How to Relieve Shoulder Pain When Lifting Your Arm   

How to Relieve Shoulder Pain When Lifting Your Arm

Man outside, holding his shoulder in pain while lifting his arm up.

Most of us don’t realize how much we use our arms and shoulders until we feel pain when we raise our arm to reach for a dish or pull on a shirt. But what causes this pain, and how can it be treated?

What Causes Pain When Lifting the Arm?

“I typically see about five things that usually cause shoulder pain,” says Rocco Bassora, M.D., a Shoulder and Sports medicine specialist at Hackensack University Medical Center.

  1. Shoulder bursitis. A bursa sac in the shoulder acts as a cushioning pad and is also responsible for lubricating the underlying rotator cuff muscles and tendons. When this sac fills with fluid and becomes inflamed, it can cause pain and swelling in the shoulder.
  2. Calcific tendonitis. Calcium deposits in the rotator cuff tendons can build up over time, causing local inflammation in surrounding tissues, ultimately leading to pain.
  3. Frozen shoulder. This condition occurs when the connective tissue that encapsulates the shoulder thickens and restricts movement. Pain often begins for no reason, and even the smallest movements can cause severe pain. Patients with diabetes or low thyroid levels are especially predisposed to developing this condition.
  4. Rotator cuff tears. These tears can happen from acute injuries or slowly over time. They may feel like shoulder bursitis but usually involve weakness as well as pain.
  5. Shoulder osteoarthritis. This condition occurs when there is a loss of cartilage in the shoulder, causing bones to grind against one another. It usually happens gradually and decreases range of motion.

How to Manage Shoulder Pain

Dr. Bassora offers several steps you can take at home to help manage shoulder pain:

  • Stop the actions or motions that cause pain until you recover. Allow your arm and shoulder to rest.
  • Use ice on your shoulder 20 minutes before bed.
  • Take anti-inflammatories. These can be taken for a few days and should always be taken with a meal to protect the stomach.
  • Gentle range of motion exercises, such as swinging your arm back and forth in a pendulum motion, are helpful. 
  • “Don’t immobilize the shoulder for long periods. This can cause a frozen shoulder, which could make your treatment and recovery time much longer,” Dr. Bassora says.

When to See a Doctor for Shoulder Pain

If you experience pain that has a known cause—for example, you fell or felt a pop when you were working out—give it a few days using Dr. Bassora’s tips. However, if the pain doesn’t improve, you should see a doctor.

If you experience pain that doesn’t have a known cause, and it hasn’t gotten better after 2–3 weeks, you should see your doctor.

The treatment that you receive will vary depending on your diagnosis: 

  • If you have a frozen shoulder, arthritis or shoulder bursitis, you may be given a cortisone shot that will provide relief in a few days and last for several months. 
  • For other ailments like a rotator cuff injury, you may need physical therapy to strengthen the surrounding muscles and relieve the strain on your shoulder. 
  • If you see no improvement with shots or exercises, you may be a candidate for surgery.

While shoulder issues are painful, they can be avoided. Dr. Bassora advises, “Do range-of-motion and strengthening exercises. Improving mobility and strength prevents future injury and pain.”

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.


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