Shoulder Pain When Lifting Arm

Written By: Chloe Wilson BSc (Hons) Physiotherapy
Reviewed By: SPE Medical Review Board

Shoulder Pain When Lifting Arm: Common causes, symptoms and treatment options for anyone suffering from upper arm or shoulder pain when raising their arms. From

Shoulder pain when lifting your arm is a common problem and there are lots of possible causes.

There may be pain as soon as you try to lift your arm or you might only get pain lifting your arm above your head.

Alternatively, the pain may be worse when raising your arm forwards, or you might get more shoulder pain when lifting your arm out to the side.

Here we will look at the common causes of shoulder pain when lifting, how they present and how to treat them.

What Causes Shoulder Pain When Lifting Arm?

Shoulder pain when lifting your arm is usually caused by something being:

  • Torn: e.g. rotator cuff tear
  • Inflamed: e.g. tendonitis or frozen shoulder 
  • Getting Stuck or Pinched: e.g. impingement syndrome

The most common causes of shoulder pain when lifting your arm are:

1. Shoulder Impingement Syndrome

Shoulder impingement syndrome is the most common cause of upper arm and shoulder pain when lifting your arm. Impingement syndrome is where one or more of the soft tissues repeatedly gets pinched or trapped which leads to inflammation and tearing. 

Common symptoms of shoulder impingement syndrome include:

Shoulder Impingement Syndrome is a common cause of upper arm and shoulder pain when raising arm. From
  • Sharp Shoulder Pain: when lifting arm above head or behind back

  • Painful Arc: no pain lifting the arm up initially, but pain gets gradually worse as you raise the arm towards shoulder height. Worsening pain lifting arm above head, although pain may reduce at the top part of the movement

  • Shoulder Pain When Lifting Objects: worse with heavier items and when lifting above shoulder height

Impingement Syndrome is usually caused by:

  • Repetitive Overhead Activities or Heavy Lifting: e.g. racket sports, DIY. Most common in the under 40’s
  • Bone Spurs: which reduce space resulting in friction on the soft tissues. Most common in the over 40’s

Shoulder impingement is often linked with:

Full Article: Shoulder Impingement Syndrome - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

2. Rotator Cuff Tears

Another common cause of shoulder pain when lifting your arm is damage to one of the rotator cuff tendons. The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles that surround the shoulder joint. 

Rotator Cuff Tears are a common cause of shoulder pain when raising arms. Find out about common causes, symptoms and treatment options

Rotator cuff tears may be caused by:

  • Sudden Injury: e.g. fall onto an outstretched arm or awkward heavy lifting
  • Gradual Wear & Tear: from repetitive friction with overhead activities, age related changes and poor posture

Typical symptoms of rotator cuff tears are:

  • Shoulder Pain When Raising Arm: away from the body 
  • Arm Weakness: often accompanies shoulder pain lifting arm up. With a complete tear (rupture) may find can’t lift arm at all
  • Crepitus: clicking, popping, grinding noises with arm movement

Full Article: Torn Rotator Cuff - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

3. Frozen Shoulder

Another possible cause of shoulder pain when lifting your arm is a frozen shoulder aka adhesive capsulitis. This is where there is inflammation and thickening of the joint capsule, a bag-like structure that surround the shoulder joint. 

A Frozen Shoulder causes stiffness and pain in the shoulder and upper arm. If your shoulder hurts when lifting your arm and your movement is restricted, you may have adhesive capsulitis.

A frozen shoulder goes through three stages:

  • Stage 1: increasing shoulder pain when lifting of twisting the arm
  • Stage 2: Pain begins to improve but increasing stiffness in shoulder until you can’t lift arm above your head or put it behind your back
  • Stage 3: Stiffness gradually resolves until you make a full recovery

A frozen shoulder typically affects people aged 40-70 and is more common in women than men. The cause of adhesive capsulitis is often unknown but may be linked to previous shoulder injuries, surgery or medical conditions such as diabetes.

Full Article: Frozen Shoulder – Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Other Causes of Pain When Lifting Arm

There are a few other more unusual conditions that can cause shoulder pain when lifting arms

Treatment For Shoulder Pain When Raising Arms

If you shoulder hurts when lifting your arm, don't despair. There are lots of things you can do to help reduce shoulder pain when raising your arm, and to regain flexibility if you can’t lift your arm, depending on the underlying cause.

Treatment for shoulder pain when lifting arms usually consists of:

  • Medication: to reduce pain and inflammation
  • Strengthening Exercises: to improve shoulder strength, control and positioning
  • Scapular Stabilizing Exercises: to improve shoulder stability and positioning
  • Arm Stretches: to increase flexibility and range of motion
  • Upper Back Stretches: to improve mobility and posture
  • Physical Therapy: may involve a combination of joint mobilisations, rehab programme, ultrasound and acupuncture
  • Corticosteroid Injections: to reduce pain and inflammation
  • Surgery: for more severe injuries, conditions that fail to settle with non-surgical treatment and for bony abnormalities

The main aims of treatment for shoulder pain when lifting arms are to:

  1. Reduce Pain: in the shoulder and upper arm
  2. Improve Shoulder Mobility: and regain full range of motion
  3. Regain Arm Function: get back to doing what you love
  4. Prevent Recurrence: address the underlying cause so that the problem doesn’t return in the future

Frequently Asked Questions

What Causes Bicep Pain When Lifting Arm? Pain in biceps when lifting the arm may be caused by biceps tendonitis where there is tenderness over the affected area. Shoulder pain when lifting the arm may also refer to the bicep region in the upper arm with impingement syndrome.

What Causes Tricep Pain When Lifting Arm? Pain at the back of the upper arm when lifting is typically caused by triceps tendonitis.

What Causes Deltoid Pain When Lifting Arm? Pain in the deltoid region of the upper arm can be caused by a number of things. If as soon as you move the arm there is shoulder pain when lifting, it may indicate brachial neuritis or a rotator cuff tear. Worsening deltoid and shoulder pain when lifting the arm up it is usually caused by a rotator cuff tear or supraspinatus tendonitis. If the pain in the deltoid region gets worse the higher you raise your arm, chances are it’s shoulder impingement syndrome or bursitis

What Causes A Sharp Pain When Lifting Arm? If you get sharp shoulder pain when lifting your arm up, chances are something is getting squashed or caught. The most likely culprits are impingement syndrome, bursitisfracture or shoulder dislocation.

What Causes Shoulder Pain When Lifting Objects? Some people only get shoulder pain when lifting heavy items. This is usually caused by rotator cuff injury or weakness and responds well to strengthening exercises and stabilization exercises.

What Causes Shoulder Clicking When Moving The Arm? Some people complain of shoulder pain and popping, clicking or grinding. There are lots of different causes of shoulder clicking and exercises can make a big difference.

What Else Can Help?

Shoulder pain when lifting your arms up is a common problem that can usually be treated at home with a combination of exercises, medications and activity modification.

If symptoms fail to improve after 6 months of treatment, then surgery may be advised, most typically a subacromial decompression to open up the space and reduce the friction on the soft tissues which really helps to reduce shoulder pain lifting the arm above your head.

Shoulder pain when lifting the arm is often linked with age:

It is really important to know what is causing your shoulder pain when lifting your arm, so if you’re still not sure what is wrong, check out the shoulder pain diagnosis guide for help working out what is wrong. You may also be interested in the following articles:

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Page Last Updated: May 8th, 2024
Next Review Due: May 8th, 2026