- Shoulder pain when lifting overhead can be caused by a variety of factors.
- It could be down to a lack of core strength, personal trainer Luke Worthington said.
- Shoulder clicks can be nothing, or a sign of a labral tear, Dr David Geier said.
When we experience pain in an area of the body like the shoulder while doing something as simple as reaching overhead, it can be hard to know whether to rest or work through the pain.
Whether in a sport like tennis or an overhead barbell press in the gym, overhead reaching features in many people's fitness regimes.
While each case will be different, it's worth assessing your pain and body to ensure you don't have a serious injury, orthopedic surgeon Dr. David Geier and personal trainer Luke Worthington told Insider.
"Typically, pain reaching overhead, whether it occurs during a weightlifting exercise or daily activities such as reaching into a cabinet, is caused by shoulder impingement," Geier said. "This is irritation of one of the rotator cuff tendons as it passes under the bony part of the tip of your shoulder."
Discomfort is normal during exercise, pain isn't
While it is normal to feel some discomfort when we exert ourselves during exercise, persistent or sharp pain is a red flag, the experts said.
"When it comes to exercise and training, particularly if our goals are changing body composition, we are actually trying to create tissue damage, just in a planned and controlled way," he said.
It can be uncomfortable, but is OK to work through, Worthington said, however, this is different to joint pain or sharp muscle pain, which should not be ignored.
Pain is the nervous system's defence response when its current state is under threat, Worthington said.
If something isn't working correctly in your body, pushing through it, particularly with weights, can cause small problems to become big ones, Worthington said.
If shoulder discomfort goes away after the workout or by the next day, you can likely keep training, Geier said.
"If the pain does not improve, or if it gets worse and makes exercise difficult, then a more serious injury could be possible," he said.
A clicking or popping shoulder could be serious
If you notice a clicking or popping sensation deep in your shoulder when you raise your arm, it could be a labral tear, which is serious, Geier said.
"The labrum is the cartilage bumper that lines the shoulder socket," Geier said. "A labral tear would be potentially more serious, as it often doesn't heal without surgery."
However, that sensation doesn't necessarily mean a labral tear.
Overhead shoulder pain can be caused by a weak core
Shoulder pain when performing an overhead press could also be caused by a lack of core strength as no joint works in isolation, Worthington said.
The shoulder is made up of two joints, and if they don't work together, it can cause damage to the connective tissue around and within the joint, Worthington said.
One of these joints is the scapulo-thoracic, which relies on the ribcage sitting in a neutral position to function. This in turn is determined largely by the position of the pelvis and the core muscles between them.
If the core doesn't provide balanced tension around the bottom of the ribcage, it won't be anchored in place, and this affects the shoulder blade, Worthington said.
"This means that either the movement of the upper arm will appear restricted, or if we attempt to force movement of the upper arm without addressing everything below it, then we damage the joint," he said.
Most people don't need to do shoulder presses
There are many factors involved in safely and comfortably raising an arm overhead, so Worthington prefers to think of shoulder pain more broadly as an "overhead range of motion" issue rather than just a"shoulder mobility" issue.
If your range of motion is limited and you feel pain, Geier recommends avoiding overhead presses and focusing on rehab, perhaps seeing a physical therapist or physiotherapist. If your pain doesn't improve after a few weeks, he suggests seeing an orthopedic surgeon to check for an injury.
While overhead presses help build upper body strength and stability, there's no reason you have to do them if you're not a competitive athlete who needs to, Worthington said.