Orthopedic Surgery, Shoulder Surgery

April 26, 2021

Why Does My Shoulder Hurt When I Lift My Arm?


Did you know that shoulder pain, particularly when lifting the arm, is one of the most common reasons to see an orthopedic surgeon?  The complexity of the shoulder joint leaves it susceptible to injury—and because most people use their shoulder joint more or less continuously throughout the day, shoulder pain can be quite common.

What’s Causing My Shoulder Pain When I Lift My Arm?

Determining what causes your shoulder to hurt when you lift your arm usually requires diagnosis by an orthopedic specialist, but you can get an idea of what might be the source of your pain from the examples below.


One of the most common causes of shoulder pain when lifting your arm is osteoarthritis.  This pain is felt deep in the joint and at the front of the shoulder.  When osteoarthritis occurs, degeneration of the joint’s cartilage and bones leads to inflammation within the joint, which causes stiffness.  Bone spurs and the roughness of the worn cartilage can result in a grinding sensation when you lift your arm.

Rotator Cuff & Bursa Injuries

If your pain is primarily on the outside of your shoulder and is more severe when you lie down, it may be caused by a torn tendon in the rotator cuff of the shoulder joint.  Rotator cuff injuries are painful when you put pressure on the area and when using the shoulder to reach or throw.  The pain is often worse at night.

Besides rotator cuff tears, there are some other various forms of rotator cuff injuries:

  • Inflammation of the tendons connecting your shoulder muscles to your arm bone is known as tendonitis.  One particular form of this is calcific tendonitis, which leads to calcium crystals building up in the shoulder joint.  The pain from calcium crystal tendonitis can be severe.
  • Tendinosis, like tendonitis, is also the result of injury or wear on the rotator cuff.  However, tendinosis causes pain when you lift your arm because of increased nerves and blood vessels in the joint due to tissue degeneration.  The overabundance of nerves leads to pain when you move your arm.
  • Inflammation of the fluid sac in the joint, or bursitis, can be caused by chronic irritation or a traumatic injury.  In severe cases, the bursa may become infected.

Frozen Shoulder Syndrome

The medical term for this issue is adhesive capsulitis, but most people refer to it as “frozen shoulder” because the pain is accompanied by stiffness that makes it difficult to move your upper arm.

There is typically a progression to frozen shoulder syndrome:

  1. Freezing Phase: When any movement is uncomfortable and the range of motion diminishes
  2. Frozen Phase: The pain may decrease, but the shoulder stiffens more, and motion is difficult or impossible
  3. Thawing Phase: The range of movement slowly improves

With proper treatment, a frozen shoulder can be resolved in 12 to 24 months.

SLAP Tears & Bankart Lesions

Injuries to the shoulder’s glenoid labrum cartilage are known as superior labrum anterior-posterior (SLAP) tears or Bankart lesions.  These injuries are usually caused by repetitive motions such as throwing a baseball or shooting basketballs.  Repetitive work that requires reaching over your head can also cause SLAP tears and Bankart lesions.  In some cases, they can be caused by a sudden dislocation of the shoulder joint.

The shoulder pain from these issues can be severe and accompanied by the feeling that something is “catching” when you move to raise your arm.  The primary difference between SLAP tears and Bankart lesions is the location of the tear:

  • If the tear is at the front of the shoulder, it is referred to as a Bankart tear.
  • If the tear is to the back of the shoulder, it is called a reverse Bankart tear.
  • SLAP tears are located at the top of the shoulder joint.

Biceps Tendon Rupture

A ruptured biceps tendon can cause severe pain in the elbow and may be accompanied by a clicking should when you move your arm in a circle.  You will often hear a popping sound when the tendon tears away, followed by severe pain.  You’ll experience pain, bruising, and swelling near your elbow, but there is also often pain in the shoulder area.  A ruptured tendon can make it difficult or painful to raise or extend your arm.

Diagnosing the Cause of Shoulder Pain When Raising Your Arm

It’s essential to see a physician or orthopedic surgeon if you are having trouble raising your arm or experiencing pain while doing so.  Because there are so many possible causes, a detailed examination of the shoulder will be needed.

Your doctor will ask questions regarding recent activities, whether you’ve been involved in an accident, and how long the pain or diminished range of motion has lasted.  After an exam and medical history, diagnostic testing is usually needed in the form of x-rays, MRIs, or CT scans to determine the location, type, and severity of the damage to your shoulder.

Treatment Options for Shoulder Pain

If a short-term condition or inflammation is what’s causing your shoulder pain, anti-inflammatories and pain medications may be prescribed.  Physical therapy can help restore range of motion and aid in strengthening the shoulder joint.  If oral and topical treatments aren’t effective, steroid injections into the joint may be needed.

If these less-invasive treatments aren’t effective, or if the damage to the shoulder joint is too severe for other interventions, you may need surgery.  Laparoscopic surgery can sometimes be performed to minimize the risk of infection, hasten healing times, and prevent scarring.  If laparoscopic surgery isn’t right for your condition, advanced surgical techniques followed by physical therapy can help.

The physicians at Arkansas Surgical Hospital can advise you on various treatment options and which ones are appropriate for your shoulder pain.  Arkansas Surgical Hospital offers the latest innovations in surgical interventions for shoulder pain associated with raising your arm.  These include Bankart repair, rotator cuff repair, SLAP lesion repair, shoulder replacement surgery, and more.  To find out more, call (877) 918-7020 to schedule a free consultation.


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