What is Shoulder Impingement Syndrome?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 17 October 2019
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Shoulder impingement syndrome is a musculoskeletal disorder characterized by inflammation in the shoulder, leading to pain and a decreased range of motion. In the early stages, it is treatable with nonsurgical means including medication and physical therapy. Patients with severe cases may need surgery to treat tears to the rotator cuff, the structure involved in shoulder impingement syndrome. Patients who experience shoulder pain and stiffness should seek medical attention early, as it will be easier to manage when it has not progressed to an extreme stage.

In patients with shoulder impingement syndrome, inflammation in the rotator cuff, a group of muscles and tendons involved in stabilizing and moving the shoulder, causes swelling. The swelling makes it harder to move the shoulder and increases the risk of tears to the muscle. A cascading series of reactions can occur as other structures in the shoulder swell. The patient will start to have trouble reaching up and behind the head and can notice heat, swelling, and tenderness around the shoulder.


Overexertion is a common reason to develop shoulder impingement syndrome. Athletes and physical laborers are at increased risk of developing this condition. Anti-inflammatory drugs are the first line of treatment, with a doctor usually prescribing mild medications first and proceeding to steroid shots if these medications are not effective. A stretching regimen can be helpful, with patients stretching in the shower while their muscles are warm to reduce the risk of further injury. If the patient does not respond, a medical imaging study of the shoulder may be requested to look for tears in the muscle. Tears will need be repaired surgically.

Surgical management of shoulder impingement syndrome requires both surgery and physical therapy. As the patient recovers from surgery, the shoulder will be gently worked and stretched in exercises designed to increase strength and flexibility. A physical therapist can oversee recovery and work with the patient on learning to use the shoulder safely again after surgery. If patients return to work too quickly or do not protect their shoulders during physical exertion, they can reinjure themselves.

Orthopedic doctors are commonly in charge of treatment of shoulder impingement syndrome. They have extensive experience with muscles, bones, and tendons, and can accurately diagnose and manage patients with this condition. Patients may want to consider seeing a shoulder specialist, as shoulder injuries can be complex, and working with a doctor who focuses on shoulder care can result in access to more treatment options and a better outcome.



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