Shoulder Painful Arc When Lifting Up Arm

Physical therapist performing shoulder exercises with a patient.
A painful arc of motion in your shoudler can indicate possible rotator cuff impingement. DNY59 / Getty Images


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. The symptoms last until you move your arm fully overhead or lower it down. The painful arc in your shoulder 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. The pinching sensation is known as shoulder or rotator cuff impingement.

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. Working closely with a PT to ensure you are doing the right exercises can help you have a speedy recovery. Most episodes of shoudler pain from impingement last about 4 to 6 weeks.

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.

If you have shoulder pain while lifting your arm, it is a good idea to get it checked out by your doctor and physical therapist. 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.

A Word from Verywell

A painful arc can happen to anyone, and it may indicate a problem with your rotator cuff or shoulder joint. Your phyiscal therapist can determine why you are experiencing a pain arc and can make recommendations for the proper treatment for it. That way, you can quickly get back to your normal activity level with no shoulder pain.