Arm pain - causes, symptoms and treatment

Arm pain - causes, symptoms and treatment

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Pain with arm abduction

Restrictions on movement and pain when raising the arms are a common symptom that plagues many people early in the morning after getting up. You feel a sharp pain as soon as you spread your arm away from your body while brushing your teeth or getting dressed. The abduction (spreading) of the upper arm causes painful symptoms again and again throughout the day.

A brief overview

Here is a brief overview of the symptoms, the possible causes and treatment options for the pain that occurs when the arm is raised:

  • Symptoms: Movement pain when lifting the arm, pain decrease when lowering the arm, radiating pain from the shoulder joint to the upper arm, shoulder blade pain, shoulder stabbing, restricted movement.
  • Possible causes: Wrong breathing, poor posture, crooked back, pinched nerve, unilateral muscle building, dislocated joint, arthrosis, arthritis, neuralgic shoulder amyotrophy, impingement syndrome.
  • diagnosis: Manual examinations, movement tests, imaging procedures such as X-rays, ultrasound, computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
  • therapy: Massage, physiotherapy, pain reliever, movement, stretching and muscle building exercises, in some cases operations.
  • Naturopathic treatment: Osteopathy, Rolfing, chiropractic, acupuncture, homeopathy, Schüßler salts.


Those affected suffer from spontaneous pain when moving the arm, which in most cases radiates from the shoulder joint to the upper arm. As a rule, the pain subsides when the arm is lowered, but depending on the cause, it can also persist for a long time. The pain is not infrequently associated with increasing restrictions on movement, which sometimes lead to the fact that those affected can no longer lift their arms above their heads, which means considerable restrictions in everyday life.

Wrong breathing

People who no longer exhale properly due to stress or long-term tobacco use, for example, show a persistent contraction of the pectoralis minor muscle, which also pulls the shoulder joint forward and impairs its ability to move. This so-called ventralization of the shoulder can be mentioned as a possible trigger for pain when lifting the arm. The vessels may also become trapped under the small pectoral muscle due to its permanent contraction, which can lead to an intensification of the symptoms. The shoulders that are pulled forward are generally more difficult to lift and mobility is increasingly restricted. Here, stress relief and giving up smoking offer relief.

Posture error

Shoulders that have fallen forward are increasingly being associated with modern office work or computer work. For example, when working with a PC, many people tend to head closer to the monitor after a certain amount of time, because their eyesight wears off during the day or their eyes tire. The shoulders also involuntarily sink forward. In the long run, this incorrect posture leads to shortening of the muscles and corresponding mobility restrictions, which sometimes also cause pain when lifting the arms.

Pinched nerve

Due to the ventralization of the shoulder, the external rotators, which have to hold the tension from the front at the back, are subjected to increased stress, which in some circumstances causes compression of the nerves running here. This can also cause pain when the arm is abducted. As a rule, the pain arises from compression of the radial nerve or the axillary nerve. If a nerve is pinched here, the pain usually shows up as supposed shoulder blade pain, which extends to the back of the upper arm.

Unilateral muscle building

A malposition of the shoulder with corresponding painful discomfort when lifting the arm can also be due to excessive strength training or bodybuilding. Because many strength athletes tend to train their chest muscles particularly strongly, while their opponents are neglected. The disproportionately strong pectoral muscles pull the shoulder forward and cause corresponding pain when the arm is abducted.

Dislocated shoulder joint

The pain when lifting the arms can also be caused by acute injuries and illnesses. For example, a dislocated shoulder joint (shoulder dislocation) is accompanied by considerable shoulder pain when the arm is moved. If the axillary vessels or nerves are damaged by the dislocated joint, the following accompanying symptoms can be observed:

  • Circulatory disorders of the arm,
  • motor impairments,
  • Discomfort like tingling in the limbs or arms,
  • increased hands falling asleep.

Shoulder joint arthrosis, arthritis, impingement syndrome

The shoulder joint can also be damaged by osteoarthritis (joint wear), which can be associated with considerable pain when moving. People with similar pain experience arthritis in the shoulder joint. Furthermore, the so-called shoulder impingement syndrome should be mentioned as a possible trigger for the symptoms. This describes the pinching of tissue by the joint-forming bones during certain movements. If this occurs in the shoulder area, the supraspinatus tendon is usually pinched when the arm is raised, which leads to considerable pain.

Neuralgic shoulder amyotrophy

In rare cases, the so-called neuralgic shoulder amyotrophy is associated with the pain when lifting the arm. This neurological disorder is generally characterized by sudden onset of massive pain in the shoulder and upper arm. However, the complaints are usually not directly related to the lifting of the arm, rather the arm's movements are made significantly more difficult or even impossible by the disease. The complaints can last for several months or even years.

Anatomy of the shoulder joint

The shoulder joint is the most flexible ball joint in the human body. The joint is formed from the socket of the shoulder blade and the humerus. Essentially, this highly flexible joint is stabilized by the surrounding muscles, the so-called rotator cuffs, while the bone structure leaves a great deal of freedom of movement here. The rotator cuffs are in turn formed from the infraspinatus, supraspinatus, subscapularis and teres minor muscles. In the front shoulder area on the so-called raven's beak process (coracoid), the small chest muscle (pectoralis minor muscle) also attaches. Its contraction causes the shoulders to be pulled forward. It also helps with inhalation.


When determining the causes of the pain when lifting the arm, manual examinations and movement tests can usually already provide relatively clear indications for the diagnosis. In case of doubt, however, imaging methods such as X-rays, ultrasound, computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are required to ensure the diagnosis.


In most cases, conventional treatment is based on a combination of medical massages and physiotherapy. Pain-relieving medication may be used to accompany this. With the help of movement, stretching and muscle building exercises, which the patients can also carry out independently at home, the symptoms should be avoided again.

Therapy of a dislocated shoulder joint

If the shoulder joint is dislocated, an attempt is made as soon as possible to mechanically bring it back into the correct position without surgery. This was followed by immobilization or temporary fixation of the shoulder joint. If attempting a closed reduction is unsuccessful, surgery may be necessary.

Treatment of osteoarthritis of the shoulder

Shoulder arthrosis may also require surgery to restore the shoulder joint. Depending on your needs, the operation includes stabilizing the existing bone structure (e.g. using a metal coating), removing the destroyed section of the humerus and using an artificial joint ball, or completely stabilizing or renewing the humerus and shoulder socket.

Naturopathic treatment approaches

With the manual procedures of osteopathy, Rolfing and chiropractic, naturopathy offers relatively promising treatment approaches for pain with arm abduction. As a rule, other physical complaints, such as neck tension, upper arm pain or back pain, are also taken into account in the diagnosis and treatment. Occasionally, acupuncture is also used to combat the symptoms. In addition, homeopathic remedies and Schüßler salts for acute pain can be used. (fp, vb)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Dipl. Geogr. Fabian Peters


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  • Hussein Elkousy, T. Bradley Edwards: Impingement Syndrome, Gartsman's Shoulder Arthroscopy, pp. 203-219, Elsevier Verlag, 3rd edition, 2019
  • Volker Echtermeyer, Stefan Bartsch: Praxisbuch Shoulder, Thieme Verlag, 2nd edition, 2004
  • Ulrich Brunner et al .: S2e guideline "Rotator cuff", German Society for Orthopedics and Orthopedic Surgery (DGOOC), (accessed August 21, 2019), AWMF
  • Nikolaus Wülker et al .: Pocket textbook on orthopedics and trauma surgery, Thieme Verlag, 3rd edition, 2015

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