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Shoulder Impingement

Updated: May 5, 2022

Does it hurt to lift your shoulder over your head? If you go to a physician or consult Dr. Google, chances are you will be diagnosed with shoulder impingement. If you went to see a physician, they probably spent very little time explaining the condition to you. A study showed that the average primary care physician spends fewer than 17 minutes with a patient. This is usually not enough time for a thorough examination and explanation of your diagnosis. I often see clients who come to me saying, “I have shoulder impingement,” and when I ask what they think that means they say, “I have no idea.” This is a huge failure on our part as healthcare providers. It opens the door for confusion and fear among people. So let’s dive into what shoulder impingement really is!

First of all, shoulder impingement or any other shoulder injury is actually quite common. Research shows that anywhere from 16-30% of the population has shoulder pain in a month (1). It can be helpful to understand that you are not in the minority to experience shoulder pain. We often catastrophize our own injuries and assume the worst. However, 60% of people with shoulder impingement get better simply with conservative treatment.

Before we get further into impingement, it is important to understand the anatomy of the shoulder. Here is an image that shows many structures of the shoulder:

shoulder pain physical therapist anatomy rotator cuff tear
OpenStax College, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

First of all, there are a lot of structures in and around the shoulder. It is a complicated joint. The shoulder is unique in that there is less bony support than any other joint in the body, and this allows for the immense range of motion. Think about the fact that you can move your shoulder in almost any direction. Now try to move your elbow in all directions. You cannot. It is only able to flex and extend. The freedom that allows shoulder mobility comes at a cost. Muscles and other structures have to be finely tuned beca