My shoulder hurts when I press things overhead, how can I stop the pain?

The old adage "if it hurts don't do it" is a good place to start. One way to explore that is not to lift directly overhead but to find positions that you can get in when you do not have to go straight up over your head. Maybe where you are reaching a little bit more in front of you. Just adjusting your body posture and your mechanics and alignment can help, also looking at how you sleep, many times people sleep on their stomach or their side and it will cause some impingement where the bones are pressed together in the shoulder and some of the tissue like tendons or bursa sacs will be kind of pressed together in between those bones and cause some discomfort when you go to reach overhead. So adjusting your posture, your alignment is a must. Also looking at flexibility techniques for the latissimus dorsi, a very important muscle around the shoulder, the pecs (chest), working on sitting tall, and then working on some of the smaller muscles around the shoulder blades that help to hold us up tall and the rotator cuff muscles. So flexibility and strengthening programs are going to be key to keeping your shoulder healthy, but feel free to modify your body position so that you are not lifting directly overhead during the time being.

Brian Yee
Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation

Pain with overhead lifts is usually due to poor stability of the scapula as well as rotator cuff of the shoulder. The scapula - primarily through the lower trapezius and serratus anterior muscles allows for the shoulder blade to provide proper foundation for the arms to raise overhead - what they call scapulohumeral rhthym. The rotator cuff stabilized the ball and socket joint in the arms. With increased weight lifted overhead - both joints need to work correctly, if they don't more demand will be placed on the shoudlers (especially overhead) and pain usually results.

If it hurts lifting overhead - best thing to do is stop lifting overhead - see a qualified Physical Therapist or health practitioner - to address your muscle imbalances - provide manual therapy to improve tissue integrity and progress with proper scapular and rotator cuff stability training. Once that is established - overhead lifting can be progressed as appropriate.

The best initial advice will be to stop pressing weight overhead.  This motion is slightly awkward for the body and sometimes our bodies do not respond well to this motion.  Here are a few exercises to try, these will help build strength and may allow you to go back to overhead pressing after a few weeks:

  • Front Raises - Take a set of dumbbells, with slightly bent knees, shoulders relaxed, raise the weights forward until they are parallel with the ground
  • Scaption Raises - Take a set of dumbbells, lift the weights similar to above but this time place your arms so that they form a v and your thumbs are pointed towards the ceiling
  • Lateral Raise - Continue with the dumbbells but this time lift the weights to the side
  • Internal Rotation - Take a resistance band, wrap it around something for support, bend your arm at a 90 degree angle and rotate the band towards your body
  • External Rotation - Continue with the resistance band but this time rotate the band away from your body

Complete these exercises in-place of your shoulder press and you will see the benefits and not experience the pain.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.