Shoulder Impingement: Definition and What it is
Medically and clinically reviewed by Jonathan Lee, MD and Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Shoulder Impingement Definition and Meaning
Shoulder impingement occurs when the internal structures of your shoulder rub against (or impinge on) each other, which can contribute to symptoms like shoulder pain and weakness. Shoulder impingement can affect your ability to do everyday activities that involve raising your arm to shoulder height or above, such as brushing your hair, putting a shirt on overhead, or throwing a ball.
Shoulder impingement commonly occurs when the rotator cuff tendon gets irritated and inflamed, which reduces the space around the tendon. As a result, it can rub against the surrounding bones, causing discomfort. (The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that lift and rotate your arm.)
Shoulder impingement can involve other structures in your shoulder too, including the fluid-filled sacs (bursae) that protect the shoulder joint and allow tendons and bones to glide without friction when you move and lift your arms. Bone spurs can also be related to shoulder impingement.
Shoulder Impingement Symptoms
Symptoms of shoulder impingement are typically gradual, occurring over weeks to months with pain that occurs during motion, particularly reaching overhead or backward. While it may start with more subtle symptoms, impingement may develop into a constant “toothache-like” pain, including tenderness, weakness, and stiffness, with pain in your shoulder or down your arm, not typically below the elbow. You may also experience shoulder pain at night when you sleep.
Shoulder Impingement: A Hinge Health Perspective
Shoulder pain can be frustrating and feel limiting, especially when it persists or interferes with your daily activities. Though the symptoms of shoulder impingement can be alarming or frustrating (especially if you’ve never experienced them before), shoulder impingement usually responds well to at-home treatment options, including stretching and strengthening exercises.
So while you may be understandably hesitant to move your shoulder because you think you’ll cause more pain or injury, know this: Movement is often the fastest way to symptom relief. As our Hinge Health care team says, movement is medicine. The reason: You want the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that support your shoulders to remain flexible and mobile.
Although moving through shoulder pain can seem scary and uncomfortable, movement can yield big benefits. Gentle exercises and stretches that focus on the shoulder can help restore function so you can improve your quality of life and get back to the activities you enjoy.
Shoulder Impingement Treatment
Shoulder impingement can usually be managed with at-home care. Treatment varies based on the severity but may include over-the-counter medication, cold therapy, taping (using kinesiology tape to stabilize the shoulder), and physical therapy.
How Physical Therapy Can Help With Impingement
Physical therapy can aid in the treatment of shoulder impingement, focusing on a combination of exercises and stretches that aim to enhance shoulder flexibility and mobility. A physical therapist (PT) can recommend specific strengthening exercises for the rotator cuff muscles, as well as techniques designed to alleviate shoulder pain and reduce inflammation. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.
How Hinge Health Can Help You
If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.
The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.
Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition.
Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.
This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.
Armstrong, A. D. (2021, July). Shoulder Impingement/Rotator Cuff Tendonitis. OrthoInfo. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/shoulder-impingementrotator-cuff-tendinitis/
Lee, B. (2019, February 22). Shoulder Pain: Is it Shoulder Impingement? Sports-Health. https://www.sports-health.com/sports-injuries/shoulder-injuries/shoulder-pain-it-shoulder-impingement
Creech, J. A., & Silver, S. (2020). Shoulder Impingement Syndrome. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK554518/