, carpenters, construction employees, and painters are at risk of shoulder impingement.

What About Rotator Cuff Tears?

A torn rotator cuff will cause pain similar to an impinged shoulder. Aside from pain, a tear in the rotator cuff can also result in weakness. So, if you feel shoulder pain and arm weakness, you may have a torn rotator cuff.

Rotator cuff tears, or RCTs, can either be partial or complete tears. A partial tear affects only a portion of the torn shoulder tendon. By contrast, a complete tear means that the entire tendon has separated from the bone.

RCTs are more often a result of physical injuries. Falls are a perfect example, as they cause 2.8 million injuries needing emergency care each year. If you fall and hit your shoulder, the impact can be enough to tear your rotator cuff.

Note that falling onto an outstretched hand can lead to a dislocated shoulder. Shoulder dislocation differs from a sprain or strain in that it can make you unable to move your arm at all. With a dislocated shoulder, the shoulder joint itself pops out of the socket.

Like an impinged shoulder, a torn rotator cuff can also cause pain when you lift your arm. The higher or the more outstretched your arm is, the worse the pain can get.

What Is Calcific Tendinitis and How Can It Cause Shoulder Pain?

Calcific tendinitis (or tendonitis) occurs due to calcium deposits. These minerals can build up in the muscles or tendons. It can happen to any part of your body, but it more frequently affects the rotator cuff.

Calcium buildup in the rotator cuff can limit arm mobility. It also puts you at risk of shoulder pain whenever you make overhead motions. Sometimes, even just brushing your hair or reaching out for something on a shelf can induce pain.

The more calcium deposits there are, the more they can hinder your shoulder movement. For instance, scientists say that calcific tendonitis can cause complications like pinched nerves. If the calcium buildup compresses a nerve, you might feel pain when you move your shoulder.

How Do I Tell if Adhesive Capsulitis Causes My Shoulder Pain?

Adhesive capsulitis, also known as "frozen shoulder," affects 2% to 5% of the population. It's more common in people with diabetes, manifesting in 10% of patients with the condition.

One way to tell that you have adhesive capsulitis is if you experience aching or dull pain in your shoulder. The pain frequently occurs over the shoulder's outer area, and in some cases, the upper arm. Moving your affected shoulder can trigger the pain, and it gets worse if you try lifting your arm.

You may also have a frozen shoulder if the pain comes with stiffness (hence, "frozen"). During the "freezing" phase, the symptoms are mild, so you may only feel slight discomfort.

From here, it progresses into the "frozen" phase, causing more pain and stiffness. At this point, you may already find it super hard to move your arm backward or lift it. Without proper treatment, the arm and shoulder can become so stiff that it feels like it's "frozen" in place.

Most people with a frozen shoulder enter the "thawing" phase after six months. However, some may require up to two years to recover.

Experts say that up to 10% of patients with rotator cuff conditions can get a frozen shoulder. So, having a shoulder injury puts you at a higher risk of developing adhesive capsulitis. 

How Can Osteoarthritis Lead to Shoulder Pain When Lifting an Arm?

Did you know that there are over 100 types of arthritis? More than 50 million adults in the US alone have some form of arthritis. Of all these arthritis types, though, osteoarthritis (OA) is the most prevalent.

As with all forms of arthritis, osteoarthritis results in joint inflammation and tenderness. Stiff and painful joints are the primary symptoms of arthritis, including OA.

OA distinguishes itself from other types of arthritis in that it occurs due to wear and tear. That's why it's a form of "degenerative" joint disease. It results from the breakdown of the joint cartilage that cushions the bones.

The cartilage serves as an "anti-friction" tissue between the bones. Over time, this slippery tissue deteriorates, and OA develops. Without enough cartilage, the bones can rub against each other, causing pain.

In most people, osteoarthritis affects the joints in the hands, knees, and hips. However, OA can also occur in the joints of the shoulder.

Having shoulder OA often causes symptoms like pain or aching that's worse in the morning. It also causes stiffness, reduced flexibility, and swelling. Lifting your arm or moving it in circles can aggravate the pain.

What Should I Do if My Shoulder Hurts Every Time I Move or Lift My Arm?

See your doctor if you have front or back shoulder pain or pain between the shoulder blades. Since there are too many potential culprits, it's best to get a professional diagnosis. This way, your physician can find out the exact cause of your shoulder pain and limited mobility.

You should also consider doing the following to help ease shoulder pain.

First-Aid Treatment for Shoulder Injuries

If you sustain a shoulder injury, be sure to rest and limit movement in the affected shoulder. Immobilizing your injured shoulder with a sling can reduce further soft tissue damage. It also helps secure a sprained, strained, or dislocated shoulder in place.

So, right after your shoulder takes a severe blow, keep it as immobile as possible. Do this even before you call or visit your doctor. This way, you can avoid worsening the injury, especially if it's a rotator cuff tear.

In most cases of soft tissue injuries, ice treatment should come first before heating. The goal of using ice in first aid is to help reduce inflammation, which can cause more pain. Icing can also help dampen the pain associated with shoulder sprains and strains.

Shoulder compression support can also help limit swelling right after an injury. It helps control blood flow while also stabilizing the injured shoulder.

Elevating your shoulder while you lie down can also help reduce pain and swelling. Sleeping in a reclined position is a great way to keep your injured shoulder elevated. Consider using a shoulder sling when you sleep to keep your arm and shoulder secure at night.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy can help restore shoulder function and mobility. It can help you recover from a shoulder impingement or a torn rotator cuff. Most doctors also recommend PT for patients with calcific tendonitis and adhesive capsulitis.

Physical therapy can also benefit almost all patients with OA, according to studies. Proper PT techniques can strengthen the rotator cuff and shoulder muscles.

Heat Therapy

Heat is helpful for shoulder injuries, so long as you apply the treatment once the swelling is gone. This means that you should wait for about one to three days before using heat on your shoulder. If you use heat treatment right away, the inflammation can take longer to disappear.

That's because heat can boost circulation, sending more blood to your injured shoulder. The more blood that flows to your shoulder, the higher your risks of swelling.

As such, make sure that you allow the swelling to go down first before using heat pads.

Aqua Therapy

Aqua therapy, or water therapy, can also help patients with shoulder pain or injuries. Experts say that it can benefit people with RCTs, tendonitis, impingement, and OA. It can even help minimize the signs of a frozen shoulder.

Water therapy involves exercises done in the water, such as a pool or a hot tub. It takes advantage of the buoyancy of water to reduce force and impact on injured body parts. So, it can help rehabilitate shoulder disorders with a lower risk of re-injury.

Dietary Modifications

Some foods can worsen arthritis, such as sugary, oily, and starchy foods. They seem to do so by triggering more inflammatory responses. The more swelling there is, the more painful your shoulder OA can get.

So, if you have shoulder osteoarthritis, stay away from these food items. Feast on antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies, as well as low-fat, non-dairy options instead. You should also switch to healthier oils, like extra virgin olive oil.

Pose With Perfect Posture

Neck and shoulder pain, as well as back pain, are common in people with poor posture. Prolonged hunching, such as when you use the computer, puts more stress on the shoulder joints. You can also develop a stiff neck, as well as widespread back pain.

As such, it's important to keep your back straight, and your shoulders relaxed. Pay attention to your head and chin; they shouldn't sit too forward of your shoulders. As much as possible, align your ears over your shoulders to avoid strains.

Optimize Your Workplace

If your job entails lifting or raising your arms over your head, you can ease the pressure by using a platform. By standing on top of an elevated surface, you can reduce the "distance" you need to raise your arm. This, in turn, can help you avoid over-stretching the tissues in your arm and shoulder.

Don't Shoulder the Pain on Your Own

As you can see, there are plenty of possible answers to your question, "why does my shoulder hurt when I lift my arm?" It can be due to rotator cuff disorders, or it can also be because of tendinitis or osteoarthritis. Regardless of what's causing your shoulder pain, it's best to seek your doctor's help as soon as you can.

This way, your doctor can determine if you only need rehabilitation or if you require surgery.

If your doctor tells you to use shoulder support, please know that PowerRebound can help. Feel free to check out our shoulder braces and support devices to help you keep shoulder pain at bay.

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