What can cause pain in the left shoulder upon raising the arm?

Updated May 10, 2017

There are many injuries that can happen to the shoulder joint. The shoulder is a very complex joint that allows movement in a variety of directions. You use your shoulder and arms constantly throughout the day when cleaning, lifting and moving around in general. There are also many sports and hobbies that require a lot of shoulder movement. Depending on the injury you sustain, you may find that certain movements can become painful when you raise your arm.


Your shoulder contains three bones: the shoulder blade, the collarbone and the humerus or upper arm. The top of the humerous bone rests in a socket located in the shoulder. This socket is called the glenoid. Ligaments connect bone to bone in the shoulder, and your tendons connect shoulder bones to the shoulder muscles. Also located in the shoulder is the rotator cuff. This is a group of muscles and tendons that form a cuff or glove around the front, back and top of the shoulder to help stabilise the joint. As these muscles contract, they pull on the tendons in the rotator cuff, which allows the shoulder to rotate upward, inward or outward.

Rotator Cuff Tear

According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, the most common cause of pain when trying to raise the arm is a tear in the rotator cuff. Damage to this structure will not only cause pain when you try to raise the arm, but may make you unable to lift your arm at all. The tear can cause the muscles to become weak, which will limit your range of motion and create pain as you try to lift your arm. This is most often caused by a fall, sports injury or overuse.

Inflammatory Conditions

Chronic inflammatory conditions such as tendinitis or bursitis may also create pain whenever you try to raise your arm. Tendinitis is an inflammation of the tendons that attach the shoulder muscles to the bones. Bursitis is an inflammation of the bursa sac located in the shoulder. These conditions can be caused by a disease such as arthritis or be the result of overuse of the shoulder joint. When these structures are inflamed, they will be irritated every time you try to raise your arm.

Dislocated or Separated Shoulder

A dislocated shoulder occurs when the humerus bone comes out of the socket. If the shoulder becomes separated, there is damage to your ligaments that connect your shoulder blade to your collarbone. Both conditions will cause pain when you try to raise the arm and eventually will lead to a loss of range of motion. A dislocated or separated shoulder is usually the result of a sports injury, a fall or some other impact to the shoulder joint.

Adhesive Capsulitis

Adhesive capsulitis or "frozen shoulder" is another condition that can bring on pain when you try to raise your arm. It can occur if your arm has been immobilised while recovering from an injury or surgery. This condition often has mild symptoms in the beginning, but the pain gradually gets worse and you slowly lose range of motion until you can no longer move the shoulder.

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About the Author

I hold a Master's degree in exercise physiology/health promotion. I am a certified fitness specialist through the American College of Spots Medicine and an IYT certified yoga teacher. I have over 25 years experience teaching classes to both general public and those with chronic illness. The above allows me to write directly to the reader based on personal experiences.