If you work at a desk all day, stretching your arms up to the sky has likely become one of those mid-meeting tics that you don’t even realize you’re doing… until one day, you reach toward the ceiling and your shoulder pings with pain. It’s one of the tell-tale signs that you’re dealing with muscle inflammation, and a cue that you should start treating your body to shoulder impingement exercises before it gets any worse.
“A shoulder impingement is an acute weakness and pain in the front and side of the shoulder, especially while the arm is in motion,” says Joey Cifelli, the assistant fitness manager at Crunch Union Square in New York City. It can happen for a number of reasons, including poor posture or simply going too hard on shoulder day. No matter how it started, though, trainers agree that you’ll want to nip it in the bud. Scroll on for everything you need to know about shoulder impingement, plus the exercises you can do at home to make those Zoom stretch sessions painless.
What is shoulder impingement?
Shoulder impingement happens when the tissues and tendons in your shoulders stop doing their jobs properly. Usually, these two elements act as a sort of protective cushion between your joints and muscles, absorbing the force of your movements so that you can raise and lower your arms without pain. “Usually, when we’re doing something like trying to lift our arms overhead, our muscles will transfer the force to a tendon, which helps transfer the movement from muscle to bone,” says athletic trainer Cristian Plascencia, CSCS. “But when people experience shoulder impingement, this ability to transfer and absorb force is compromised due to high amounts of inflammation in the shoulder joint.” The result: You’re not able to move through your full range of motion without feeling pain, which can lead to issues both on the mat and in your everyday life.
Cifelli says that you’ll know you’re dealing with shoulder impingement if you’re experiencing acute pain while reaching, pushing, pulling, or sweeping. Plascencia adds that even small things, like lying on your shoulder, can aggravate the area.
What causes shoulder impingement?
The main culprit behind shoulder impingement is inflammation, which often happens because you’re either moving too much or not moving enough. “Usually, inflammation can occur through overuse movement patterns, because doing a lot of the same movement pattern is never good for any joint,” says Plascencia. “Or it can happen when there’s not enough joint mobility present in the joint capsule, which leads to dead and stagnant cells being left in the joint capsule to create compression and pain.”
Issues can also arise if you’re working your shoulders unevenly, which creates an imbalance in the area. Inflammation can also occur “if some of the muscles oriented at the posterior portion of your shoulder and rotator cuff are not as strong as some of the muscles on the front side of your shoulder and chest,” says Plascencia.
The problem with shoulder impingement is the longer it’s left untreated, the worse it can get, because it prevents the joints from moving through their full range of motion. “Because our joints don’t receive direct blood flow, which allows nutrients and oxygen to be absorbed into our cells, they rely on full range of movements in order to receive the synovial fluid that helps them recycle dead cells and empower new ones,” explains Plascencia. When they aren’t able to move at full range, it inhibits that process from working properly.
Why it’s important to treat shoulder impingement
Pushing and pulling motions are part of our everyday lives, so it’s important to take action when you start having shoulder issues. “If left untreated, you could potentially have a shoulder that simply would not be able to lift overhead or lift arms to the side,” says Plascencia. Which means no more throwing your hands in the air like you just don’t care whenever concerts become a thing again. Beyond that, if you ignore any issues with shoulder impingement, they can start to affect other parts of your body. “Because the entire is connected via connective tissues, this impingement could begin to deteriorate the function of your chest, neck, upper back and spine,” says Plascencia.
In order to prevent damage to the joints, ligaments, and tendons holding everything together in your shoulder area, you’ll want to focus on building up mobility and stability. “To prevent any further damage or pain, you want to achieve mobility and stability in the joint before you increase the intensity of an already stressed-out joint,” says Cifelli. “Focus on improving your movement quality before progressing.” And if your shoulder impingement was brought about by overuse, consider taking a few days off before picking up those weights again.