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Shoulder Pain on Reaching Overhead: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment

Shoulder pain is an extremely common type of pain and many people experience it. Complaints of shoulder pain when reaching overhead are also common and need proper evaluation. The causes of shoulder pain can be many, most of which result from common causes. With more than 70 percent adult Americans suffering from it, shoulder pain can be severe in some cases.

Shoulder Pain on Reaching Overhead

Shoulder Joint and Shoulder Pain

The shoulder joint is complex, which contains cartilage, tendons and bones; all of which together ensure that the shoulder functions smoothly. There are three bones, namely, end of collarbone, upper end of humerus and acromion part of shoulder blade, which together make the shoulder joint.

Being a ball and socket joint, the upper arm’s ball is placed in the shoulder blade’s socket. This gets support from the rotator cuff, tendons and muscles which help to attach the blades of the shoulder and also cover the top of humerus. A lubricating sac known as bursa helps to prevent any kind of friction between these 2 bones. With the help of bursa, the rotator cuff tendons easily glide over the bony setup every time a person moves his arms.

Shoulder pain can result when any of these structures related to the shoulder joint get affected. It can not only cause pain but also affect the shoulder movements. Reaching overhead is an important activity related to the shoulder joint and when there is shoulder pain, overhead activities can be difficult to perform.

What Does Reaching Overhead Mean?

Reaching overhead mean the activities, which involve moving the arms up and above the head or behind the back. For example, raising arms to wear clothes, reaching behind the back, holding objects at higher levels, etc. Simple activities that need to be performed daily involve reaching overhead, while certain occupations and sports, too need to move the arms for reaching overhead. These activities usually cause much strain on the shoulder and can commonly cause shoulder pain on reaching overhead.

When you repeat overhead activities several times and that too quite frequently, you might feel severe pain in the shoulders. These would include activities like playing tennis, painting, swimming, lifting heavy weight, lifting heavy objects to name a few. Reaching overhead is also required for simple day to day tasks and for some they too may cause severe shoulder pain. For overhead activities, a person uses the arms over the head again and again. Performing such activities can cause shoulder pain and affect people in different ways.

Activities involving reaching overhead also result in shoulder impingement syndrome. This is a condition where there is severe shoulder pain after reaching overhead and it occurs when a bursa or tendon in the joints of the shoulder in impinged by the surrounding bones.

Symptom of Shoulder Pain When Reaching Overhead

The symptom of shoulder pain when reaching overhead is severe pain in the shoulders when performing activities that need you to raise your arms and move them repeatedly. It becomes difficult to extend the arms backwards or upwards with severe shoulder pain. In most cases, shoulder pain radiates from the front and moves to the sides. The pain might be more during night and less during the day. If a nerve, gets trapped around the shoulder area or tense muscles around the shoulder joint, it can also present with numbness and tingling in the hands and fingers.

Such shoulder pain often worsens with repeated movements, lifting weights or keeping arms raised overhead for long. Muscles spasm commonly occurs around the shoulder joint and causes severe shoulder pain, difficulty in movement of the shoulders and feeling of stiffness. The arms, hands and fingers may feel weak and eventually also cause difficulty in lifting simple objects.

Causes of Severe Shoulder Pain When Reaching Overhead

In order to treat severe shoulder pain when reaching overhead, it is first important to understand the underlying causes behind it.

Inflammation of Tendon or Bursa Can Cause Shoulder Pain When Reaching Overhead– If the tendon or the bursa around the shoulder joint gets inflamed or there is impingement of the tendons, which can cause severe shoulder pain along with irritation in the joints of the shoulder.

Shoulder Pain Caused Due to Repeated Overhead Work – People who tend to reach overhead time and again to complete an activity feel shoulder pain as the joints of the shoulder get stressed due to the immense repetitions. This would include people like tennis and baseball players, swimmers and construction workers.

Shoulder Pain on Reaching Overhead Caused Due to Minor Injury – If the joints of the shoulder are injured, it can cause severe shoulder pain when the person reaches overhead. Any injury to the soft tissues, ligaments or muscles too causes severe shoulder pain after reaching overhead. The injury can be incurred due to a fall, sports injury while performing an activity with the shoulders or other trauma to the shoulder joint.

8 Medical Conditions That Can Cause Shoulder Joint Pain

Treatment for Shoulder Pain on Reaching Overhead

The general treatment option for shoulder pain on reaching overhead includes appropriate medications like muscle relaxants, anti-inflammatory medicines and vitamin supplements. Complete rest to the shoulder and arms may be required initially, following which, therapeutic exercises must be followed according to the experts’ advice. Physical therapy helps to a great extent and must be religiously followed on advice on the physician. Application of ice packs or warm compresses may be advised, depending on the cause of shoulder pain.

Also Read About the Diagnosis of Shoulder Joint Pain


Severe pain in the shoulders on reaching overhead can affect day-to-day activities as the person feels loss of strength and restricted movement in the affected area. With proper treatment for shoulder pain and follow up with exercises, shoulder pain after reaching overhead can be managed well. However, if the shoulder pain remains persistent for long, your physician may consider other treatment options for shoulder pain or surgical corrections, if appropriate.


  1. Mayo Clinic. (2021). Rotator Cuff Injury https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/rotator-cuff-injury/symptoms-causes/syc-20350225
  2. OrthoInfo. (2021). Shoulder Pain and Common Shoulder Problems. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases–conditions/shoulder-pain-and-common-shoulder-problems

Also Read:

Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:August 30, 2023

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