Shoulder Impingement Syndrome

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What is Shoulder Impingement?

During shoulder impingement syndrome, the scapula — part of the shoulder blade — puts pressure on the rotator cuff as you lift your arm lift.

The top of the scapula, known as the acromion, rubs against the surface of the rotator cuff.

This rubbing — or impingement — causes pain and limits movement.

Shoulder impingement causes and risk factors

Shoulder impingement is common in young and middle-aged athletes.

Athletes at higher risk include those who do repetitive lifting and who use their arms overhead for:

  • Swimming
  • Tennis
  • Baseball

Pain may occur spontaneously or as the result of minor trauma.

Shoulder Impingement Symptoms and Diagnosis

Because symptoms of shoulder impingement may be mild at first, many people do not seek treatment right away. But the longer the rotator cuff is impinged, the more damage can occur.

Shoulder impingement symptoms

Symptoms of shoulder impingement may include:

  • Minor pain, both during activity and at rest
  • Pain that spreads from the front of the shoulder to the side of the arm
  • Sudden pain when lifting and reaching
  • Pain when throwing or lifting weights

As the problem worsens, you may feel pain at night and lose strength and motion in your shoulder.

You may also find it difficult to perform activities that place the arm behind the back.

Diagnosing shoulder impingement

If you're experiencing any symptoms, consult with your doctor.

He or she will:

  • Perform a physical exam to assess the function of your shoulder
  • Order x-rays and/or an MRI scan to view your shoulder blade and rotator cuff

Shoulder Impingement Treatment

The main treatment goal for shoulder impingement is to eliminate pain, which will restore the use of your shoulder.

Our team of UPMC orthopaedic surgeons will develop a customized treatment plan that may or may not require surgery.

Shoulder impingement treatment types

Conservative or nonsurgical treatments for shoulder impingement may include:

  • Resting and avoiding overhead activities that irritate the problem
  • Taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs)
  • Perform stretching exercises to improve range of motion

In addition, many people benefit from injections of a local anesthetic and a cortisone preparation to the affected shoulder.

If nonsurgical treatment does not relieve pain, you may need shoulder impingement surgery to remove the impingement. This will create more space for the rotator cuff and eventually allow you to lift your arm without pain.

Shoulder impingement recovery time

Nonsurgical treatments can take several weeks or months, allowing you to experience a gradual return to function.

Shoulder impingement surgery may require you to wear a sling on your arm for a short time afterwards. When your doctor feels you're ready, you can remove the sling and begin exercising and using the arm.

Every person is different. Achieving complete pain relief from shoulder impingement can take anywhere between two months and a year.