top of page

Why Your Shoulder Hurts When You Reach Overhead

Shoulder pain is a really common complaint in my office, and often times people do not realize how much of their life can be affected when they have pain reaching overhead. You can have pain when you wake up in the morning, washing your hair, putting a shirt or jacket on, or even changing a light bulb. However, I think the biggest issue that my patients run into is how much shoulder pain can affect their ability to exercise.

So, anytime someone comes into my office complaining of shoulder pain the first two question they ask are 1) Why does my shoulder hurt? and 2) What can we do about it?

In this blog I am going to give you some of the most common reasons people have shoulder pain, and some of simple things you can do to address it today.

The truth is that anytime someone has pain there is never one reason, but with a good evaluation we can determine both the physical causes and the environmental causes. One of the major reasons most people experience pain in the first place is because of stress. Stress at work, financial stress, stress at home, family stress. You name it, all of it can contribute to that pain you feel overhead. It might sound like a cop out, but stick with me for a second.

When people are stressed the way they breathe starts to change. Have you ever heard someone say "I carry all of my stress in my neck". Well they are really saying a lot more than that. What they are really saying is "When I get stressed I use my neck muscles to help me breathe", and there is a good reason for that. Your neck muscles are "accessory muscles for breathing". This means that when the body needs some help, or when it is under extreme loads of stress like during a max out sprint, that the neck muscles can kick in to help get more air into the lungs. However, the body doesn't know how to distinguish the difference between stress of your day to day hustle and bustle and maximum effort exercise. Strange, I know, and you're probably sitting there thinking "What does this have to do with my shoulder?".

Well, if your neck muscles are busy trying to help you breathe, it is going to throw off how your shoulder blades move and ultimately how your shoulders move.

So, the first thing that you can do to help with your shoulder pain is to focus on stress management. I like to have patients do a simple breathing drill called "4-7-8 breathing". If you want to know how to do it, click the link here (

The next most common reason people have shoulder pain with overhead movements is that they don't have the strength to stay in that position. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that you aren't strong. I am saying that you do not have a strong ability to get into and stay in an overhead position. In order to get your arms overhead, a lot of things need to happen. You need to be able to kick your core muscles on to stability your back and pelvis, you need to be able to extend through your upper back, you need your shoulder blades to move at the right time, and you need to have good range of motion in your shoulder joints.

We live in a day and age where a lot of people sit at a desk all day, or are staring at their phone, or leaning over a book or papers all day (I didn't forget about you guys). Our lifestyles are so fast paced now that when we finally do get to the gym for a workout, we want to get right to the workout. The thing is, the workout that makes you super sweaty, sore, and panting is not necessarily the best one. The workout that leaves you able to workout the next day is the best one. Also, you want to make sure that you don't just jump into your workout without a good warm up. And for those of you who do CrossFit, HIIT training, orangetheory, soulcycle, or any other group training, the general warm up that the coach or trainer has you do at the beginning is really important, but it is often not enough. You need to be responsible for your own body, and "greasing the groove" before your class starts. If you know that your back is stiff from sitting in the car all day, then you need to do some exercises to loosen that up before getting involved in the general warm up for the class.

So the second recommendation is to make sure that you warm up appropriately. Take your day into consideration. Were you sitting for longer than normal? did your boss piss you off so you're walking around really tight? Did you get a good night sleep last night? All of these things are going to contribute to how your body moves and how much you will need to get your body ready before some intense activity.

At this point you might be thinking, "Well, how will I know what an appropriate warm up is?". If you are, that is ok. Most people who exercise recreationally completely rely on their coach and don't really know too much about how their body works, or what it is that they should be doing. This is another major reason why people end up with pain. They don't know what their body is doing, they don't know what their body should be doing, and they have no idea how to "get themselves right".

The last recommendation I have if you are dealing with some should pain is to get yourself checked out. Go see your doctor, get evaluated by a physical therapist, or see your massage therapist. Whatever you do, do not just sit there and wait for it to go away, because it won't and you will be creating a cycle of pain-avoidance. That means that you stop doing things that hurt because they hurt, and that will continue to limit what your body can do and what you think your body can do.

If you want to learn a little bit more about how we attack shoulder pain here at Mindful Movement Performance Physical Therapy please check us out HERE and if you want us to take a look at how you move and give you some more insight on what you should be doing as part of your warm up please give us a call (973-542-4068) or fill out THIS FORM to set up a FREE taster session.


bottom of page