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Shoulder Painful Arc When Lifting Up Arm


Updated April 29, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.


A painful arc is pain that occurs in your shoulder as you raise your arm out to the side. The pain usually happens when you raise your arm and it is parallel to the floor and lasts until you move your arm overhead. The painful arc can happen while you are raising your arm and lowering your arm. It is a signal that something is getting pinched in your shoulder while you are moving it.

If you have shoulder pain, you may be referred to a physical therapist to help you determine the cause of your pain and to help you improve your shoulder mobility. Before receiving any treatment for your shoulder, your physical therapist will likely perform an initial assessment. During this assessment he or she will interview you to understand the nature of your shoulder problem, and then your physical therapist will take various measurements.

Common impairments that your physical therapist may measure include, but are not limited to:

While testing your ROM, your physical therapist may use a goniometer to measure how far your shoulder joint moves in various directions. He or she will also be looking at the quality of the motion. If you experience pain during ROM testing while lifting your arm overhead, then a painful arc is present. This is a sign that shoulder impingement is occurring in your shoulder.

What is Shoulder Impingement?

Your shoulder is a ball and socket joint. The ball is at the top end of your humerus bone in your arm, and the socket is part of your shoulder blade. There is a bony protuberance at the top of your shoulder blade called the acromion process.

If you have rotator cuff weakness or tightness in muscles or structures around your shoulder joint, the ball of the joint may move slightly upwards when you lift your arm. When this occurs, your rotator cuff tendons or your shoulder bursa may become pinched underneath the acromion process. This causes pain and the painful arc that happens while moving your arm.

What Do I Do If I Have a Painful Arc?

If you have a painful arc during shoulder movements, your physical therapist can help determine the cause of the problem. If tight muscles, tendons, or ligaments are the cause of the impaired motion in your shoulder, then stretching exercises may be prescribed. The towel rotator stretch may be attempted, or shoulder pulleys may be used to help improve your shoulder mobility.

If weakness in your rotator cuff muscles is causing your painful arc, then shoulder strengthening exercises may be prescribed. Shoulder active motion exercises, scapular stabilization exercises, or resistance band rotator cuff exercises may be necessary to help improve your shoulder strength.

Be sure to talk to your physical therapist before attempting any shoulder exercises to ensure that you are exercising correctly. Of course, if your shoulder pain and painful arc persist, you may need to return to your doctor to seek out alternative treatments. These may include shoulder steroid injections or surgery.

Your physical therapist can work with you to help you eliminate your shoulder painful arc and get you back to normal function quickly and safely.

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