Shoulder Impingement

What is Shoulder Impingement?

Shoulder impingement is a specific and painful condition that occurs when there is pressure on a tendon, nerve, or nearby muscles. It can also occur when these nerves, tendons, or muscles are rubbing against one another.

To look at it another way, shoulder impingement (which can also be known as shoulder impingement syndrome) is the result of excessive rubbing between the rotator cuff, the humerus, and the upper outer edge in the shoulder. This continuous rubbing will lead to swelling, inflammation, irritation, and pain.

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If you think you might be currently suffering from a shoulder impingement, there are specific symptoms you should keep an eye out for. When you are suffering from shoulder impingement or if your rotator cuff is injured or irritated, you’ll find that the joints in your shoulder will swell the same way that your ankle would swell if you sprained it.

Because of the location of these specific joints, nerves, and muscles, other complications occur when they begin to swell. The swelling lessens the amount of space for the individual elements to move, which increases the rate of them rubbing against each other, which then increases the irritation. The increased irritation causes additional swelling, which results in more rubbing and irritation, and the cycle continues.

Additional symptoms of shoulder impingement include (but aren’t limited to) additional pain when:

  • You lift or lower your arm or reach for something.
  • You lie down on the afflicted area.
  • You’re trying to sleep at night.
  • Reaching behind your back or zipping up a zipper.

These symptoms will typically develop for weeks to months.

Causes and Risk Factors

The people who most commonly suffer from shoulder impingements are individuals who do a lot of activities and sports that require a lot of rotational motions overhead (e.g., baseball, volleyball, tennis, swimming, painting, window washing, etc.). Additionally, if you suffer from a traumatic injury or if you fall in such a way that lands you directly on your shoulder, you may also trigger an onset of a shoulder impingement. Another factor is a history of bone spurs. Nearly half of all shoulder injuries end up being a shoulder impingement.

Shoulder impingement can cause other shoulder injuries that are near the afflicted area, such as shoulder bursitis and rotator cuff tears. These injuries can also happen concurrently. If the pain in your shoulder suddenly gets worse without any discernible cause, you might have injured the nerves and joints in your shoulder.

If you think you might be suffering from a shoulder impingement, reaching out to a medical professional to check the injury is recommended.

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Treatments include as much rest as possible, icing, use of over the counter anti-inflammatory medications, cortisone injections, physical therapy, or surgery (if the injury is very severe).

Shoulder Impingement FAQs

  • Shoulder impingement occurs when the tendon rubs against the acromion which is the top outer edge of your shoulder blade. This may result in inflamed, swollen or even torn tendons. Shoulder impingement can result from repetitive activity or overuse of the shoulder. Age-related wear and tear can also result in shoulder impingement.

  • Shoulder impingement typically causes pain when reaching behind your back or lifting your arm overhead. The pain may be experienced near the top of the arm, down the outside of the shoulder or arm, and/or deep within in the shoulder. Pain can often occurs when lying on the affected shoulder at night.

  • Your orthopedic surgeon will take a history and review your symptoms. Then a physical exam will be performed. Your doctor will check the affected area for tenderness or deformity and perform range of motion tests. X-rays or an MRI of the shoulder may be ordered. The MRI may show inflammation or fluid accumulation and it could indicate tearing of the rotator cuff or damage to nearby structures.

  • If you’ve been diagnosed with shoulder impingement, your doctor will give you instructions on activities to avoid. In general, you should avoid lifting, pulling, pushing, and reaching with the affected shoulder and arm. When lifting and reaching, try to use your unaffected arm for around four to six weeks to allow the affected shoulder to heal. Avoid reaching up high to retrieve items; it’s best to keep commonly used items at a height that is not overhead or ask for help to prevent straining your shoulder. Also, it’s very important to avoid reaching behind your back with your affected arm; if you need to reach behind you, such as in the bath, use a long-handled bath brush and use your unaffected arm to maneuver it. Lying flat on your back could worsen your pain; try elevating your affected arm slightly on a pillow, and moving the arm slightly away from your torso.


Shoulder impingements are very common and fortunately treatment is available to help patients find pain relief for shoulder pain. Our trusted orthopedic professionals are available for consultation to help you on the road to recovery. Call us today!

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