You may have heard the term “shoulder impingement,” either because you’ve been diagnosed with it yourself or know someone else who has.
“Shoulder impingement is one of the most common diagnoses for shoulder pain,” says Nicholas Hershfield, PT, DPT, an orthopedic clinical specialist at HSS Rehabilitation 75th Street. “It’s usually nonspecific and comes on insidiously, meaning on its own and not from an injury.”
The proper name for the condition is subacromial pain syndrome. This is an umbrella term that refers to pain under the acromion, the top outer edge of the shoulder bone. As many as two-thirds of people experience subacromial pain in their lifetime, though it is more common in older adults, says Hershfield.
Subacromial pain can occur in:
Typically, subacromial pain is caused by an overload issue, meaning a stress that the shoulder wasn’t prepared to bear. It could be as simple as picking up a 10-pound weight, feeling a twinge in your shoulder area, and later experiencing a painful pinching sensation in your shoulder when you raise your arm. It can be common in young athletes who bench press heavy weights without building up their shoulder strength first.
If you are experiencing subacromial pain, Hershfield recommends three simple exercises to do at home to strengthen your shoulder:
This exercise strengthens the rotator cuff muscles and tendons around your shoulder joint, increasing how much weight your shoulder can support.
You might feel a mild burn in the outside of the shoulder when doing this exercise, Hershfield says. Gradually, you can build up to a stronger pressure, as long as it doesn’t cause pain.
Use the same rolled-up towel under your arm as in the first exercise. (The towel makes the arm position more efficient and helps prevent overcompensation.)
If you repeat these exercises daily, you should expect to feel an improvement in shoulder pain within about two weeks, Hershfield says. If you’ve gone six weeks without results, or the pain is worsening or causing sleeping difficulties, it’s time to seek treatment from a physical therapist or physiatrist. These specialists can provide hands-on, individualized care.
Hershfield advises seeking medical care immediately if you experience shoulder pain in combination with any of the following red flags: